Last month, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty went for a walk on West Cliff Drive with his longtime friend and analyst Rachel Dann. Dann asked her boss about his plans for next year—and if he was really looking to run for reelection.
The previous 12 months had been the hardest year of their lives.
There was the Covid-19 pandemic, of course, but also the economic crisis it created, the resulting budget shortfall, the challenge of responding to the chaos spurred by President Donald Trump’s administration, a painful national reckoning over racial injustice, the murder of sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, and a devastating wildfire that destroyed more than 900 homes. Then there was the killing of Coonerty and Dann’s colleague, Allison Endert, one of their closest friends, by an allegedly intoxicated driver while Endert was on a walk in her neighborhood. For the first time in his life, the normally level-headed Coonerty was experiencing panic attacks and serious mental health challenges.
Dann wanted to know if Coonerty, 47, really planned to run for a third term—and if so, why. Coonerty had an answer ready for her, he remembers. The previous year had all been about responding to crises outside of their control, some of them national and international failures. With a little more time, Coonerty could focus on implementing systemic change, he told her. There was more to do when it came to investments in early childhood, as well as improvements to the county’s responses to homelessness and mental illness and substance abuse issues.
He just needed one more term.
But privately, Coonerty, who represents the county’s 3rd District, including the city of Santa Cruz, began to ask himself the same things that Dann had been wondering about. This time, he came to a different conclusion.
Coonerty thought about how he couldn’t really presume that all those pressures and crises outside of his control would really be any calmer during a third term than they were over the past year. He thought about how many potential candidates—including several women and people of color—would be ready to step up to serve in his place. But more than anything, he thought about the ways Endert’s death had changed him.
“Life is short. That’s one thing Rachel and I have both realized from Allison’s death,” Coonerty says. “Life is really short, and you only have so much time. So you should feel good about what you’re doing and that it’s the best way to make an impact.”
Coonerty says he is making the announcement now that he will not run for reelection next year because this is about the time when he would otherwise be working to get his reelection campaign together.
And so the beginning of 2023 will mark the first time in 16 years that a Coonerty won’t be on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors; his father Neal held the same seat from 2007-2014. It will also mark the first time in 18 years that there won’t be a Coonerty holding a major local elected office in the county—Coonerty was on the Santa Cruz City Council from 2005 to 2012. (Coonerty’s aunt Sheila remains a trustee on the Santa Cruz City Schools Board.)
Coonerty says he has never felt closer to his constituents than he does right now, or more confident that he would have prevailed in a reelection bid. “But it also just feels like it’s time to look at doing something else, and it’s time to have other leaders step forward,” he says.
Coonerty says he would love to see the board get some more diverse representation. The county board has been made up entirely of men since 2013, and it’s been all-white since 2011. Coonerty says he plans to wait until a little after the filing deadline, which is in March 2022, before making an endorsement for the 3rd District seat.
As for his own aspirations, Coonerty says he isn’t sure what he’ll do next. There will be a seat opening in the California Assembly in 2024, when Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) terms out. Coonerty hasn’t ruled out the possibility of throwing his hat into that race.
“I’ll look at everything, but right now, I feel really good about my decision to put a pause on public service,” he says.
In addition to his work navigating the compounding crises of the past year, Coonerty says he’s proud of what he’s done to help expand drug treatment options, improve the county’s response to homelessness and expand support for young mothers and working-class families. Together, Coonerty, Dann and Endert spearheaded the creation of the Nurse Family Partnership and the Thrive By Three Fund—both of them aimed at improving opportunities for babies and young children.
Dann says a lot of people know what a sharp policy mind Coonerty is. What they may not know, she adds, is how big of a thinker he is.
Coonerty is a member of many organizations, and oftentimes he would come back to the office on a Monday morning from a weekend conference with a list of ideas he wanted to implement locally, Dann says. She and Endert would then get to work on which ones their meager staff might actually be able to pull off. That’s where Thrive By Three and the Nurse Family Partnership both came from.
“Once in a while, one of them would be workable, and then we would get to work, trying to get it into the county budget and setting up the program and getting the partners together to effectuate it,” Dann says. “But we always knew to be prepared when he came back from one of those conferences. He was going to have 20 ideas to change the world. But that’s what made it fun. He was always thinking about how to make it better. It’s fun to work for a big-idea person.”
Coonerty says he’s looking forward to spending more time with wife, Emily, and his family. Coonerty notes that the couple’s 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son have never known him as a private citizen.
But his community involvement extends beyond his work as a county supervisor.
A legal studies lecturer at UCSC, Coonerty is the author of two books and the host of the podcast The Honorable Profession, about people in public service. He’s also a University of California 2020-21 Fellow for the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. For that program, Coonerty’s working on a project about about a 1976 incident when a group of Nazis tried to march through an Illinois town that was home to a large population of Holocaust survivors.
Looking ahead, many politicos will be surprised by Coonerty’s announcement not to seek reelection. He says he even surprised himself with his decision.
But this isn’t the first time that Coonerty’s life took a surprising turn. There was also the time Johnny Cash helped alter the course of his life 19 years ago.
In 2002, Coonerty was fresh out of law school and working in Washington, D.C., while living in Arlington, Virginia.
One day, as he waited in traffic on his commute into work, Coonerty heard a Johnny Cash song come on the radio. And as he stared out the window on that frigid morning, the thought occurred to him that Cash—who died the following year—would not want to be friends with a stuffed suit like himself. “I was a dime a dozen,” Coonerty says. That bothered him.
And so Coonerty gave his notice that day that he would be quitting his job.
After that, he bought Cash’s last album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, and he moved back to his hometown of Santa Cruz, where he started getting involved in the community. The following year, he finished second in a race for the Santa Cruz City Council, going on to serve eight years, including two stints as mayor.
Coonerty says he realizes now that Cash—were he still alive—might not want to be friends with him these days, either.
“But I think I’m probably closer to a friendship with Johnny Cash,” he says, “than I would be if I stayed in Washington and was just your prototypical staffer.”