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January 24-31, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Ryan Coonerty Joins Candidates For John Laird's Assembly Seat

A growing number of potential candidates are declaring their interest in the state Assembly seat that's now occupied by John Laird. Absent a deal trading redistricting for term limits (see "Let's Make a Deal," Nūz, Jan. 3), Laird's seat will become open for a new officeholder in 2008. The latest candidate is Santa Cruz City Councilmember and Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty, now beginning his third year of service on the council. (He joins current Santa Cruz Mayor Emily Reilly, Morgan Hill City Councilman Greg Sellers and former San Lorenzo Valley schools trustee Barbara Sprenger, all of whom have filed statements of intent with the secretary of state's office, and county Supervisor Mark Stone, who is considering a run if the seat is open.)

Nūz asked Coonerty what motivated him to toss his hat into the ring.

"What I try to teach my students," he says of the law and government classes he teaches five days a week at UCSC and Cabrillo, "is the responsibility to participate in the political process."

So when a number of local people--including prominent labor activist Robert Chacanaca of the California Federation of Teachers--approached him last November and urged an Assembly run, he said, "I felt a responsibility. Following in the footsteps of Fred Keeley and John Laird is daunting, but the support I've received thus far has me ready to go."

What, we asked Coonerty, has he done in his public service so far that he's proud of, and which might give us an indication of his future emphases?

"I'm most proud of my work creating a helpline for day laborers to call when they have experienced abuse," answers Coonerty. "Both national and local reports show workers are shorted on what they were supposed to be paid, have to work without breaks and bathrooms and are even subject to physical abuse." Locally as well as other places? "Yes," he confirms. "Abuse of that kind isn't common, but any time people have no recourse when abused, that behavior comes out."

So Coonerty worked with the Familia Center, the city Police Department and city staff to create a recourse. And now, he says, "many other communities are looking at implementing similar programs."

To what will he apply similar dedication, if elected to the Assembly?

"If elected, the three areas I'll concentrate on are: the environment, education and economic security for working families. In terms of the environment, I think California needs to continue to lead the nation in raising mileage standards and developing alternatives to fossil fuels." And here, Coonerty adds a unique idea: "We need to have vehicles built in such a way that they are adaptable to using several kinds of fuel," from standard supplies to ethanol to biodiesel.

"We also must protect our coast and ocean by making sure that pollutants are removed from our storm water before it reaches the ocean." And how would he do that? "From a combination of incentives and regulation."

"Finally," Coonerty points out, "we also need to look at changing the tax incentives that encourage big box stores and sprawl." Coonerty goes on to explain that the state takes such a huge chunk of locally collected property taxes--and such a small chunk of sales taxes, leaving most to local communities--that "there's a local financial benefit to every strip mall, and a cost to every housing unit." Coonerty would like to see that reformulated so that it's a more neutral formula, which in turn would automatically correct many local commercial/housing imbalances.

In terms of education, Coonerty points out that his teaching experience enables him to "see firsthand the opportunities and failures of our education system."

Such as? "We need more counselors at every level of our school system," Coonerty observes, noting that "California has one of the lowest counselor to student ratios in the nation--around one per 1,000." At each educational level, more counselors would help in a unique way: "In K-12, they can help make programs and requirements clear. At college level, they can help primarily in planning and financial aid. And on the postgraduate university level, they can certainly aid in student retention." This is particularly important, he notes, "among those who are the first in their family to attend college."

For working families, Coonerty points out, there are currently several needs that are being less than fully met. "Working families need health care, child care, job training, affordable housing--and an increase in the state minimum wage, which is not only the right thing to do, but will also benefit our economy and competitiveness."

What, we asked, would an Assemblymember Coonerty work to stop, and to start?

"I think it is time we stop the abuse of our environment and working people by corporations who don't play by the rules." And to accomplish that, "we need meaningful campaign finance reform, to open up the political process to the average citizen."

Eventually, he'd like to see public financing of campaigns, to remove monetary pressure, but in the meantime, free TV time for all candidates--"not just Democrats and Republicans, but all candidates with established structured campaigns."

And on the top of his potential to-do list, Coonerty puts this: "We need to start looking at our education system, from kindergarten to higher education, as a seamless system producing people at their fullest potential, both as citizens and individuals. It's vital that we improve our emphasis on reading, writing and speaking. These are essential skills too often lacking sat the community college and higher education levels."

And what would he like to leave as an Assembly legacy? "Making sure that our policies--particularly in the areas of environment, education and accessibility of government--are as much about creating a better future as remedying the issues of the present. We need to think about the long term and the world we are leaving for our children's children."

"I teach in the classroom, help run a small business and serve in local government," Coonerty points out. "And in all three areas of my life, I see, on a daily basis, how state policies can be helpful or detrimental."

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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