John Laird Watsonville
State Senator John Laird visited Watsonville Rotary on Wednesday at the Watsonville Elks Lodge. — Johanna Miller/The Pajaronian

WATSONVILLE—Watsonville Rotary welcomed a special guest to its regular meeting Wednesday: John Laird, state senator for California’s District 17.

Laird, who was sworn in December 2020, was previously elected for the 27th District in 2002-06. He has served as California Secretary for Natural Resources, as a member of the Integrated Waste Management Board, and on a number of other committees.

Prior to serving in the State Assembly he was a member of the Cabrillo College Board of Trustees and Santa Cruz City Council and was one of the first openly gay mayors to serve in the U.S. in the 1980s. He served as executive director of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, taught at UC Santa Cruz and hosted a news talk program on KUSP.

On Wednesday, Laird thanked the gathered crowd of Rotary members for inviting him to speak.

“I’ve spoken to the Rotary once before,” he said, “and my guess is, it was about 30 years ago.”

Laird had been asked by the club to speak about the ongoing effort to save Watsonville Community Hospital (WCH), which has been under threat of closure for the past few years. WCH filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2021.

Earlier this year, Laird brought forward Senate Bill 418 in order to form a new health care district to acquire WCH. The bill was passed in February, and Pajaro Valley Health Care District was established. 

Laird spoke about the quick action required to introduce and pass the bill in the senate. 

“To move a bill that quickly … Normally, it takes months,” he said, explaining how even satisfying certain requests for studies would’ve delayed the bill by precious weeks. “We did everything we could to move this along as fast as possible.”

PVHCD’s deadline to raise $61 million is looming. In his presentation, Laird praised donors such as Kaiser Permanente, Driscoll’s, Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust, Central California Alliance for Health and others for their support of the project.

Along with Assemblymember Robert Rivas, Laird helped secure a $25 million state budget allocation to help the PVHCD purchase the hospital in June. This brings PVHCD within $10-12 million, with the deadline being the end of August.

Laird called the project a “labor of love,” and urged everyone to focus on the task at hand. Some people, he said, have already been bringing up concerns about hospital operation plans.

“This is like running a hurdle race,” he said. “The first hurdle is the bill, the second hurdle is making a bid, the third hurdle is raising the money, and operations—that’s the fourth hurdle. So let’s get past the first three. We know operations are a big deal, and that has to be done. We’re committed to bringing people in to be heard when that happens.” 

Laird answered a handful of questions from Rotary members. Rene Mello, a local realtor and Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce’s 2022 Women of the Year, asked him about the high cost of flood insurance for residents in Watsonville’s Senior Village near the levee. John Kegebein, a volunteer CEO of the Agricultural History Project, had a question about the ongoing labor shortage.

Other members inquired about everything from immigration policy to rising housing costs.

Laird also spoke about his work on the Pajaro Valley Levee Project. He recently helped pass a bill to secure a portion of its funding and move it closer to fruition after decades of work at the federal, state and local levels.

“I’m still praying that the atmospheric river doesn’t come before we can get the project built,” he said. “This is the only way this drought has worked in our favor—it has kept an event from happening at that levee. We have to make sure this project actually happens.”

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Reporter Johanna Miller grew up in Watsonville, attending local public schools and Cabrillo College before transferring to Pacific University Oregon to study Literature. She covers arts and culture, business, nonprofits and agriculture.


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