Political Notes: Nonbinary labor activist Thompson seeks Santa Cruz council seat

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday August 7, 2023
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Joe Thompson will formally launch their campaign for a Santa Cruz City Council seat at an event next month in the coastal enclave. Photo: Courtesy Joe Thompson
Joe Thompson will formally launch their campaign for a Santa Cruz City Council seat at an event next month in the coastal enclave. Photo: Courtesy Joe Thompson

After falling short in their bid for a state Assembly seat last year, nonbinary former union organizer Joe Thompson now has their sights set on being elected to the Santa Cruz City Council. With an official campaign launch event set for early September, Thompson has already lined up endorsements from a wide array of elected and community leaders.

It is a marked difference from when Thompson, who also identifies as gay, jumped into the 2022 legislative race. Most Democratic Party officials threw their support behind former Santa Cruz County clerk Gail Pellerin, who was elected last November to represent the 28th Assembly District seat that straddles Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. After failing to advance out of their June primary race last year, Thompson joined Pellerin's campaign as a field director.

Thompson, 20, was also a leading organizer in the effort to create a union last summer at the Starbucks where they had worked in Santa Cruz as a shift supervisor; it was the company's first California location to do so. It brought national attention to Thompson, who graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2021 with an environmental policy degree.

Since April, Thompson has served as a substance use disorder services commissioner for Santa Cruz County. They also serve on the board of the LGBTQ political group BAYMEC, short for Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee, which focuses on the South Bay and Santa Cruz regions.

Their work in the community has not gone unnoticed, with Thompson last year recognized as a rising star by the Santa Cruz Democratic Party and honored for their organizing work by the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council. This year, Congressmember Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) presented Thompson with a 2023 LGBTQ+ Leadership Award during Pride Month in June.

Khanna is among the elected officials now backing Thompson as they seek the District 5 City Council seat in Santa Cruz. It includes the Pogonip open space area and the majority of the UC Santa Cruz campus, plus the city's Upper West Side and Harvey West Park areas. (The coastal enclave is transitioning to having six district-based council seats plus an elected mayor, which began with the 2022 elections for two of the seats and a new mayor.)

The council race will be on the March 5, 2024 primary ballot. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff race on the November ballot next year.

"I am running to take the fight for workers rights and economic justice to the Santa Cruz City Council," stated Thompson in announcing their candidacy in mid-July. "I hope to work to create true economic equity and build up our local Santa Cruz workforce, but I can't do it alone. I will need a lot of progressive and grassroots support. Because of the new district elections, this city council race will be decided in March of 2024."

According to a map of LGBTQ elected officials maintained by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, there are no out members currently on the City Council in Santa Cruz. Former lesbian councilmember Donna Meyers left in 2022 after serving one four-year term, which included her becoming the city's first lesbian mayor when she held the former ceremonial role in 2021.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Sandy Brown, whose term is up next December and was drawn into the new fifth district, has endorsed Thompson, as have former mayors Tim Fitzmaurice, Don Lane, Mike Rotkin, Chris Krohn, and Katherine Beirs. Gay Monterey Mayor Tyller Williamson and transgender Cabrillo College Board member Adam Spickler have also early endorsed Thompson.

Other out electeds supporting Thompson include Redwood City Vice Mayor Lissette Espinoza-Garnica, whose election three years ago marked the first time a nonbinary candidate won a Bay Area city council seat, and gay City Councilmembers Omar Torres of San Jose and J.R. Fruen of Cupertino. Bisexuals Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose) and Sunnyvale City Councilmember Richard Mehlinger have also backed Thompson, as has BAYMEC co-founder Ken Yeager, a gay man who formerly served as a Santa Clara County supervisor and San Jose city councilmember.

"Santa Cruz has gone to district elections, so that makes a difference," said Yeager when asked about Thompson's candidacy. "They are well liked, and they know the city very well."

Thompson officially kick-offs their council campaign with a launch party from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, September 9, at Harvey West Park in the Clubhouse/Scouthouse. The municipal park is located 326 Evergreen Street in Santa Cruz, and those wishing to attend can RSVP here.

"It's time for fresh leadership and a new perspective to not only represent, but energize the next generation of working-class folks, organizers, and voters," stated Thompson. "We need someone brave enough to challenge the status quo and start delivering meaningful, tangible results through bold policy and a deep understanding of the issues that matter most."

As the B.A.R. noted last year in covering their Assembly bid, Thompson grew up in the small city of Lincoln, north of Sacramento. Their parents divorced when they were in high school and decided it would be better for them to move to Argyle, Texas, to live with their aunt and uncle.

Within five days of graduating Thompson drove to Colorado to visit their sister then headed to Santa Cruz for college. They got a job as a barista at Starbucks and soon were organizing efforts to unionize the staff at the coffee chain's locations across California.

Thompson now wants to bring their experience gained from working on employee issues, health care services, and other progressive policies to the council and address citywide concerns. As they said in their launch video for their council candidacy, Thompson intends to make students, seniors, and local working families their top priorities.

"We have the opportunity to continue being a leader in the fight for truly affordable housing, climate change, and making Santa Cruz a more safe and livable place for all," says Thompson in the video as they stand in front of City Hall draped with the Pride and Transgender Pride flags. "It's time to do something about it and mobilize our resources to support the community work happening and to take that work even further. We do this by empowering our working families with living wages, work-life balance and better protections against corporate greed."

To learn more about Thompson's candidacy, visit their campaign website.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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