While mounting his effort to win the Santa Cruz County Supervisor District 4 seat in this year’s election, City Councilmember Jimmy Dutra has made meeting people face to face a priority. “I wanted to make sure I personally reached out to as many voters as possible. The community really appreciates it,” he says.
It’s a trait that may come in handy, given that it’s also a strength of the man he’s challenging, Supervisor Greg Caput. After successfully mounting a campaign against then-incumbent Tony Campos in 2010, Caput held off his opponents, including Dutra and former Watsonville Police Chief Terry Medina, four years ago.
And even after eight years on the job, Caput often doesn’t look the part of a local politician. His tie isn’t always straight, nor his hair always combed. In meetings, he asks questions about basic information that often come off as confusing to others in the room.
Nonetheless, his successful re-election campaign four years ago demonstrated that what can come across as a lack of savviness to political insiders has translated to relatability for many Pajaro Valley voters. Caput campaigns hard, speaking with locals in Spanish and remembering people’s names. He says he’s already knocked on 4,000 doors this year.
Not to be outdone, Dutra says he and his mother, Terry Tavarez-Dutra, have knocked on more than a combined 6,000 doors since January.
Caput had made passing term limits a part of his campaign in 2010, but he was never seconded by any of his fellow supervisors, and the issue never came to a vote. He had originally said he would only run for two terms, but after getting calls to run again, he’s asking voters for four more years. Whereas other supervisorial districts seldom draw serious challengers, District 4 is shaping up to be one of the hottest races of the year.
Like in 2014, Caput is running against a formidable field of challengers—Dutra again, as well as City Councilmember Nancy Bilicich, City Councilmember Felipe Hernandez and Watsonville YWCA Executive Director Leticia Mendoza. The candidates are taking shots at the incumbent’s leadership, questioning his ability to take on the issues facing the Pajaro Valley area.
Dutra, who finished third in 2014, has now garnered nearly four years of city council experience and just graduated from USC’s school of public policy. Dutra, who accuses Caput of not being “present,” is also currently the first openly gay city councilmember in Watsonville.
“As I have been walking around the county and talking to people, their biggest issue is that Caput doesn’t respond,” he says. “People have had major road issues and there has been no attention brought to that. I am going to be someone who is going to respond to the people in the district for issues that have gone unaddressed for so long.”
The primary is June 5, and if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote getters will advance to the November ballot. Dutra says that even though Watsonville is home to major companies like Driscoll’s, Granite Construction, West Marine, and Martinelli’s, serious equity issues persist in South County.
Even as Caput confounded much of the local political establishment, he did earn the endorsement of former county treasurer and state legislator Fred Keeley four years ago. This year, however, Keeley’s endorsing Felipe Hernandez, who Keeley believes has a better sense of the community than Caput does.
“Greg is a good guy. He is somewhat unusual, he is a different kind of guy,” Keeley says. “He’s not a big policy guy, he doesn’t have much impact on the board of supervisors, and I think that’s another major issue for people in the fourth district. But I haven’t changed my view of him. I changed my view of who is the best person to represent the district.”
Another candidate, Leticia Mendoza, is currently South County representative on the Cabrillo Community College District Board of Trustees and executive director of the Watsonville YWCA. She says South County routinely misses out on major transportation and educational investment opportunities. Originally from Mexico, Mendoza moved to Watsonville at age 15 and went to Watsonville High School. After getting her doctorate in Urban Planning from Columbia University, she moved back to Watsonville in 2009.
“It is important to have more representation on the board of supervisors,” she says. “Caput has been there eight years already, and I haven’t seen much of a change in South County.”
When Mendoza accepted a position as director of the YWCA, the facility was about to close, and she helped to turn it around, she says. Mendoza says her background in planning and public administration makes her a strong candidate. “I decided that either I should get involved or stop complaining, so I got involved,” she says. “I’m happy with the work I have accomplished at the Y, and now I think it’s time I move forward and apply what I know.”
Caput says he isn’t phased by the other four candidates vying for his spot, and is focused on his own campaign and making sure everyone is represented and heard.
“I am running on who I am and I am running on my voting record,” Caput says. “I will continue to speak out. Even though I am on the short end of votes 4-1 on the board, it’s important someone speaks up and represents other opinions, because minority opinion today might be the majority opinion later in the future.”
Caput considers his largest successes to be the construction of a local mental health facility, currently underway, and a dental clinic in Watsonville, as well as a funding increase for the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project, for those applying for U.S. citizenship and documentation.
If elected, Caput says he’ll remain committed to the Pajaro River flood protection project, which would ensure 100-year flood protection for the Pajaro River levee.
Meeting in the Middle
Watsonville City Councilmember Nancy Bilicich has termed out of the council, having served more than nine years representing the city’s easternmost region. Though she says she’s proud of what she has accomplished, Bilicich is ready to move on to tackle countywide issues and has ideas to get South County voters more involved in the issues before the Board of Supervisors.
“All of the [board of supervisors] meetings are in Santa Cruz, and they want more involvement from the Watsonville community, so why can’t we meet in the middle?” Bilicich says. “It’s very difficult for our residents to go all the way to Santa Cruz.”
Although Bilicich doesn’t have a specific location in mind, she hopes to convince the board to hold some meetings in Aptos or Mid-County.
Having served 10 years as the director of Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education, Bilicich says her connections make her a great choice for the District 4 seat. “Collaboration is a key. It’s just like being on the City Council. If you want to get somewhere, you can’t always just have one vote,” Bilicich says. “I have a good relationship with [District 2 Supervisor] Zach Friend, and then it just takes one more person. I have worked with them all on the zone 7 flood project and would like to continue that relationship and expand it even more.”
Bilicich says that she’s proud of the street sweeping program she implemented as mayor. She supports the rail trail plan to build a bike and pedestrian trail alongside the county’s coastal railroad tracks. One of her top objectives, she says, is completing the Pajaro River flood protection plan. “I want the levee finished,” she says. “We have the largest senior community in the county, and those people have to pay high flood insurance and they are always worried about the rain. We can’t expect it’ll happen someday anymore, it needs to happen now.”
Like Dutra and Bilicich, candidate Felipe Hernandez is a sitting Watsonville City Council member. As with some of his opponents, Hernandez says South County isn’t getting a fair share of resources. Hernandez points to a lack of county parks. There’s only one county park in the area, compared to “double-digit parks” in other districts, he says.
“The city only has one soccer field, the school district has closed down access to their fields,” he says. “Soccer is not just soccer. It’s a need that we have in the community because 34 percent of our community is under 19, and we need to find things for them to do.”
Hernandez adds that he feels there’s “a better way to represent this district, beginning at the point of addressing this inequity. That’s a good starting point.”
He hopes to create more communication and collaboration among city and county leaders, especially to tackle the hot-button issues, like homelessness and transportation. “I think that if we work on these issues as a region, we will find better solutions,” says Hernandez, who also supports the rail trail.
When it comes to housing, Hernandez supports the $250 million affordable housing bond planned for the November ballot. He says the housing crisis throughout the region is putting an extra squeeze on the Pajaro Valley.
“In Watsonville, we are getting a lot of transplants from Santa Cruz, and that says something,” he says. “We need to address more affordable housing in Santa Cruz.”
Update 5/24/18 2 p.m.: A previous version of this story misreported that supervisor candidate Leticia Mendoza is the executive director of the YMCA. She is the executive director of the YWCA.