When most of the world thinks about the Santa Cruz area, one of its most important economic regions is usually an afterthought, if it’s acknowledged at all. A huge chunk of the county’s agriculture—its leading industry, ahead of even tourism—is located in or around Watsonville, the population of which is more than 80 percent Latino. The area is home to so much farming, it has helped earn the entire Monterey Bay the nickname the “Salad Bowl of America.”
In addition to agriculture, natural beauty and authentic culture, the South County is also home to four of the country’s biggest companies—Driscoll, Granite Rock, Granite Construction and Martinelli’s. Yet in spite of all that, the South County faces no shortage of problems: a dreadfully slow economy—with many workers scraping by at low wages, and unemployment hovering at close to 20 percent—and a nagging history of crime, with river flooding on top of it all.
It’s within that context that two South County politicians, county supervisor Greg Caput and assemblymember Luis Alejo—both of them former Watsonville city councilmembers and both in their first terms, are working to reshape the political landscape. Gretchen Regenhardt, who has lived in Watsonville since 1984, says both men have a strong work ethic that has set them apart from most of the South County politicians she’s seen over the last three decades.
“He’s a much harder worker than other people, politicians or otherwise,” says Regenhardt of Alejo; she is an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, where Alejo once worked. “He’s a very, very hard worker when he cares about something.”
It’s clear that Caput and Alejo could represent a shift in Watsonville politics; in an effort to gauge how they’re changing the South County, we shadowed both.
Luis Alejo: No Sleep ’til Reform
If assemblymember Luis Alejo is any indicator, the first trick to being successful in state politics is cutting back on a night’s rest. “I always say: ‘try to keep sleep to a minimum,’” Alejo says. “Sleep’s a waste of time.”
It may sound like a political sound bite. But when one glances at what he’s accomplished this year, it’s hard not to take his words at face value.
Alejo, who represents Watsonville and Salinas, and believes in finding innovative new ways to help the state’s poor, usually wakes up around 7am and goes to bed at 2am.
“My best work is in the late hours of the night,” says Alejo, who has slicked-back hair and Ray-Ban glasses, which he always takes off for photographs. “We’re able to get a lot done by really focusing on issues we really care about.”
Whenever he discusses his accomplishments and life decisions—even ones from his high school years—he uses “we,” not “I,” because he believes in “team effort.”
“You find people who work as hard as you do,” Alejo says of his staff. He talks quickly, and his hands are always moving. “Working together and working long hours, we’re able to get some good things done together.”
This past year, Alejo, the son of two Watsonville strawberry farm workers, passed two landmark bills—one that will provide undocumented immigrants an opportunity to earn driver’s licenses, and another to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour over the next three years. Alejo authored a total of 11 bills in the past year, many of them regulating quality in drinking water. He also co-authored five more bills and three resolutions, one of which got bipartisan support for national immigration reform. The press release listing Alejo’s recent successes takes up seven pages.
Passing bills means building a lot of relationships, Alejo says. The driver’s license bill, in particular, had been discussed for a couple decades, and it took a fresh approach—and a favorable enough political climate—to get it to the governor’s desk in the first place. For him, it was challenging just to adjust from representing 7,000 constituents to almost a half million.
“In a small town like Watsonville, with seven councilmembers to get something done, you only needed the support of three other councilmembers. But in Sacramento, there’s 80 assemblymembers,” Alejo says. “There’s 40 senators, and you’ve got to build support with 41 votes. And in the senate, you’ve got to get 21 votes. And you’ve got to get a governor, who’s going to sign your bill at the end of the day. A lot of that is building good relationships. Sometimes that doesn’t happen working in the Capitol building. It’s building friendships, getting to know each other—building trust more than anything else.”
Alejo went to Watsonville High School in the early 1990s, and got off to a rough start when he found himself on juvenile probation for getting in fights. He overcame his early struggles by getting involved in the newly formed Brown Berets, which was organizing to curb gang violence in Watsonville. Alejo and friends like Felipe Hernandez, now a Watsonville city councilmember, left Watsonville initially, but vowed to come back to serve. Other friends would later come back as teachers and union organizers.
“We said, ‘We’re going to get serious about our education, get some experience, build networks and then come back and be leaders here in our community,’” Alejo says.
After a receiving dual bachelors’ degrees from UC Berkeley, a law degree from UC Davis and a master’s in education from Harvard, Alejo kept his word when he returned to the South County as a legal aide to those who couldn’t afford attorneys. Then after two years on Watsonville City Council, Alejo—who learned about community organizing from activists like Tony Hill and Bernie Feldman—became the youngest assemblymember ever to represent the 28th District, and the first from Watsonville since the 1970s.
Talking about his old mentors like Hill and Feldman brings a smile to Alejo’s face. “Over the years we’ve had a lot of battles here on a wide range of issues, and those were some of those guys who were with you in the trenches,” he says.
Alejo spoke at an immigration forum in Watsonville last month about the work left to be done for immigrants. After the event, several activists said it’s Alejo’s connection with the community that makes him such an important legislator.
“He remembers his roots. That’s so easy to forget once you get into politics because of the way politics in this country depends on money,” said Lillian Galedo, executive director of Filipinos for Justice. “He’s remained grounded in who his community is. He’s really clear on being from an immigrant family and contributions of immigrants to the economy, and how you have to make it easier for them to do that work.”
Doug Keegan, program director for the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project, said the serious headway Alejo made in immigration legislation statewide set a good example for the country, too.
“On a state level, he has championed the issues that affect immigration. Unfortunately, and as he points out himself, the state legislature has limited authority to handle immigration,” said Keegan, who once butted heads with Alejo over whether or not to rename Landmark Elementary School, in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, after Dolores Huerta (Alejo supported the name change effort, which failed). “We’re hoping the federal government will see what’s happening in the state of California and say, ‘Yes, it is time to change what’s happening in our immigration system.’”
Alejo, who’s married to Watsonville mayor Karina Cervantes, says all the reforms he works on, whether immigration reform or minimum wage, are in some way personal.
He invokes a woman who works three jobs to support herself, her family and three children—and she’s not a woman he met on the campaign trail. She’s his mother-in-law.
“You talk about an issue that’s close to home, an issue that you love and care about,” he says. “You see their struggle.”
Greg Caput: Wild Card of Watsonville
Greg Caput looks relaxed as he leans against his white Oldsmobile with a cigarette in his right hand, his eyes hidden by black sunglasses. The county supervisor takes off his sunglasses for 10 seconds to let me know the doctor he saw a day earlier is making him wear the gear to protect his eyes.
“I didn’t go all Hollywood on you,” Caput says, his few dozen hairs lilting in a warm Watsonville breeze.
The fourth district supe, who represents South County Santa Cruz, is talking about why his second term, if he gets re-elected next year, will be his last.
“Eight years is enough. Twelve years is more than enough,” he says. “It’s good to get new ideas, new people coming in with new energy.”
Caput, who promised when he ran for office in 2010 to only stay in office for two terms, wrote a plan last year to create term limits, but couldn’t secure a second from any of the four other supervisors, and the idea died in chambers before going anywhere.
Caput and I were supposed to meet at his office at noon, but I spotted him leaning into his car 10 minutes before, looking for a cigarette. At 63, Caput has a way of always looking like he had a long night, whether he’s in the supervisor chambers or on the street.
Caput worked as a painting contractor in Watsonville for 15 years, then ran for Watsonville City Council in 2006, where he served one term. When he challenged incumbent supervisor Tony Campos in the 2010 election, he campaigned on job creation, cutting high-paying salaries and term limits—and won by 0.7 percent of the vote.
Once in office, the fiscally conservative Caput was unable to get the other supervisors to agree to lower their own salaries, or that of other administrators for that matter, even though supervisor salaries grew from $49,000 to $123,000—96 percent—between 1996 and 2008, when they were reduced by furloughs. Last week, fellow supervisors John Leopold, Zach Friend and Neal Coonerty voted to increase their pay 10.3 percent, back to $123,000, with supervisors Bruce McPherson and Caput dissenting.
“It’s embarrassing that it even came up at this time,” Caput says. “I’m saddened by the outcome and I’ve always thought the lowest paid workers at county should get raises, and the highest paid workers should forgo their raises.”
Caput has responded by donating portions of his salary to charity. By year’s end he will have donated $50,000 over the past two years, most of it to high school sports and Pajaro Resue Mission, a homeless shelter. It represents 25 percent of his salary.
When it comes to politics, Caput has a history of doing things his own way.
After chatting for 11 minutes, Caput starts walking over to the Watsonville Volunteer Center, where he has been several times—but never eaten—for some burgers, to talk about preventing floods and planting redwood trees. We never did make it into his office.
With Caput’s encouragement, the county has passed out redwood seedlings, many of which are donated by Big Creek Lumber and Redwood Empire, for 8,500 trees (about 65 percent of which will probably make it)—well short of his goal of 25,000 planted, but still “better than zero, right?” says Caput.
Much of his work in South County this past term has centered around the Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek—taking out sediment to increase flow, which is good for habitat, and prevent flooding at the same time.
Caput has built a reputation of keeping close ties with his community. Fluent in Spanish, he never walks far without chatting with someone he recognizes. But listening to him speak Spanish sounds about as Latin as a country western song. “I don’t pronounce the words exactly right, but I communicate, and I understand it. I carry on a conversation,” Caput says.
“Greg Caput has a manner about him that makes many voters in his district very comfortable,” county treasurer Fred Keeley says. “He has no pretense. He speaks Spanish and English. He has three little kids. He owns his own business, he works very hard on his own campaign.”
Many have said Caput’s commitment to Watsonville stands in sharp contrast to Campos, his predecessor as District 4 supe, who was perceived by critics as treating his supervisor post like a side project of his real estate job. Campos often exempted himself from land-use decisions—probably the most important issue for the South County.
“For us and our clients, the lack of affordable housing is one of the primary causes of poverty in our area. So, not participating in land-use decisions did a disservice for South County,” says Regenhardt, the attorney from CRLA.
His own critics have sometimes questioned Caput’s intellect and political polish, but when it comes to his re-election, Keeley has a word of advice for Caput’s opponents: don’t underestimate this guy.
“It’s not uncommon to hear among the political classes that Caput is rough around the edges,” Keeley says. “Sometimes his hair’s messed up. Sometimes his tie’s not straight. What I counter with is ‘yep, and he defeated a sitting supervisor to get elected to the board.’ I think people who have underestimated what they’re dealing with are making a mistake.”
When Caput and I finish our burgers, he offers to drive me to Gizdich Ranch, a family-owned farm, to tour an example of the kinds of the businesses he’d like to see to revitalize Watsonville’s economy and help the South County thrive. When we climb is his Oldsmoblie, Caput grabs the second half of the cigarette he started earlier. “My wife’s got me down to four cigarettes a day, so I smoke eight halves,” he says, reaching to turn off an angry radio caller yelling on KSCO.
Once we park, Caput explains how he wants to relax county rules that prevent farm owners from opening up bed-and-breakfasts on their property, to bring more jobs to traditional farms. As an example, Gizdich Ranch isn’t an inn, but it does sell jams, bake pies and invite children for school field trips.
Caput wants to encourage farmers to get creative with their properties and incentivize it, too. To Caput, Gizdich is an example of smart growth because it supports jobs without turning prime agricultural land into urban sprawl, the way Watsonville City Council’s Measure T, which got destroyed at the polls last June, aimed to do. And whoever the District 4 supervisor is next year, they will have tough economic realities to face as they deal with an unemployment at 8.2 percent in the county and closer to 20 percent in Watsonville.
In addition to being a community man, Caput also has a reputation as an independent whose votes are usually hard to predict, and he concedes that he’s been on the losing end of the majority of 4-1 votes on the board. He and other supervisors have said they’re careful not to violate the Brown Act, which prevents any majority—three or more—of supervisors from discussing agenda items before voting. If Caput does get one more term, he would like to find ways to get the other supes to look at things from his point of view.
“Maybe I should compromise a little bit more, but I don’t want to compromise too much, and I don’t want to compromise my values, the South County’s interest,” Caput says. “And sometimes that results in doing things on your own where you have to do a lot more work, whereas if you were able to compromise a little more you might get some help from another source.”
Jimmy Dutra, a Watsonville native and former White House intern, and former Watsonville police chief Terry Medina have both announced their decision to run against Caput. So have former Watsonville Mayor Todd McFarren and Dana Sales, a real estate broker who has served on the county education board for 28 years. Sales, a former member of the planning commission, says Caput has left a lot of funds on the table that should have been directed to the South County.
“I respect Greg Caput, but I think I’d be a better supervisor,” says Sales, who would leave real estate if elected. “My background in planning is working with people throughout the county. I’ve been very effective in bringing a voice of the Pajaro Valley.”
Caput has heard the list of candidates but doesn’t have much to say about the field.
“They’re all free to run, and I think it’s actually healthy,” Caput says. “It gets discussion going. There’s nothing worse than someone running unopposed.”