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September 23, 2021

California Legislator Profile: John Laird — A Life of Public Service

California State Senator John Laird representing District 17, which includes Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo Counties, as well as Portions of Monterey and Santa Clara Counties

John Laird, who was elected to the California State Senate on November 3, 2020, has had a lifetime of public service that began more than 40 years ago as a Santa Cruz City Councilmember as he was entering his 30s.

His career includes eight years as Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency under Governor Jerry Brown, six years as an elected member of the California State Assembly, nine years on the Santa Cruz City Council, two terms as Mayor of that city, and an elected member of the Cabrillo College Board of Trustees for eight years. Laird has also served as Executive Director of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, taught environmental policy at the University of California Santa Cruz, hosted a news talk program on KUSP public radio, and held analyst positions in budgeting and human resources for the County of Santa Cruz.

In a recent interview with Western Grower & Shipper, he noted that when working on the most recent California State Budget as a member of the Senate Budget Committee, there was virtually no aspect of that budget in which he did not have firsthand knowledge as a public policy advocate, teacher and participant for the past 40-plus years.

Laird was born in Santa Rosa in 1950 and was raised in Vallejo by his parents who were teachers by profession. He graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz with a degree in politics in 1972. He continues to be a long-time resident of that city with his spouse, John Flores, and claims his fandom of the Chicago Cubs as one of his lifetime passions.

Immediately after college, Laird began his political career as a member of the district staff of U.S. Representative Jerome Waldie, which fostered his appetite for a political career.

It is his desire to get things done that led to his public service and fueled his desire to come back to the California State Legislature in 2020. Working on public policy is his calling, with climate change being the most pressing issue currently grabbing his attention. “Climate change dominates everything,” he said, explaining why he ran for office again in 2020. “Being from a coastal district, I am witnessing the impact it is having on a daily basis.”

Laird listed the increase in fires California is experiencing year in and year out as well as the seemingly ever-present drought as proof of the major impact climate change is having on his constituents, including production agriculture. Though the most recent climate change assessment in early August by the United Nations painted a very dim future if immediate worldwide action is not taken, Laird chooses to be an optimist. “I think there is a distinct possibility that the monumental outcomes of fire and drought will be a wake-up call,” he said, expressing hope that minds will be changed.

He did express frustration that many people are arguing over the cause of the change rather than dealing with its outcomes. While the California Legislature is just one small player on the world stage, Laird does believe it can lead the way on public policy. He points to the passage of Assembly Bill 32 in 2006, while he was in the California State Assembly, which required California to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHC) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020—a reduction of approximately 15 percent below emissions expected under a “business as usual” scenario. “We did meet those goals…if only the other 49 states would have followed our lead,” he mused.

He believes the California Legislature should set additional goals and targets and take the reduction of GHC emissions to the next level.

“All politics are local,” he argues in advocating for the state to continue to take a leadership role in addressing climate change.

Turning his attention specifically to his constituents, Laird notes that he represents a wide swath of ag producers from some of the largest growers in the state in the Salinas Valley to mom-and-pop farms in Santa Cruz. He believes agriculture is vital to his district and to the state’s economy and believes urban and agricultural California can coexist. “Agriculture is always going to criticize over-regulation and to some extent they are right,” he said. “My goal is to support agriculture. One way I can try to do that is with water. Agriculture needs an adequate water supply in the state.”

Laird said money from the state budget and the water bond passed several years ago have allocated resources toward that goal, but the construction of those major projects is ongoing and water storage capacity has yet to be increased. He did point out that a water recycling project on the Pajaro River Watershed has resulted in increased water storage for local farmers.

On another ag front, the state senator pointed with pride to his role in securing more funds in the most recent state budget for agricultural research by the University of California. Laird said that over the years the agricultural research budget has shrunk, and it is his goal to return it to prior levels where research can help solve some of the issues California agriculture faces.

One such issue is an ongoing and worsening labor shortage that sees growers struggling to get their crops harvested. While immigration reform is a federal issue, Laird believes the state should lobby Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which would address that issue. He did note that the advent of the Biden Administration has made it a bit easier for California to be heard, but noted that Congress is still gridlocked with progress on a host of issues difficult at best.

Interviewed on the day that the U.S. Senate passed a bi-partisan infrastructure bill (August 10), Sen. Laird expressed hope that California would see some of those dollars allocated for the state’s most pressing transportation issues.