SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—Record numbers of voters nationwide cast their ballots this year, all either hungering for change or hoping for status quo in what is possibly one of the most polarizing political climates in U.S. history.
Locally, those numbers likely were a catalyst in driving thousands of voters to the polls and causing three surprising upsets on Santa Cruz County ballots.
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 who won by wide margins.
County Board of Supervisors – Leopold vs. Koenig
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.
“I worked very hard throughout my campaign, and I am very proud of my work as a member of the Board of Supervisors,” he said.
Leopold said he has 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 first district,” Leopold said.
He said 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 LEO’s Haven inclusive playground. He also pointed to his work with land use policies such as vacation rentals and addressing sea level rise.
“I am gratified by what we’ve been able to accomplish, and I treasure the relationships and friendships I’ve made as a member of the board,” he said. “And I’ll look for some way to contribute to the community in the future.”
Koenig called his numbers “phenomenal,” and said 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 said. “And I look forward to getting to work for them.”
He was celebrating Tuesday night at home with his parents, fiancee 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 said.
County Office of Education Governing Board – Sales vs. Acosta
Dana Sales, who has 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 to Ed Acosta, who in a landslide 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 said.
Sales says his loss likely came in part after he decided not to take his campaign into neighborhoods because of Covid-19 fears.
“I think that has come back to haunt me because I believe my challenger, Ed, was very effective in going door to door and asking for the vote,” Sales said. “I thought that was something I shouldn’t do at this time. It was probably a big mistake, but I still think it was the right thing to do.”
Sales, a realtor, says he plans to stay active in the community.
“That’s not going away,” he said. “And what I’ve seen in the past is that when you have a little bit of time on your hands they find something for you.”
Ed Acosta said 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 said.
He also said his fluency in Spanish likely helped him connect with constituents.
“They felt like they didn’t have a voice in the community,” he said.
A lifelong Watsonville resident, Acosta said he is looking forward to getting to work for his community.
“I embrace my community,” he said. “I love Watsonville. It’s everything to me.”
Cabrillo College Governing Board – Trujillo vs. Banks
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.
Trujillo served on the Santa Cruz City Council in 2010 but did not run for reelection after his partner had a stroke and needed constant care. He lost a bid for Watsonville City Council in 2018.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said of his win.
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,” he said.
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 said the returns from the election surprised him.
“I thought the numbers would be closer,” he said. “Obviously the voters had something else in mind, and it wasn’t me. Obviously, I wasn’t living up to somebody’s expectations.
“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.”
Banks says that he leaves the position knowing that he “gave it my all.”
“I wasn’t in it for any recognition,” he said. “I performed to the best of my abilities and obviously had the best interest of the constituents in Trustee Area 7 always at the forefront.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to include comments from Ed Acosta.