.Do These Local Candidates Represent Bernie?

In the final days of Bernie Sanders’ campaign over the summer, his tone shifted.

He ceased criticizing his opponent Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and finished talking about winning the Democratic nomination, as Clinton had by that point amassed a clear path to victory. The U.S. Senator from Vermont lauded his hard-working team and thanked people who had made their first foray into politics by helping to get the vote out for Sanders. He also pushed them to go one step further.

“Now we need many of them to start running for school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures and governorships,” Sanders said via livestream on June 16. “State and local governments make enormously important decisions and we cannot allow right-wing Republicans to increasingly control them.”

Santa Cruz already has a long history of involvement in local politics, including one activist slate after another seeking office on Santa Cruz City Council, some of them more successful than others. But this year, the excitement generated by Sanders’ run propelled the opportunity for a new platform. Local organizers looked at data from online and phone surveys of their members . Then, they went to work on a candidate pledge.

“We saw what the priorities were and gave them categories,” lead organizer Shawn Orgel-Olson says. “They aren’t all of the priorities, but the top ones we found.”

The local election pledge that Santa Cruz for Bernie crafted last month was split into seven categories, including affordable housing, homelessness and police accountability. But its critics say the details of its platform are unworkable, and in some cases even illegal.

Out of 11 City Council candidates, five have signed onto the pledge: grant writer Steve Pleich, assistant professor Sandy Brown, internship coordinator Chris Krohn, nonprofit director Drew Glover and bike mechanic Steve Schnaar.

“One of the things I loved about Bernie Sanders is even though he didn’t win, he changed the debate,” says Schnaar. “You can’t expect everything to come out the way you say you want it, but I at least want to change the debate.”

Other issues on the platform include limiting UCSC growth, accelerating a $15 dollar hourly minimum wage, community gardens, and funding for more sustainable transportation.

It demands, for instance, that 25 percent of any new housing complex’s units be affordable, up from a previous requirement of 15 percent, and that developers won’t be able to pay in-lieu fees instead of actually constructing low-income units. “Affordable housing. That’s the story of this election,” says Chris Krohn who served as mayor in 2002 and hasn’t run for City Council since. He says he felt inspired and awestruck when he witnessed the optimism of Sanders firsthand in Philadelphia over the summer.  

A few weeks ago, Schnaar, Krohn, Glover and Brown all won endorsements from Santa Cruz for Bernie, as well as from the People’s Democratic Club, after agreeing to the pledge.

But the local Bernie pledge hasn’t garnered universal praise.

Five-time Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin, who proudly supported Sanders earlier this year, wrote an email to the local committee critiquing the platform. The nearly 2,000-word letter, which was shared in a Chamber of Commerce newsletter, broke down the platform by bullet points, arguing that the pledge would be impossible to implement and that any candidate who signed on would have a difficult time getting elected in the first place.  

“I respect and encourage your commitment to getting much more involved in local issues while we wait for the next presidential election to roll around, but hope that you find a way to make that commitment more meaningful and reflective of the realities of how these issues unfold in the context of our local community,” wrote Rotkin, who is out of the country and could not be reached for an interview.

Candidate Robert Singleton, who declined to take the Sanders pledge, says the platform’s beefed-up inclusionary housing rules would be illegal when it comes to rentals. Inclusionary zoning laws for rentals are currently in a murky gray area, due to a 2009 court ruling in Southern California. Singleton, who also supported Sanders this year, says he has a different plan to build denser housing, including units for Section 8 vouchers.

And Singleton, who co-founded the online forum Civinomics as a UCSC junior four years ago, says that, for better or for worse, it’s also too late for the city to try legislating how big the university grows, despite concerns people have about water usage.

“ We’ve tried that in the past and it didn’t work. The city lost tha t lawsuit,” Singleton says, recalling a 2010 court case. “Furthermore, UCSC— despite having more students and developing more—is using less water now than they were 15 years ago because they have more strict building standards.”

Steve Pleich accepted the pledge, as “there were no deal breakers in it, as a progressive politician,” he says.

Still, he feels that as the California population grows, it’s UCSC’s duty to admit its share of students, as the city agreed to five decades ago.

“I think that everyone deserves a college education. So with 16,000 students coming in, I think we need to supply them water,” says Pleich, who was the only one of five candidates to accept the pledge and not get an endorsement from the local Sanders group.

Undeterred, Orgel-Olson believes everything on the pledge can be accomplished. It’s simply a matter of initiative.

“None of the items are impossible,” Orgel-Olson says. “We just need a City Council with the courage to stand-up to special interests and advocate for marginalized people and issues to build a more just community.”

Additional reporting contributed by Jacob Pierce.


  1. Thanks for covering the Brand New Council project. Just as a short follow-up, these measure *are* achievable if we have a City Council that is principled and creative. It’s no secret where many of the other candidates get their funding from… and whether or not that influences how they’ve voted/will vote is up to you to decide.

    The candidates endorsed by Brand New Council were all endorsed by:
    1. The People’s Democratic Club (part of the local Democratic Party).
    2. The Monterey Bay Central Labor Council (Over 60 unions are affiliated with the MBCLC, representing more than 30,000 union members and their families.).
    3. The local “Santa Cruz for Bernie” group.
    4. And three of the four were endorsed by SEIU 521, which represents many City of Santa Cruz and County of Santa Cruz employees.

    To learn the details on the platform and candidates visit http://www.brandnewcouncil.com

    We need a City Council that works for all of us. #brandnewcouncil #movementsnotmoments

  2. I’d just like to comment on Robert Singleton’s response to inclusionary zoning. Everyone who pushes inclusionary zoning laws understands that it doesn’t apply to rentals due to the Palmer Act, and that is a position explained by each candidate.

    It’s quite disingenuous for him to respond with that “gotcha” saying it is illegal, since none of the candidates ever suggested trying to push inclusionary zoning on rentals.

    And Rotkins reply is very much expected, he and his “Growth Coalition” are backing the 4 moderate candidates. He has lambasted the Bernie folk for not being willing to compromise, despite that simply not being true. The lines in the sand had to be drawn somewhere, and they were drawn where the pledge stands.

  3. GT scores again. Just when I was trying to figure out why two candidates, whom I know to be environmentalists and leaders in affordable housing, were not endorsed for city council by progressive groups, Mat Weir’s article gives an explanation. I hope GT will also cover the Sierra Club’s forum on Demystifying Measure D on Thursday, Sept. 29.

    The way I see it, the proposed sales tax caters to car drivers at the expense of public transit. It designates over $100M to widening Highway 1, which will only encourage more cars, ending in more congestion and more carbon emission. I rather see that amount go to the Metro and transform our bus system into the robust, vibrant service we need to encourage more people to Bus by Choice.

    • Dana, I understand your concern about candidates who are good people and have good intentions, but I encourage you to take into account where they stand on the specifics. Just as Hillary championed herself as tough on Wall St., but would not endorse reinstating Glass-Steagall, or that she claimed to be an environmentalist, but would not support a national ban on fracking, the fact that these candidates refused to sign the platform says more about the way they would govern than any ribbon-cutting or op-ed. Please consider evaluating candidates on the specific policies that they support, rather than their rhetoric.

      I want to thank you for your insight, as your explanation of Measure D is spot on. Years ago we were presented with an option that only funded highway widening. It was defeated and now we have an option that is packaged in such a way that appeases many other groups, and makes it seem like a win for everyone. But as you pointed out, the lions share goes to highway widening. $100 M that should be invested into public transportation alternatives. We will never address traffic or climate change unless we take cars off of the road. We must defeat Measure D, so that we can truly move away from single occupancy vehicles, and to a sustainable future that actually addresses the issues of our time.

      Thank you for being involved, and be sure to check out brandnewcouncil.com

  4. As an organizer for Santa Cruz for Bernie (and life long resident), I feel it’s important to point out that our platform was crafted by veteran community activists, politicians, and policy experts. Nothing in our platform is “impossible”, let alone illegal. I think it is ironic, however expected, that the same arguments used against Bernie, are now being used against us. Literally the same arguments- Mike Rotkin says, ” the pledge would be impossible to implement and that any candidate who signed on would have a difficult time getting elected in the first place” Sound familiar? That’s because Hillary and the mainstream media said the same things about Bernie. He changed the face of politics forever by speaking truth to power and presenting bold ideas.

    Singleton says, “too late for the city to try legislating how big the university grows, despite concerns people have about water usage.” in essence saying, that’s too hard, we shouldn’t even try. Besides the fact that his response is completely disingenuous in the same way it is with the inclusionary zoning comment (thank you Danny Drysdale). The city *does* have a legal avenue to control the University’s growth. At this point, it looks like the City Council is set to approve the UC’s plan to grow by about 5,000 more students in the next 4 years, with no thought to how that might impact our housing market or the already terrible traffic.

    The bottom line is, we’ve heard these arguments before. We can continue down the path of moderation, that benefits real estate investors, developers and big business, or we can stand up for what’s right with bold ideas that actually help the families who live and work here.

    If you are fed up with politics as usual, and are ready for real change, head over to brandnewcouncil.com to learn more!

  5. The platform that Santa Cruz for Bernie came up with makes sense to me… Why shouldn’t We The People aim for better than just mediocre? I feel like Santa Cruz is an amazing city that should be leading the county with our progressive, helpful values and ideals.

    That’s why Drew Glover, Chris Krohn, Sandy Brown, and Steve Schnaar have my vote this November. They are standing up for their progressive ideas, and put their names on the line by agreeing to the platform.

    They have my respect and my vote.


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