As election updates continue to roll in from the Santa Cruz County Elections Department—and with some races still remaining undecided—one thing has become clear: The makeup of Santa Cruz County’s elected leadership at the state and county levels will soon be more diverse.
Former Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin is the likely winner in the 28th Assembly District race, making her the first woman from the county to be elected to state office.
The County Board of Supervisors will also see a shift, as Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson—the current leader in the race for the 3rd District seat—could be the first woman to join the board since Ellen Pirie left in 2012. She would also be the first woman of color to serve on the board.
In the 4th District, meanwhile, Felipe Hernandez appears to be on track to become the first Latino to be elected to the board since Tony Campos first took office in 1998; Campos won reelection in 2002 and 2006.
Results posted Monday show that Pellerin’s large early lead in the race for the 28th Assembly District has held firm. Her advantage over Republican Liz Lawler, who currently serves on the Monte Sereno City Council, grew in both Santa Cruz (78.2%) and in Santa Clara (63.8%) counties.
She says her historic feat—breaking Santa Cruz County’s glass ceiling—will not be the last.
“I will do everything in my power to continue to lift women up and encourage them to run for leadership roles and run for office,” she says. “I am doing a lot of work on that on the local level, and now we’ll have a state platform as well.”
When next year’s legislative season begins, Pellerin says she plans to focus on mental health, which she calls a “public health crisis.”
“We need to do everything in our power to make sure that everybody, especially our children, has access to good quality mental health care,” she says.
Pellerin also says she plans to address the state’s affordable housing crises, and tackle environmental issues.
That includes reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, reducing the number of vehicles on the road and addressing the ongoing drought. Pellerin also hopes to look at improving education.
Kalantari-Johnson is poised to win the 3rd District Supervisor race and become the first woman of color on the board. Should she defeat Justin Cummings, Kalantari-Johnson plans on drawing on her experiences as a young immigrant to inform policy decisions in office.
“I was undocumented when we first moved here,” says Kalantari-Johnson. “So understanding what barriers individuals who are undocumented go through—food insecurity, housing insecurity, the challenges of navigating a system that you’re not familiar [with]—these are health and human services that are the real bulk of the work of the supervisors.”
Kalantari-Johnson credits her motivation to run for office in part to her experience of coming to the U.S. as an 8-year-old Middle Eastern immigrant who didn’t speak English. Now, as the only woman on the board, she feels a responsibility to represent not only the interests of minorities, but also to advocate for women’s issues.
“I’m bringing a unique lens that [the Board of Supervisors] don’t have,” says Kalantari-Johnson.
For the past two years, Kalantari-Johnson has served on the Santa Cruz City Council, where she has predominantly focused on education and youth issues, and has a track record of approving affordable housing projects.
Kalantari-Johnson says a primary and urgent focus, should she win the seat, will be advocating for more shelter spaces—a necessity for Santa Cruz after unhoused campers were evicted from the city’s largest encampment and dispersed across the city. She says her relationship with her colleagues on the council will help her facilitate partnerships with the city on homelessness approaches, and help improve city and county relationships.
“We don’t really have a choice but to make significant headway,” Kalantari-Johnson says.
Hernandez says that it’s important to note that he will not only be the first Latino to serve on the board since Campos was ousted by outgoing 4th District Supervisor Greg Caput in 2010, but he will also be the first progressive Latino in the county’s history to be elected supervisor. His victory was part of a larger trend for progressives, as dozens of their preferred candidates fared well across the nation.
Hernandez, who while serving as Watsonville’s mayor in 2016 introduced then-presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders during his visit to Santa Cruz, says that his voting record from his eight years (2012-2020) on the Watsonville City Council—during which time he voted to approve affordable housing projects, investment in public programs and transportation and support for unionization—shows that he carries the progressive values that have resonated with younger generations of voters.
“For me, that’s what it’s about—I’ve always shown my true colors,” Hernandez says. “But I’m also pragmatic.”
It’s this matter-of-fact approach to policy and his willingness to work with people from across the political spectrum that allowed him to develop a wide base of support that included his more conservative supe predecessor Caput. He believes this is why he was able to beat his competitor, Watsonville City Councilman Jimmy Dutra, in such a resounding fashion. As of Monday, Hernandez had a 1,045-vote lead on Dutra with around 7,513 votes counted—Caput beat Dutra in 2018 by 1,000 votes—and he believes his lead will only continue to grow over the coming days.
As the son of a former cannery worker and a farmworker, Hernandez says his victory serves as an important moment for him, his family and the people in South County—the majority of which are of Latinx descent—who might see themselves in him.
“People know my history,” Hernandez says. “Of course it matters. It’s important in so many ways.”