Down Not Out

City needs mayor to remember fighting spirit

By R.E. Graswich
September 2021

The last Sacramento mayor who moved onto bigger and better things was Dr. Henry L. Nichols. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s because Mayor Nichols served only one year. It was 1858.

Nine years after he left City Hall, Dr. Nichols became California secretary of state. He was on the job when the Capitol building was finished, and climbed to the top of the new dome and stuck the golden ball in place. It’s still there.

It’s a safe bet Darrell Steinberg will not climb any domes and place golden balls. Like the other 44 mayors who followed Dr. Nichols, Steinberg has reached the summit of his political career. It’s downhill from here.

This is not how life was supposed to turn out for Steinberg. He was supposed to hold statewide office, maybe attorney general, maybe governor. That was the plan. But being mayor until 2024 is what Steinberg is stuck with, for better or worse.

His ability to manage his disappointment will shape Sacramento’s recovery from the economic and societal horrors of pandemic and homelessness. He hit solid notes at his State of the City speech in June. If Steinberg falters in the months ahead, the city’s recovery is in trouble. And trouble is already banging on the door.

Since being passed over by Gov. Gavin Newsom for attorney general—an appointment Steinberg desperately wanted—the mayor has struggled to maintain his public façades of optimism and leadership. Losing the attorney general sweepstakes to Alameda Assemblyman Rob Bonta crushed Steinberg and ended any relationship he had with Newsom.

Steinberg is 61 and hardly doddering. But a flock of Democrats have lapped him, younger, more diverse, with larger or more influential constituencies. His “best by” date has expired.

Steinberg was already losing his grip on City Hall. The arrival of three new council members last year shattered his command over a five-vote majority on City Council. Power reduction is painful for Steinberg, who loved wielding authority in the state Senate.

There are other challenges. The relationship between the mayor and city staff is fractured. Staffers feel unsettled by mayoral outbursts and last-minute agenda maneuvers. Council colleagues worry about him. An unnecessary squabble with the police department over deadly force policies made Steinberg look clueless.

Steinberg had a good run, better than most. Like other career politicians, he nurtured big ambitions after his first taste of electoral success. He was 33 when voted onto the City Council in 1992.

Awkward and energetic, noted for ill-fitting jackets, mismatched ties and scuffed shoes, the youthful Steinberg arrived at City Hall knowing little about the mysterious world of backroom politics.

But he was a quick study. He found politics addictive and set his sights on the state Legislature. After three terms in the Assembly, he jumped to the state Senate, where he became president. He cherished the leadership role, though he presided over a stretch when 10 percent of his members ended up in handcuffs for crimes ranging from corruption to drunk driving.

When Steinberg ran for mayor in 2016, the job was designed as a launch pad for a moonshot—statewide office, perhaps governor. A senate presidency can do strange things to people.

Steinberg ran for mayor on two promises. First, he would use his Capitol connections to help the city. Second, he would solve the homeless crisis. Today his Capitol connections are forgotten. The city’s homeless crisis has exploded. Downtown is on life support, hoping state workers return to their cubicles.

Sacramento needs a leader who can pull together progressive and moderate factions, nurture Downtown and embrace remedies to homelessness, such as a Haven for Hope campus where unsheltered people can nudge themselves to self-sufficiency.

Can Steinberg still lead? Yes, if he wants to. He’s no Dr. Henry Nichols. He won’t be climbing the Capitol dome. But unharnessed from ambition, the mayor can help his colleagues focus on smart policies, not grudge politics. There’s no point crying about what might have been.

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

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