After transportation activist Brian Peoples issued an apology for anti-Semitic drawings by a controversial cartoonist, Peoples initially only pulled the few that he understood to be problematic.
In the week since, however, Peoples scrubbed all the cartoons from his organization’s website and social media accounts.
Six illustrations by controversial political cartoonist Steven DeCinzo raised eyebrows for their portrayals of Supervisor John Leopold. They showed Leopold, who’s running for reelection, with goblin-like features, holding bags of money, shoveling cash, or sporting a fur coat. Peoples says it never occurred to him that the drawings could be anti-Semitic, and that he suspects DeCinzo knew what he was doing.
“I didn’t know it, and honestly, I think Steven knew it. I had no idea. I’m not going to carry his racism across social media for him,” Peoples says.
Peoples’ group Trail Now supports building a wide trail on Santa Cruz’s coastal rail corridor. The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is studying plans to introduce a commuter train or some other type of transit on the corridor alongside the proposed trail, but activists like Peoples remain steadfast that the train will never work. Peoples feels that Leopold has not scrutinized studies on the feasibility of rail locally closely enough.
In his time as a political cartoonist over the years, DeCinzo drew pieces for a number of newspapers, including the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Pajaronian (now a partner paper to GT) and Metro Santa Cruz (which was owned by GT’s parent company). In the last decade, he’s also drawn for a number of political campaigns. He says he wasn’t thinking about Leopold being Jewish when he drew the cartoons. DeCinzo freely admits controversy doesn’t rattle him. “I like drama. I like a little friction,” he says.
DeCinzo, an award-winning political cartoonist, says he only recently learned of the term “cancel culture”—words given to the phenomenon of activists and online groups trying to get people they disagree with fired or in trouble. He sees the debate over these cartoons as an example of that trend, which troubles him.
Insisting that he isn’t at all anti-Semitic, he says that he just recently got into an argument with his father-in-law, who was claiming that Jewish people rule the world, and DeCinzo says he told his father-in-law that those things were not true. “Three weeks ago, I was standing up for the Jews, and now I’m an anti-Semite. I just thought the irony was pretty thick,” says DeCinzo, who lives in Austria with his wife, but owns property not far from the Santa Cruz rail line.
Peoples says he has no regrets about using the cartoons. Overall, he’s proud of them, he says, as he thinks they were very helpful to his campaigns to draw attention to issues around the rail corridor and in the effort to unseat Leopold, who’s running for reelection.
However, Peoples says members of the Jewish community convinced him that DeCinzo trafficks in hate and that he should not use the drawings going forward. That’s why he pulled them all down.
Some of the cartoons also insinuated, rather boldly, that Leopold was using public dollars to enrich himself.
Leopold, who’s running as an incumbent against anti-train candidate Manu Koenig, says he was disappointed to see the cartoons, which he feels had anti-Semitic tropes that any Jewish person would recognize. Such cartoons, he says, don’t do any good.
“It doesn’t help the discourse. It’s a small community,” Leopold says. “We’re going to see each other at the grocery store. We’re going to run into each other on the street. We need to be civil to one another.”
Leopold serves on the RTC, along with the four other members of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and other officials. The RTC will soon review an alternatives analysis to study the possibility of various transit modes—including bus-rapid transit—on the abandoned corridor.
Peoples, who supports Koenig, recently changed the status of Trail Now, making it a political action committee, so that it could criticize Leopold without running afoul of campaign finance law.
Only one of the cartoons appeared in an ad, and Koenig says he pulled it immediately after hearing of the issue. “I was horrified to hear about the interpretations of the cartoon and pulled it from pretty much everywhere it was used,” he says.
DeCinzo has weathered other controversies in the past, most notably in 2008, when he faced different charges of anti-Semitism and insensitivity after drawing an election issue cover for Metro Santa Cruz with then-Senator Barack Obama in a Superman-type costume, standing on a map of Santa Cruz. Next to Obama’s left foot on the map was the conservative radio station KSCO—with a Nazi flag stuck in it. KSCO is a Jewish-owned radio station.
Over the past several years, DeCinzo also lent his pen to various political causes. He drew cartoons on behalf of opponents of an ill-fated desalination plant, for instance.
In recent months, he has drawn cartoons paid for by opponents of a seven-story downtown mixed-use project that would have a new library, a parking garage and apartments, which would hopefully be 100% affordable.
True to form, his latest works pull no punches. A notable feature of one of the anti-garage cartoons shows a multi-level garage without any housing under a banner that reads “Housing for a Few.” (DeCinzo tells GT he had no idea that the project would have units of housing in it.)
As a general rule, DeCinzo does not hold back from making attacks against the players involved in the projects he dislikes. In another cartoon criticizing the garage, DeCinzo portrays Councilmember Cynthia Mathews as a witch-like, tyrant-type figure and City Manager Martín Bernal as a crooked-toothed hunchback. There’s a long list of elected officials in Santa Cruz County whom he distrusts, he says, and he views his drawings as speaking truth to power.
None of that is enough to stop DeCinzo from missing the town of Santa Cruz, though.
Due to the pandemic, it’s been many months since DeCinzo last set foot in town. He says he thinks of his old home often. Santa Cruz, he says, has grown too unaffordable, too large and too crowded. He says the town is at its best when it is small.
And for that same basic reason, it delights him, he says, when he reads news stories about Californians moving out of state.
“Most of our problems in the world are about overpopulation. We don’t need more freeways. We need less people,” he says. “We don’t have water shortages. We have too many people.”