After working together on Santa Cruz City Council for two years, Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Justin Cummings know each other well. This midterm election season has the two city representatives facing each other for a county supervisor seat.
Only 500 votes separated the two candidates in the June primaries, with Kalantari-Johnson holding a four percent lead over Cummings.
Despite the close race, non-profit director and political newcomer Ami Chen Mills took home 16 percent of the vote, which brings us to this November’s runoff election. Mills’ voters represent a sizable, election- swinging coalition. The Mills campaign previously took aim at Kalantari-Johnson for alleged campaign finance violations. However, City Attorney Anthony Condotti held that no laws were broken at the event in question.
Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson spent two years on Santa Cruz City Council before seeking a promotion from county voters this election season. Over the past two years, Kalantari-Johnson has sought to address the affordability issue by increasing housing supply in Santa Cruz.
“We are seeing teachers, firefighters leave, and students unable to stay,” said Kalantari-Johnson. “I have a 100 percent record of supporting housing projects on City Council and plan on supporting housing as a Supervisor.”
Kalantari-Johnson plans to expand on the $500,000 investment into rental assistance that the board of supervisors has already made.
Money is no issue for Kalantari-Johnson, as she already doubled Council Member Cummings’ fundraising total for this period. She holds endorsements from Council Members Donna Meyers, Renee Golder, Martine Watkins and Mayor Sonja Brunner. She has also been endorsed by exiting District Three County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, and his predecessor and father Neal Coonerty.
Kalantari-Johnson’s outstanding campaign funds don’t come without the scrutiny of voters. A notable amount of Kalantari-Johnson’s donors are involved in real estate, leading some voters to question how her campaign is being funded.
“There is a perception that I’m funded by real estate or out-of-town developers, that’s just the narrative that the far left likes to give to any candidate who is ‘moderate.’ So there’s not really any truth to it,” Kalantari-Johnson said in response to these accusations.
Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson received more than $3,250 in campaign contributions from real estate-affiliated persons over the past three months.
Kalantari-Johnson also added that she created a budget when she started her campaign and had a fundraising goal, one that she met. For her, it exudes an important trait in a leader and a potential county supervisor — once you set a goal, you meet it.
“I think the question maybe worth asking my opponent is, why didn’t he meet his fundraising goals?” Kalantari-Johnson asked.
That opponent nipping at Kalantari-Johnson’s heels is Justin Cummings. A former UC Santa Cruz graduate student, he was elected to City Council in 2018 after campaigning for a rent control ballot measure.
“We’ve been reaching our goals for fundraising,” Cummings said.
He added that his campaign is grassroots and citizen-driven, with most of his money coming from the community, ranging from city and county workers, retirees, and teachers. He falls back on Kalantari-Johnson having money come in from real estate, property owners, and developers as a contrast. He also says that they’re meeting their goals and being efficient with the money they have.
“I just want to also point out that in 2018, I was fourth for fundraising, and I came in first.” Cummings said. “I think that’s because we were really effective at getting our message out, getting volunteers, and getting community support, rather than just having the most money to send out the most mailers or pay people to go and carry or lift for us.”
The UCSC College Democrats endorse Justin Cummings, and the organization’s members are among the voters questioning Kalantari-Johnson’s donor pool.
“When you look at Justin, you see that he’s supported by labor, he’s supported by Young Democratic Socialists, he’s supported by us, he’s supported by a lot of other city council members, a lot of really established people, and pretty much every progressive organization in Santa Cruz has gotten behind Justin,” said the president of the College Democrats at UCSC, Laz Meiman. “So really, when you look at who’s funding who, it becomes really clear that Justin is by far the better candidate, the more progressive candidate, and the candidate that’s really gonna stand up for the people and not just their donors.”
Cummings lived the housing hellscape that students and workers alike are navigating. He said that he will keep pushing for increased affordable housing for the students, workforce, and low-income residents.
“If elected, I would be the only renter on the County Board of Supervisors,” Cummings said. “We need people with recent lived experiences to represent the more than 56 percent of renters in Santa Cruz County in our local government.”
Cummings will struggle to match the monetary firepower that Kalantari-Johnson and her supporters wield. However, Council Member Cummings has recently received the endorsement of former challenger Ami Chen Mills, who represents 2,436 new voters who are more likely to vote in Cummings’ favor. Her endorsement of his environmental expertise could make the difference in staving off Kalantari-Johnson.
Ami Chen-Mills entered the primary race a few months after the council members had already begun campaigning, with the central concern and focus being understanding how dire current environmental circumstances are for everyone.
“I don’t think anyone is thinking about the climate crisis properly,” said Chen-Mills.
Cummings’ environmental focus drew Chen-Mills towards endorsing him, even if they don’t see eye to eye on every issue. Council Member Kalantari-Johnson and Chen-Mills also had policy discussions, and opted to keep those discussions private.
Cummings has additionally been endorsed by the UCSC College Democrats, Council Member Sandy Brown, and Director of SOMeCA Sayo Fujioka.
Both candidates lauded their discussion with high school and UCSC students being a major key to their governance going forward. Each is in contact with at least one UCSC student regularly.
Each candidate also has the opportunity to change the makeup of the board of supervisors.
“It’s five white men, and it’s been such for the last decade,” said Kalantari-Johnson. “I don’t want to be elected just because I’m a woman, I have the public health background, I have the credentials, I have 20 years of experience in this community. I have experience on this city council. I’m the right woman.”
Kalantari-Johnson and Cummings would both represent a departure from the county’s business as usual. Justin Cummings would be the only middle-class Black man on the council, and knows the plight of the UCSC population. Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson would be the only woman on the council, and an Iranian immigrant. Santa Cruz County will have to decide which direction to lean towards.
“When we look at Santa Cruz, there’s not a single renter on the County Board of Supervisors, and there hasn’t been for a very long time,” Cummings said. “There has never been an African American on the board of supervisors.”