Illustration by Ry X

Three years into his graduate physics program at UC Santa Cruz, Clayton Strawn, 25, didn’t think he would get involved in local politics. He just didn’t see it in his future.

But, frustrated by Donald Trump’s administration and inspired by Bernie Sanders’ grassroots activism, Strawn is running in the March 3 elections for one of 20 seats open on the Santa Cruz County Democratic Central Committee (DCC). 

“I’m trying to turn the DCC from this reactionary institution that is preventing us from making the change that we need to a progressive organization that is advocating for the things that we need,” Strawn said. 

He is not alone.

Every county in the state has a DCC equivalent. They endorse political candidates at the local and state levels, fundraise for political campaigns and work to increase registration for the Democratic Party. 

Thirty-one candidates are running for positions on the county’s DCC in this year’s primary election. Sixteen of them, including Strawn, are forming a coalition called the Brand New County Dems (BNCD). Their goal is to make the DCC more progressive by bringing new voices into the center of local debate.

“Students are talked about a lot in local politics,” said Strawn, whose interests lie in tenant rights and environmental protection. “[B]ut they’re very rarely involved in the conversation because they’re so in and out. They come in [the community] for a short time, and by the time they get to know anything, they leave. So you don’t have this force of people trying to actually push for things for student benefit.”

The Brand New County Dems

Nine members of the BNCD held a meet-and-greet at the Resource Center for Nonviolence on Jan. 23 for the county to learn why they are running for the DCC. 

“The local leadership in the Democratic Central Committee here in Santa Cruz County is out of step with the progressive wing of the party, and they are not supporting those policies and candidates,” said Cyndi Dawson, a BNCD candidate who is running for a seat in Supervisorial District 3. 

The BNCD supports measures like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and local congressional candidates like Adam Bolaños Scow, who is running against incumbent Jimmy Panetta (D-CA 20th). With enough members on the DCC, the BNCD hopes to influence local, state and even national elections by endorsing progressive legislation and representatives. 

Like all of the BNCD’s non-incumbent candidates, Dawson gained interest in running for a seat on the DCC through the work of Stacey Falls, 42, a science teacher at Santa Cruz High School, who is also running in Supervisorial District 3. Her ability to network and mobilize, as Falls described it, is what allowed her to organize the BNCD’s slate. 

Falls first started to pay attention to the DCC when she helped her husband, Steve Schnaar, win endorsements for his City Council run in 2016. 

“I remember getting my sample ballot, sitting down, going through who all the people were on it and deciding how I was going to vote,” Falls said. “[T]hen I got to that part of the ballot, and I was like […] ‘Who are these people?’”

Then, last year Falls discovered that 20 DCC members’ terms were expiring and realized there was an opportunity to push the DCC left if progressive candidates flooded the 2020 election. So in November 2019 she called community members like Dawson to form the BNCD’s 16 member slate.

A Progressive Spearhead

Five days after the Jan. 23 meet and greet, I met Falls to ask her about the BNCD. Taking a break from planning a lab project for her chemistry class, she biked to meet me at the Tabby Cat Cafe. In the early 2000s, Falls’ work in sustainable transportation activism was her introduction to Santa Cruz’s activist network.

At the cafe, I tell her that she can leave our interview early, if she needs — it’s already dusk. She insists she is free, and I ask her how she has time to teach, plan educational lessons and canvas for her presidential candidate favorite, Bernie Sanders, who she said heavily influenced her activism and her DCC campaign. “That’s a good question,” Falls said.

Falls has always been politically aware, if not active, she said. She remembers growing up in Michigan as a “Riot grrrl” in the ‘90s during the punk rock scene and learning about social issues like gentrification through educational workshops in between concerts. 

After moving to Santa Cruz in 2002, she continued to stay active and advocated for organizations like Bike Santa Cruz County, formerly known as People Power, and campaigns like the anti-Iraq War movement. Like other candidates on the BNCD slate, Falls is driven by serving the community through political activism.

“I want to build a movement like a Bernie Sanders movement. I want to build a movement like an [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez movement,” Falls said. “I think that’s what we’re going to need in this country to really have and sustain a progressive Democratic Party.” 

The BNCD’s slate is like a TV promo for a circle of mom and pop super heroes. There’s the union representative, Nora Hochman; the dental hygienist, Denise Elerick; the ex-nonprofit organizer, Jenny T. Sarmiento; and the software engineer, Glenn Glazer, among others.

Yet, for most BNCD candidates, their DCC campaigns are only one on a long list of priorities that include paying bills and staying active with existing community groups and initiatives. 

Running as an incumbent in Santa Cruz County’s District 5, Glazer, who worries about PG&E outages in his community, is also a part of the California Democratic Party Rural Caucus, which advocates for rural communities like Felton within the state party. 

Elerick, who is running for District 2, volunteers with the SafeRx coalition, which combats opioid usage in the county, serves on the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission and organizes around public health and harm reduction.

“If I don’t win a seat, I’m still going to be doing what I’m doing,” Elerick said. “I’m still going to be working in the community.”

Challenging the Status Quo

For Falls, Elerick and others, the March 3 election is a chance to break through what they see as closed-off, insider-led politics. But DCC chairperson Coco Raner-Walter, whose job is to increase local Democratic Party membership, worries that a progressive push will isolate voters. She sees the BNCD’s movement as a takeover of DCC operations and local politics. 

The day we talked on the phone, Raner-Walter cited an opinion piece written by David Brooks in The New York Times

“Only 53 percent of Sanders voters say they will certainly support whoever is the Democratic nominee. This is no idle threat,” she read from the article. “In 2016, in Pennsylvania, 117,000 Sanders primary voters went for Trump in the general, and Trump won the state by 44,292 ballots. In Michigan, 48,000 Sanders voters went for Trump, and Trump won the state by 10,704. […] In short, Sanders voters helped elect Trump.” 

In the late 1960s, Santa Cruz was the most politically progressive county of its size in the nation, according to UCSC professor emeritus George William Domhoff and Assumption College professor Richard Gendron, who researched Santa Cruz’s political history. 

In their book titled “The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz,” the two attributed its progressiveness to UCSC’s establishment in 1965, which introduced the community to progressive faculty and students and inspiring issues, which brought the county’s progressive community together. But by 2010, the county’s progressive drive declined due to a lack of “burning issues and new ideas,” wrote Domhoff and Gendron. 

Yet with Sanders’ first campaign run for president, that progressive wave began to surge again in counties like Santa Cruz, where already liberal-leaning politics allowed for stronger leftist thought. 

In 2019, Sanders led in grassroots fundraising among other Democratic presidential candidates, recording 1.5 million individual donors and over four million donations. Sanders also led Democrats in possessing the most individual contributions in Santa Cruz County.

Sanders is at the forefront of the grassroots campaign strategy, and supporters, like many of the candidates on the BNCD slate, are taking his outsider politics and people power message to heart.

“I think that’s sort of the idea behind this political revolution, right?” said BNCD candidate Clayton Strawn. “If you isolate the DCC, it’s not that important in the long run. […] But if you see it as part of this movement, then you’re like, ‘Okay, this is just a new another place that we can try and get involved and try and make a dent in pushing for the things that we need.’”

Parting the Blue

Party division has been a topic of contention for the Democratic Party since Sanders’ rise in 2016 as the nation’s leading progressive candidate. With other leftists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar elected to national office, that sentiment is only rising.

In January, The New York Times endorsed two presidential candidates, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, for the first time since its founding almost 170 years ago.

“There will be those dissatisfied that this page is not throwing its weight behind a single candidate, favoring centrists or progressives,” the NYT editorial board wrote. “But it’s a fight the party itself has been itching to have since Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in 2016, and one that should be played out in the public arena and in the privacy of the voting booth.”

That fight, seen nationally in areas like trade, health care and immigration, is also playing out locally through issues like rent control and the upcoming recall vote. The BNCD, as the new political outsider coalition, is determined to not only push the Democratic Party left, but shift the entire political pendulum in that direction.

“I think part of why we’re doing what we’re doing is that I do think there’s a real debate in the country right now about who the Democratic Party is,” said BNCD candidate Stacey Falls. “You’ve got the centrists who think that Joe Biden [is] the safe choice, and [that] we should do the thing we’ve always done because that’s the thing that everybody knows. [But] I don’t think that’s working. I don’t think we’re inspiring people.”