By Royal Calkins
Given these difficult times of political and viral plagues upon the land, I’ve been expecting the upcoming Salinas mayoral race to be a stirring event that could measure the community’s temperature.
The issues currently shaping the national debate — such as the Black Lives Matter movement, child-filled cages on the border, the presidential slide into tyranny and buffoonery, the pandemic and its outsize impact on people of color — are felt as strongly in Salinas as anywhere between the shining seas. But the consensus list of potential candidates at the moment doesn’t support expectations that the election will be a referendum on the city’s direction, either short or long term.
The leading contender at the moment looks to be former City Councilwoman Kimbley Craig. While she is well qualified for the job, she also represents the status quo, business as usual as practiced by Joe Gunter, the longtime police officer and mayor whose unexpected death earlier this month created the opening. Consider Craig to be the chamber of commerce candidate, the law enforcement candidate, the Rotary Club candidate.
Craig knows how the city works and she knows the city well, especially her former North Salinas district. Though she’s socially moderate, you won’t see the growing activism of East Salinas and the city’s youth in general clearly reflected in her campaign. If not for Gunter’s unexpected death, he likely would have supported her to succeed him. Though she has not formally announced, she told Voices early this week that she is running and she posted on Facebook that she was pulling all her business suits out of the guest room closet. Since leaving the council three years ago, she has been running the Monterey County Business Council.
Significantly, and then some, Craig has received support from contractor Don Chapin’s Salinas Valley Leadership Group, a gathering of pro-growth and pro-business types that employs a campaign manager of its own and that is currently under investigation by the state over allegations of campaign money laundering. Craig isn’t implicated in any of that although her replacement on the council, interim Mayor Christie Cromeenes, is the subject of another investigation regarding money rolling through various campaigns without proper documentation. She has denied wrongdoing.
Back to the mayor’s race.
Many politically active residents had been expecting housing consultant and community activist Matt Huerta to get into the contest, a move that likely would have shortened the list of candidates on the November ballot. He is viewed as a rising star on the progressive side of Salinas politics but he says he is simply too busy with affordable housing issues.
Huerta told Voices this week that he seriously considered a run but realized he simply
couldn’t find enough time to lead the city while making a living and raising a family. Because the city is led by a city manager, Ray Corpuz, at least until his retirement in September, the mayor’s position is part-time with a small stipend. Recent mayors, however, have treated it as a full-time job, partly because being mayor of Monterey County’s biggest city can be a political springboard. Ask state Sen. Anna Caballero.
A Huerta candidacy likely would have put much of the campaign focus on matters of special concern in most of the city, including affordable housing and police reform. Lack of adequate farmworker housing has contributed greatly to the surge in COVID-19 cases in the Salinas Valley, an issue of heavy concern to those who likely would have supported Huerta. He also has been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and is sympathetic to the young people who have staged a series of impressive political rallies regarding police tactics. Salinas has seen more than its share of police shootings, mostly aimed at Latinos, though the city has been enjoying a quiet time on that front for some time now.
“I wanted to run but it wasn’t in the cards,” Huerta said Wednesday.
Others expected to run include former councilmember Ernesto Gonzalez, LULAC official and Realtor Chris Barrera, businessman and previous mayoral candidate Amit Pandya, and homelessness advocate Wes White. Gonzales announced his candidacy on Facebook.
Veteran activist and gang counselor Brian Contreras said the search goes on for other more progressive candidates.
There is talk of a Tony Barrera candidacy, but Contreras said he doesn’t expect the councilman to turn it into reality.
Councilmember Scott Davis, an unsuccessful candidate for sheriff two years ago, was rumored to be a possible candidate but he signed Craig’s nomination papers Wednesday.
Also under discussion, mainly in South Salinas, is a repeat performance by Dennis Donohue, who preceded Gunter in office. Donohue was a popular mayor whose political career seemingly ended when he failed to knock off Monterey County Supervisor Jane Parker for a seat that takes in a large slice of Salinas.
A current candidate for that same seat is Salinas Council Member Steve McShane, who faces a November runoff against Parker aide Wendy Root Askew. His performance in the primary election makes him a distinct long shot in the runoff, perhaps so much so that Gunter’s passing may have him rethinking his options.
Something that should be telling is the end-of-this-month filing of campaign financial reports in the supervisorial race. McShane’s chances of upsetting Root Askew seemingly depend on whether he can spend heavily on advertising as November approaches, but the big money contributors of the Salinas Valley may be holding back because of his lopsided loss — 45-35 percent — in the May prelims. Time will tell.
The filing period for mayor started this week and runs through Aug. 7.
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