.In Santa Cruz Race, Sonja Brunner Headlines Election Surprises

Sonja Brunner, the Downtown Association’s operations director, is ready to get to work on the Santa Cruz City Council.

Although votes are still being counted, the most recent returns have Brunner in first place in the race for four seats. If Brunner stays in first place, she’ll likely be chosen to serve a one-year term as mayor. In the November election, she admits to even outperforming her own expectations. 

“I was really surprised that I was at the top of the votes. To me, it just shows my 28 years in Santa Cruz and my connections in many different circles and communities,” she says. “I’ve worked and served many different people over the years.”

According to the most recent returns, Councilmember Martine Watkins is in second place, Councilmember Sandy Brown is third and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson is fourth. (Nonprofit executive Kayla Kumar is in fifth.) Watkins and Brown are both within striking distance of the top spot, but Brunner will undoubtedly finish in the top four. Brunner has begun the onboarding process, talking to City Manager Martín Bernal’s office about training and protocols. 

Brunner’s election to the City Council was more than unlikely. It was practically miraculous.

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Just over three years ago, a drunk driver crashed into Brunner’s car in a collision that she thought was going to kill her. The June 2017 crash left Brunner with lacerated organs, a broken pelvis and a fractured spine. That summer, she transitioned from being in a wheelchair to walking with a walker to walking with a cane. Before long, Brunner was back to her old hobbies of stand-up paddle boarding and roller skating. 

Brunner also remembers feeling heartbroken when the drunk driver had to have his leg amputated in the aftermath of the crash and then died one month later from a resulting infection. The whole terrifying experience changed everything for Brunner.

“That accident really shifted my mindset. If you’re thinking about doing something, go for it. Give it your all,” she says.

Across the nation, record numbers of voters cast their ballots this year. Locally, at least 84% of registered Santa Cruz County voters cast their ballots.

The results created a few shakeups. 

Among them, three longtime incumbents—Santa Cruz County Supervisor John Leopold, Santa Cruz County School Board Trustee Dana Sales and Cabrillo Board Trustee Ed Banks—were ousted by challengers. 

Not only that, but each of those three challengers ended up winning by wide margins.


John Leopold has been a county supervisor since 2008. He says he was disappointed by the loss, in which Manu Koenig garnered more than 56% of 30,218 votes.

By midday Wednesday, Nov. 4, Leopold had already called Koenig to congratulate him.

“I let him know that the voters spoke clearly, and I want to assist him with the transition to meet the needs of the residents of the 1st District,” Leopold says. 

He says his loss during 2020’s “change election” likely came from voters looking to remold both local and national politics.

Leopold added that he is proud of his work during his time on the board, which includes creating the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Cruz County and the LEO’s Haven inclusive playground. He also pointed to his work with land-use policies such as vacation rentals and addressing sea-level rise.

Koenig called his numbers “phenomenal,” and says they reflected what he and his team have been hearing on the campaign trail.

“I want to express my deep gratitude to the voters for their trust,” Koenig says. “And I look forward to getting to work for them.”

He was celebrating on election night at home with his parents, his fiancée and two friends. He attributes his high numbers to a desire from the public for change, on issues such as homelessness and the high cost of living.

“We’ve seen that people are frustrated with the way things are in the nation, but on the county level as well,” he says.


The county’s education races were not immune to landslides.

Dana Sales, who’s served as a school board member with Pajaro Valley Unified School District and the County Office of Education for a total of 35 years, lost overwhelmingly to Ed Acosta, who received 75% of 7,689 votes.

Sales has served on the county board since 1992. He says that his tenure on the board may have been a contributing factor in his loss.

“I think the fact that I’ve been a trustee for so long was held against me,” he says. 

Sales says his loss likely came in part after he decided not to take his campaign into neighborhoods because of Covid-19 fears. He believes Acosta was very effective in going door to door. “It was probably a big mistake, but I still think it was the right thing to do,” Sales says.

Sales, a realtor, says he plans to stay active in the community.

Ed Acosta says his success came from months of hard work that included his entire family and many friends. It also came from voters hoping for change, he says. He says his fluency in Spanish likely helped him connect with constituents.

A lifelong Watsonville resident, Acosta says he is looking forward to getting to work for his community.

It wasn’t the only shakeup in the education races.

Steve Trujillo won his bid for the Trustee Area 7 seat of the Cabrillo College Governing Board, beating out Ed Banks, who held the seat since 2012.

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Trujillo, who lost a bid for Watsonville City Council in 2018 and previously served on the Santa Cruz City School Board.

Trujillo says he is looking forward to renaming Cabrillo—a movement that started in July after a group of activists said that the college should not be named for infamous explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, known for brutalizing the native people who lived here before his arrival.

“Cabrillo was a horrific, evil despot,” Trujillo says.

Trujillo attributed his success in part to local media, which he says helped get his name and his policies into the public view.

Ed Banks, who thought the final result would be closer, says the returns from the election surprised him.

“I thought in my mind, in my heart, I was doing a good job on behalf of the trustee area I represent. If it wasn’t that way, the election showed that, at least in the voters’ minds.”

Check out all of our 2020 election coverage.


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