When 4th District Santa Cruz County Supervisor Greg Caput told GT earlier this year that he would not seek his fourth term, the gates were flung open for potential candidates to fill the leadership seat he has occupied for the past 12 years.
Now—after the June 7 primary whittled down the candidates from three to two—South County voters in the upcoming Nov. 8 general election will decide between Watsonville City Councilman Jimmy Dutra and Cabrillo College Governing Board Trustee Felipe Hernandez.
Dutra, 47, earned his second term on the city council in 2020. He served as mayor last year. His first term on the city council was 2014 to 2018. He stepped away from politics after running unsuccessfully for the 4th District Supervisor seat in 2018—he placed a distant second behind Caput.
Hernandez, 51, served as a councilman between 2012-2020. He also ran unsuccessfully for the 4th District Supervisor seat in 2018, taking third in the primary that year.
The race took a complicated turn on Oct. 5 when a man filed a sexual assault lawsuit against Dutra, claiming that the candidate molested him when he was 12. Dutra has denied the allegations, calling them “baseless.”
Here’s a look at the candidates’ official statements, their donors and supporters and their voting records from their last few years in city government.
In Their Words
“There are many in the Pajaro Valley who feel forgotten. It’s important for us to have a strong and experienced voice. I promise to be that voice.
Throughout my tenure as Watsonville’s mayor, I was known for delivering major wins. We received millions of dollars from the government to repair our failing infrastructure, roads and parks. When disproportionately faced with Covid-19 infections and deaths, we quickly obtained the extremely limited vaccines and lobbied to prioritize our farm workers, seniors and essential workers. I put our health and safety first when I voted no to building a housing development on toxic land.
As a Pajaro Valley Unified School District teacher and current Watsonville City Council member, I’ve been honored to advocate every day for our community.
There remains much to do. There’s no band-aid solution to homelessness, we need to address it. We need to fix and replace our aging infrastructure and roads. Our housing crisis must be resolved, our agriculture and wetlands need to be protected, our hospital must be saved, public safety must be supported and mental health needs to be prioritized.
I care deeply for our home. I’d be honored to earn your support for the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. I’m ready to get to work on day one.”
“Honor, service and experience is what it takes to be an effective leader. I’m the only candidate who’s served our nation as a soldier, and the Watsonville community as a former mayor and current educational policy leader as Cabrillo Community College Governing Boardmember. As Santa Cruz County Supervisor, I will use my unique experience to improve the quality of life in Watsonville, Salsipuedes, Corralitos, Interlake, Mesa Village and Aromas.
For over 20 years, I’ve used my leadership experience to serve the community and brought over $100,000,000 to protect us from Covid-19, improve educational opportunities, fix public roads, create housing and increase funding for Watsonville Police and Fire. As commander of the American Legion Post 121 and Trustee of the VFW Post 1716, I advocate for the rights of veterans and their families.
Together, we protected Rail and Trail. We saved Watsonville Community Hospital and secured millions in flood protection for seniors and downtown.
As Santa Cruz County Supervisor, I will make sure the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project is completed; keep our community character by protecting agricultural lands and jobs; create more housing; and get us our fair share of county dollars for public safety, roads, healthcare, infrastructure and parks.
It’s an honor to have the support of elected officials, veterans, teachers, farmers, business owners, public safety and educational leaders. I respectfully ask for your vote.”
The number of current and former elected officials supporting Hernandez is substantial, but perhaps no other endorsement carries more weight heading into Nov. 8 than the nod he received from Caput. He also holds the endorsement of Sheriff Jim Hart, County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah, three current Watsonville city council members—Lowell Hurst, Vanessa Quiroz-Carter and Eduardo Montesino—five former Watsonville mayors, Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo, Santa Cruz City Councilman and 3rd District Supervisorial candidate Justin Cummings and Santa Cruz Mayoral candidate Fred Keeley, who has served as a county supervisor and state assemblyman.
He also holds the endorsement of the California Democratic Party, and nearly a dozen union and labor organizations, including the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, the California Nurses Association and the Cabrillo College Federation of Teachers.
In all, Hernandez has raised a little more than $70,000 in campaign contributions this year. Along with receiving several $500 donations from various individuals and business owners, he has also received a few $1,000 donations from labor unions. He also received $1,000 contributions from Gardena-based taxi company Administrative Services Co-op, Inc. and a political action committee representing an Iowa-based biodiesel company.
While not as extensive as Hernandez’s list of endorsements from fellow elected leaders, Dutra does hold the support of three Watsonville city council members: Rebecca Garcia, Francisco “Paco” Estrada and Montesino. He also has the endorsement of the local chapters of the California School Employees Association and Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation union.
Dutra has raised roughly $50,000, with a majority of his contributions coming from retirees and local business owners. A notable $1,000 contribution was made to his campaign by the committee established to reelect State Senator Toni Atkins, the President pro tempore of the Senate since 2018. He has also received $2,000 in contributions from the California Real Estate Political Action Committee, and $1,500 from Equality California, nonprofit civil rights organization that advocates for the rights of LGBT people in California—Dutra became Watsonville’s first openly gay man to serve as mayor last year.
Although Hernandez has not been on the city council since his second term expired in 2020, his time as a Watsonville representative did overlap with Dutra’s first term on the council. They were colleagues from 2014-2018.
The two have often been at odds on housing.
In the first year of his second term, Dutra voted against the advancement of two 100% affordable housing developments that fall in his district—both have broken ground and will bring 133 deed-restricted units. He also voted against two controversial market-rate projects that either faced litigation or environmental challenges. He was on the losing end in all four votes and has stood firm on his dissenting votes. In his vote against the two affordable housing projects, Dutra cited issues with traffic, parking, decaying infrastructure and how the units would be distributed—he worried Watsonville residents would not be at the front of the line for the much-needed housing relief.
Dutra did vote for a market-rate apartment complex in downtown last year.
Generally, he has been more willing to vote for market-rate housing projects. During his first term on the council, he twice supported a market-rate, 24-condo project at 1482 Freedom Blvd., which is now the site of a 53-unit affordable housing complex that he strongly opposed. He also voted to approve a market-rate, 49-townhome project on Airport Boulevard. By contrast, he voted against the approval of a 46-unit affordable housing complex on Atkinson Road now known as Pippin Orchards.
Hernandez, meanwhile, voted to approve every housing project that came to the city council during his last term. In fact, one of the few times Hernandez did not approve a housing-related item was in 2019 when the historic Jefsen Building in downtown Watsonville changed hands. Hernandez had concerns that the new owner of the building at 500 Main St. would not keep the 29 apartments there as affordable units when the agreement that deed-restricted the units to low-income renters expires in 2028.
Business and Taxes
The candidates have also been at odds on business-related issues, including the city’s regulations on cannabis and alcohol establishments.
For instance, when Watsonville brought forth the approval of its brew pubs ordinance in 2018, Hernandez tried to increase the number of permits for such businesses from five to 10. That move failed in a split 4-3 vote, with Dutra voting against the motion.
Hernandez was also largely supportive of the cannabis industry, while Dutra voted against the approval of nearly all cannabis businesses that came before the city council in the early days of the so-called green rush—the first few years after California voters approved the recreational use of weed.
Yet, even after the city council in 2020 approved its cannabis ordinance—which dictated where and how those businesses could operate within city limits—Dutra continued to vote against the approval of city code changes aimed at helping the fledgling cannabis industry. In 2021, for example, he voted against lowering the taxes on cannabis businesses.
Hernandez and Dutra have also had different views on taxes and rate increases. The latter has largely supported them while the former has voted against them. In 2019, Hernandez voted in favor of placing the renewal of a half-cent sales tax, Measure Y, on the ballot. Dutra earlier this year voted against placing another half-cent sales tax, Measure R, on the Nov. 8 ballot. Dutra also voted against a utility rate increase last year that had for years been postponed by previous elected leaders. On both votes, Dutra cited the pandemic as the reason why he decided to not support the issues.
Both candidates have taken significant stances on community issues in their time on the council.
It was Hernandez who asked the city in 2019 to formally apologize for the Filipino Riots of 1930, a request the municipality followed through on later that year. Hernandez also twice supported an eviction moratorium in 2020, and approved the use of $100,000 to help tenants and landlords impacted by the pandemic.
He also voted against implementing a $200 fee for public art in 2019—he was on the losing end of that vote.
But Hernandez also voted in 2020 against implementing a ban on new drive-thrus, an issue that Watsonville’s elected officials have long debated.
Dutra also approved the use of more than $100,000 in rental assistance for pandemic-impacted renters and tenants, and commissioned the creation of the Covid-19 memorial, a public art display off north Main Street that recently had its ribbon cutting.
But Dutra’s support for the art community came into question earlier this year when he flipped his vote on a proposed developer fee that would fund the creation of public art. He voted against the fee because of concerns brought forth by developers about its structure. The fee was approved, with Dutra being one of the two dissenting votes.
Dutra also elected to move the bust of George Washington from the City Plaza to the Watsonville Public Library, a vote that served as the conclusion of a year-long debate about historical figures sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
Hernandez was on the council while the debate over the statue was bubbling over, but the item did not come before the elected leaders before he left office.
On the debate between Watsonville’s measures Q and S, Hernandez has sided with the former and Dutra has endorsed the latter. Hernandez, in an unprompted op-ed published in the Pajaronian, opined that the city can meet its housing and economic needs by focusing on infill development, specifically in the downtown corridor, rather than overtaking any agricultural land. Dutra, meanwhile, was a signee of the argument for Measure S, which says that the community deserves the opportunity to plan out the next 20 years together, rather than accept the fate that was determined some 20 years ago with the passing of Measure U.
It was a major change of heart for Hernandez, who in 2013 helped pen the rebuttal to the argument against a failed amendment to Measure U called Measure T. The rebuttal stated that allowing Measure U to stand as is was essentially “doing nothing” and “saying ‘no’ to change” in the face of crippling unemployment.