• Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

Candidates face off at election forum

Original Sentinel article

By: Jessica York

June 7 primary political hopefuls in two upcoming North County races faced off Thursday night in front of both an in-person and virtual crowd.

In separate sessions, four candidates for the state Assembly District 28 — including Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties — took the stage at the Hotel Paradox ahead of a more emotionally charged back-and-forth between three 3rd District Santa Cruz County Supervisor candidates.

The event was co-hosted by the Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, Santa Cruz County Business Council, Downtown Association Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Works and Lookout Santa Cruz.

Supervisor candidates Justin Cummings, Ami Chen Mills and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson are vying to fill the four-year seat of Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, who announced more than a year ago that he would not seek a third term in office. A Coonerty — father Neal Coonerty before Ryan — continuously has governed from Santa Cruz’s border with Live Oak north to Davenport and Bonny Doon since 2007. Cummings and Kalantari-Johnson both currently serve on the Santa Cruz City Council, with Cummings, an environmental scientist, reaching the end of his first term on the body in the fall, after four years. Kalantari-Johnson, who runs a consulting business, was elected to her seat in November 2020.

In seeking a new face for the county Board of Supervisors, voters will appoint a first – either the inaugural Black, Chinese-American or Iranian-American to sit on the board.

County concerns

Candidates compared their stances on allowing continued residential development in flood- and fire-sensitive areas, ideas for supporting affordable housing and level of support for homeless encampment policies.

Chen Mills, who works as an educator and nonprofit director without elected office experience, differentiated herself from her opponents by describing herself as a “climate activist,” compared to Cummings’ “climate scientist” description. Chen Mills said she had not seen enough climate change mitigation leadership from her two competitors during their time in office.

Both Cummings and Kalantari-Johnson, who often find themselves head-to-head in opposing camps on major Santa Cruz City Council issues, each took umbrage with the other’s comments at least once Thursday. Kalantari said that she had brought forward homelessness ordinances from which “not one homeless person has been criminalized,” while, she said, her opponents “were in support of keeping the Ross Camp open, even when it was declared a public health crisis.” Cummings responded that he wanted to “clear up any lies and misinformation,” saying he had opposed the closure of the homeless camp behind the Gateway Shopping Plaza in 2019 only when there was no alternative location for them to move to and a court order prevented it.

Later, candidates were asked how they planned to involve the local Latino population in their decision-making. Chen Mills said she would continue her work in anti-racist education and would seek to host from her office an existing county inclusion-focused commission. Kalantari-Johnson said she intended to introduce a county racial equity resolution similar to one she co-authored for the city and to do better community outreach for diverse representation on county committees and commissions.

Cummings fired back with concerns about the City Council’s recent approval of election district maps that would divide the UC Santa Cruz campus and the Beach Flats and Lower Ocean neighborhoods, diluting respective areas of concentration for Asian-American and Latinos, he said.

Kalantari-Johnson said the maps were brought to the council by an expert demographer and took into consideration community input.

“There has been some egregious accusations by my opponent and some of his supporters about gerrymandering and undemocratic process,” Kalantari-Johnson later responded. “This really undermines the work that’s happening across the country by people like Stacey Abrams, working on the Voting Rights Act.”

New state leadership

Earlier in the evening, the audience heard from candidates seeking to take on the seat vacated by incumbent Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley. In Santa Cruz County, the 2021 statewide redistricting process switched the northern part of what has traditionally been the 29th Assembly District, to the 28th District. In March, Stone announced his plans not to seek a sixth and final term in office, offering a simultaneous endorsement of one of Thursday’s contenders, retired Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin.

The newly drawn 28th District seat will cover Santa Cruz, the San Lorenzo Valley and Scotts Valley and stretches north to the Los Gatos and the Willow Glen areas.

Liz Lawler is running as the only Republican. After the open primary, the top two vote-getters — regardless of party preference — move on to the general election.

In the nonpartisan county supervisor race, the candidate winning more than 50% of the vote will be selected for office. If no candidate earns the simple majority, the top two candidates proceed to a runoff election in November.

This publication, along with the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce, Santa Cruz County Business Council and the Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, will co-host a similar panel forum for South County candidates Tuesday night.

Editor’s note: This article has been update to clarify details about a county commission.

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