Upsets and Upstarts Young energy dominates Monterey County election cycle

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By Joe Livernois

The 2020 election cycle in Monterey County was marked by an infusion of upstart enthusiasm, fresh blood and plenty of upsets. With the dust settled after the release of the semi-final count from the Registrar of Voters on Wednesday afternoon, at least 10 significant new (and younger) faces will soon be sworn in to city councils and school boards.

Check the results:

  • Newcomers swept away veteran and well-regarded mayors in Soledad and Gonzales.
  • Salinas elected a 21-year-old and a 31-year-old to City Council seats, while a third candidate, a 27-year-old teacher, holds a narrow 8-vote lead against an incumbent.
  • Marina and Seaside both elected two young former journalists who were running their first political campaigns. 
  • A young newcomer defeated the incumbent for a Monterey Peninsula Unified School District Board of Trustees position representing Seaside, while a young mother of three defeated a candidate with significant name recognition in the Monterey district.

In many of these races, the incumbents and the local political elite seemed to think they could skate through the election cycle, while motivated young activist candidates dedicated themselves to ambitious, disciplined campaigns that inspired a new generation of voters.

“We’re seeing a new wave of new blood based on a dire want for change,” said Alexis Garcia-Arrazola, a 23-year-old who became the youngest Latino elected to the Seaside City Council this month. “Progress has been stalled in many places and people want new blood to make sure their concerns are met.”

Garcia-Arrazola survived a tight race in Seaside. With two positions on the City Council open, incumbent Dave Pacheco easily won another term, but the count for the final position was razor thin, with three candidates within reach. Garcia-Arrazola eventually emerged with a 151-vote win over his next closest competitor, Regina Mason, who is a Seaside community icon.

Garcia-Arrazola said his election reflects the changing demography of Seaside. Over the years, a growing Latino population has emerged in the community, which had long been a stronghold for Black politicians. “Seaside has a Latino population of 43 percent, yet no one is on council representing that community,” he said. 

The Salinas council will soon be infused with youth. Kimbley Craig, a council veteran, was elected easily to replace the late Joe Gunter as Salinas mayor. That’s no surprise. But joining her at the swearing-in ceremonies will be three spanking-new youngsters with an average age of 26. That’s assuming the results hold in the District 1 race, where 27-year-old Carla Viviana Gonzalez squeaked out an 8-vote win over incumbent Scott Davis. A recount could be in order.

Also winning a seat was Anthony Rocha, who only recently turned drinking age, and Orlando Osornio, the old man of the bunch at 31. Though he’s the youngest, Rocha actually has the most experience at elected politics after winning a seat on the Salinas Union High School District board not long ago.

Over in Marina, first-time candidates Kathy Biala and Cristina Medina Dirksen won election to the City Council. Biala took the prize for a seat in which the incumbent opted not to run, but Medina Dirksen defeated a respected incumbent, Gail Morton.

By the way, Medina Dirksen is a former journalist who worked for both the Salinas Californian and the Monterey County Herald before she and her husband had triplets. And Garcia-Arrazola is also a former journalist, as a radio reporter in King City and during a brief stint for the local Univision station.

Medina Dirksen attributes the success of heretofore unknowns in Monterey County politics to creative campaigning by ambitious newbies, “being underestimated by comfortable incumbents and a local political machine challenged to support emerging leadership.”

“Residents showed up and told us it’s time for change!” she wrote in an email to Voices. “That’s what I was hearing loud and clear. Incumbents and some better known names were just resting  on reputation, which was not so good in some of our cities.”

The last count of ballots also validated two stunning upsets in Soledad and Gonzales at the hands of a couple of political newcomers. Mayor Maria Orozco, who helped develop the ever-friendly “Gonzales Way” in her city, was defeated by Jose Rios, a retired utility worker. Mayor Fred Ledesma, who has been involved in city politics for two decades, lost the job to Anna Velazquez, who has experience with municipal government for years as a staffer in Salinas.

Back on the Monterey Peninsula, Jessica Hare upset incumbent Monterey Peninsula Unified School District Trustee Debra Gramespacher by a comfortable margin, while Veronica Miramontes defeated Nancy Selfridge, a former Monterey councilwoman. Miramontes is a young Latina who came to the Monterey Peninsula from Mendocino County in 2009. 

Perhaps the most visible and important new(er) elected official to win a big race was Wendy Root Askew, who easily defeated Salinas City Councilman Steve McShane in the 4th District Monterey County Supervisor race, even after the county’s business interests poured about $1 million into McShane’s campaign.

Root Askew will be leaving her elected position on the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District to take the supervisor’s job. And she will be replacing the woman she’s been working for, Supervisor Jane Parker. 

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

2 thoughts on “Upsets and Upstarts Young energy dominates Monterey County election cycle

  1. Good article, thanks.

    I’d also add newcomer and newly minted US citizen Chaps Poduri who was elected to the Pacific Grove City Council. While he’s older than those you mention, he brings fresh energy to our piney paradise. Before he began working in financial services, he gained government experience in Washington DC during in the Obama administration and in Sacramento. Three cheers for the dynamism of American immigrants—

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