Cruel Timing

Strong mayor bid littered with errors

By R.E. Graswich
October 2020

Misjudgment is scattered across Darrell Steinberg’s campaign for strong mayor. His strategic mistakes would be alarming if committed by a rookie politician. Coming from Steinberg, whose political career stretches back three decades, the breakdowns are astonishing.

It’s as if the mayor wants his Nov. 3 power grab to fail.

I know a few things about strong mayor campaigns, having worked as special assistant to Kevin Johnson during his first term as mayor, 2008–2012. Johnson was obsessed with changing the city charter to make himself strong mayor. He began plotting long before he took office. The quest ended in 2014, when voters rejected strong mayor 56 to 44 percent.

Now Steinberg is trying again—another futile exercise in blind ambition. Why? Steinberg spent 14 years in the state Legislature. Almost everyone in the Legislature looks in the mirror and sees a future governor or U.S Senator. Steinberg no doubt believes he would make a fine governor or senator. But as he turns 61 this month and considers his future, he knows options are limited.

Hence, strong mayor. Like Johnson, Steinberg has been thinking about strong mayor for many years. But he’s done nothing to convince city voters to crown him king.

Yes, Steinberg built a coalition of special interest groups to support his ambitions. But they are side players, mainly business interests, only vaguely reflective of his purported motivation for strong mayor—the embrace of equity.

Steinberg says, “If your life is pretty much OK in the city of Sacramento… then I think (the current) form of government is probably just fine. But if you are part of a community that has been traditionally been left behind … I would argue strongly that this form of governance is not as responsive to the change that is being demanded as it could be.”

If equity is truly Steinberg’s mission, he badly misjudged his support. The two councilmembers who represent Sacramento’s most historically neglected districts—Larry Carr of Meadowview and Allen Warren of Del Paso Heights—oppose strong mayor. So does incoming councilmember Katie Valenzuela, the board’s youngest and most progressive member.

Carr eviscerated the power grab. He characterized it as a throwback to the corrupt old “boss mayor” era. Warren challenged the disingenuous timing. He reprimanded Steinberg for jamming voters with a last-minute proposal in a pandemic. Valenzuela insists strong mayor will weaken City Council representation.

Groups representing residents in “left behind” communities oppose the power grab. The Asian and Pacific Islander Regional Network called the plan “completely contradictory to the people’s vision for transparency, equity and social investment.”

Build. Black., a group of African American leaders that includes Steinberg supporters, said the strong mayor proposal “manifests the racist ideologies that it aims to change.” To acknowledge Build Black, the City Council added a sentence to the initiative minutes before placing it on the ballot.

Steinberg ignited his strong mayor campaign without essential support or clear rationale. By rushing to the ballot box in a pandemic just six years after Johnson’s failure, Steinberg is distracting and dividing a vulnerable city. As political calculations go, the timing is cruel and cynical.

Beyond those mistakes, Steinberg made another fatal error. He failed to realize the alleged reason for strong mayor—creating equity legislation—can be easily done by City Council ordinance.

When the City Council agreed to put strong mayor on the ballot, Steinberg asked city manager Howard Chan to prepare equity language for the council to consider in September. With equity ordinances on the books, Steinberg’s only argument for strong mayor disappears.
That’s a politician who deserves to lose.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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