[Image by Shmuel Thaler via santacruzsentinel]
I often say that election officials aren’t just people I work with, they’re also some of my favorite people – which is why I really enjoyed a recent profile and Q&A of my friend and colleague, Santa Cruz County, CA’s Gail Pellerin, in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. It’s a revealing (and fun) look at life as a local election official:
Early days working as a journalist out of college showed Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin she would rather be making a difference inside government than reporting on it from the outside.
After several years staffing and managing lawmakers’ offices and campaigns in Sacramento, Pellerin found herself in Santa Cruz with husband Tom Chaffin, looking for her next adventure and wanting to stay close to home with her growing family. She tried her hand as Santa Cruz County’s elections manager from 1993 until 2004, until Richard Bedal, then the county clerk, recorder, treasure and tax collector, retired. His position was divided into several offices. Up for grabs were the county clerk and elections roles, Pellerin said, and it was unclear if they would be folded into another office or stand alone as an elected position. So, Pellerin said, she kept getting reappointed to the interim position two weeks at a time for months before it was finalized into its modern iteration.
The widely-known 55-year-old resident of unincorporated Santa Cruz, who has been working since the age of 13 in jobs ranging from motel maid to part-time work at a sheet metal manufacturing plant, is set to breeze through unopposed to a fourth full term in office. Pellerin has never been challenged at the polls, and calls her position “the office of politics and love,” for her power to run elections, marry people, process passports, approve fictitious business names and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Do you think your job should be an elected role? How do the politics of an elected position coexist with running that very election?
A: I really felt that this office needed to stand alone. I felt it’s important that the county clerk/registrar of voters be an elected position, even though I know it can be a conflict of interest sometimes, like when I’m on the ballot. But I’m directly beholden to 149,000 registered voters and the 250,000 people who live in Santa Cruz County. I’m not just catering to the fifth floor and what their wants and desires are. I think it’s important to have the autonomy of this office. It’s a lot of responsibility. I don’t take it lightly.
I really firmly believe that my salary’s paid by you, the taxpayers, so I make myself available pretty much 24-7.
I’m on my email all the time. I return phone calls directly. I respond to comments that people post on stories. Because people have a voice and I’m here to listen to that voice and consider their ideas and respond.
Q: So, you could stand doing a little more work, is what you’re saying?
A: I can take it all on.
It’s a team. You’re really only as good as the team you have around you. I don’t take their contribution lightly. I am so grateful to our staff who go above and beyond.
The thing is, to work here, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing.
Q: Why’s that?
A: Because it is so stressful and there’s so much that we require of people, and so much dedication. Election day is not 8 to 5. Election day is 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., plus we’re here two hours before and 10 hours after. Maybe not that much. But we’re here until about 2, maybe 3 (a.m.). One election, 4.
And, of course, it’s not like the day before you have off, or the day after you have off.
Q: So, where’s the balance, for your personal life?
A: I had my kids. My kids are now 20 and 23. My daughter was born an election year. So, she was born February.
Q: What’s her name?
I had a budget due and Santa Cruz City Schools called an election in April and I had a June primary. So, I took five days off with her, then I was back full-time with my daughter.
We did everything together. I was nursing her. I did like, a candidate information night. She woke up and she was hungry and I was like, well, I can either hook her on and continue or we can take a break. And they were like, hook her on! So, I breast fed my daughter while I presented ‘How to run for office.’ In Scotts Valley, 20 years ago, people were so accepting.
Even Jacob, when he was born in April ‘95, I took two weeks off and I came back part time with him, but it wasn’t as insane as Emily and the election year — my election-year baby.
These kids knew elections so much, she actually presented how the electoral college works in kindergarten.
Q: Where has this job taken you, beyond the borders of Santa Cruz County?
A: I got to be an international election observer in this little wanna-be county inside Azerbaijan, a place called Nagorno-Karabakh, which is actually called Artsakh. They just passed their constitutional amendment, so their name is Artsakh. It’s an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. The only way in or out is through this Lachin corridor that is like a six-hour drive through the mountains.
It’s a very war-torn region that’s still got troops at the borders, and there’s still conflict that is arising, and people are still dying as a result of this conflict. They wanted to be recognized as an independent country, and in doing so, they’ve been conducting elections using international standards of conducting democratic elections. So, I’ve been there twice now as an election observer and loved it. It’s phenomenal. The people there are so grateful for us to be there and to recognize them and what they’re doing.
It’s clear that Gail doesn’t just talk about being passionate about her work, she lives it – and what’s amazing is that her story isn’t unusual in the election community, which is full of people who love elections with as much energy as they love the rest of their lives. Best of all, voters get the benefit. Thanks to the Sentinel for this great profile – and a tip of my electiongeek cap to Gail for all she does!
Stay tuned …