Cynthia Chase, the new Santa Cruz mayor whose term began last month, says the most important issue for the city to tackle right now is affordable housing. For the start of the new year, GT caught up with Chase to talk about the opportunities for women, the county’s glass ceiling, her work in local prisons and her solutions for Santa Cruz’s housing crisis.
In some ways, this year’s election was horrible for women. One bright light is that five out of the seven seats on Santa Cruz City Council are now held by women. What do you make of that?
CYNTHIA CHASE: When I ran [in 2014], one of the reasons I ran was I had gone to the Breaking the Glass Ballot initiative, which was a project that had started here locally, but it exists in other places. And the intention was really to encourage women to run. And when you talk to women, there are really smart, really skilled, creative, innovative, just incredible women out there who don’t run for a variety of reasons, that are somewhat overlapping with [men’s reasons], but a lot different. And what I see over and over is—and there’s a lot of research to prove this, too—women doubt themselves. Women second-guess themselves. Women don’t feel like they are qualified to be in leadership roles, and they view leadership and what it takes to be a leader quite differently. And that’s a message that I think we really need to work on, particularly for young women, and helping them understand that it doesn’t take someone who is loud, boisterous, bombastic, despite what the national election showed.
Since 2012, all of our county supervisors have been men. The county has also never had a woman elected to state legislature or Congress. What can we do to break our glass ceiling at higher levels of government?
Often, childcare falls to women. Although that’s changing, certainly, there are expectations that are both self-imposed and in the community that women really need to show up in these ways in regard to their families. The decision about being in an elected position and being in a family is still a conflict for women. Right now, I’m pretty much in that position. Do I continue to serve, knowing that this council role is a part-time job, and I have a whole other full-time job? And if I were to add in family to that, my husband and I, what would that look like? So that is a crossroads for people, particularly women. I will have to choose at some point, and that some point is getting smaller and smaller.
So we need to create a place where women can be the kind of leaders that feel more familiar to them, and have support to do that. Because this isn’t just anecdotal, the research shows that when women are in leadership positions, generally speaking, in almost every way, things go better. They go better for the economy. They go better for the community. They go better for relationships. They are able to get more done, and you hit fewer barriers and government doesn’t come to standstills.
After you graduated from UCSC, you were a juvenile probation officer in Santa Cruz. Then for eight years, you ran Gemma, a program for transitioning women from incarceration. Now you’re an inmate programs manager at the county sheriff’s office. How has your career informed your political life?
Really what I’ve been doing for 16 going on 17 years is working on how do we shift systems to better prepare people who are incarcerated for successful release. What we’re doing now in our local jails, our job is to rehabilitate people. It’s no longer just housing people for a short period of time with short sentences, then they’re going to get right out. It’s about systems and how they connect, overlap and affect each other. So any decision that we make in one realm is going to have this ripple effect into others. And I think that is the example that I use constantly in talking to people at the city. … That’s where we’re talking about systems: How do we as a city partner with the county, and talk to our state and federal partners about putting some more resources in, and being a lot more systematic in our responses to things like homelessness and substance addiction and behavioral health issues, that are really not in the city’s purview?
What do you plan to do as mayor about affordable housing?
Housing is a big focus this year. One of the things I’m hoping to do is convert one of the City Hall to You [forums] to a housing forum, and really I’m still working with a lot of stakeholders on this—advocates for housing rights, tenants, landlords, developers, lenders, all the folks who are really engaged in this and trying to say, ‘Look, all of you have skin in the game. Everybody has something to do here.’ And actually, when you talk to all of those people, our solutions are not really far off. I think that’s the thing that is unfortunate, that people tend to get so divided into their camps, and really, when I sit down and talk to every one of them and I’m listening, they’re so similar in what they need. So if I can bring all of that energy together and say, what is our housing vision for this community and how can we get that groundwork laid so that we can move forward in that direction, that’s what I really would love to accomplish this year. I know it takes a really long time to actually develop housing and all of those things, but if we can, this year, land on a vision that we see as a community for housing, I think that is doable.
Many local housing officials and nonprofit leaders say the dissolution of the county’s redevelopment agency in 2012 ended the main local funding source for affordable housing. What do you see as the solution for filling that giant need?
We formed a subcommittee around exploring what are the other funding sources. Is that a TOT increase? Is that a local bond measure? What does it look like? Is it just for housing or would it be a sort of overall quality of life issue? And really explore what our sources of funding are. And luckily, as I go around the community and talk to those different stakeholders, people are saying, ‘Yep. We’re on board.’ Because they know it can’t happen without something like that.
Last year, you championed the “City Hall to You” program, a town hall forum in four neighborhoods. What’s the biggest outcome?
People are now feeling like they have a connection to city government. They have an actual person. They have a conversation. They have a relationship. [They feel they] can move forward not just on their public works issue or question, but in general that we are accessible. And that, to me, is one of my biggest goals.