Field of Dreams

Mayor’s race features strong prospects, dangers

By R.E. Graswich
September 2023

They take the stage like a Hollywood movie cast. Asian, African American, white. Three men and one woman. A doctor, a lawyer. Career politician. Community activist. A gay man. A Latino standing by. The only category not represented are Republicans.

The campaign for Sacramento mayor doesn’t officially start until December, when candidate nominations close. But the race has been underway for months, since Darrell Steinberg confirmed he wouldn’t compete for a third term.

Steinberg’s retirement answered the prayers of the business community, which despises him, and residents across Land Park, East Sac, Midtown and Pocket, who blame him for pouring gasoline on the homeless bonfire he vowed to extinguish in 2016.

No incumbent means an open field in the March 5 primary. But Steinberg lurks in the shadows.

Every mayoral hopeful—Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, former state Sen. Dr. Richard Pan, former City Council member Steve Hansen and activist Flo Cofer—must avoid any resemblance to Steinberg. Same with County Supervisor Phil Serna if he joins the show.

Comparisons with Steinberg swirl around McCarty and Pan. All are creatures of the state Capitol, veterans of backroom deals, estranged from neighborhood concerns that move voters in a mayor’s race.

McCarty served 10 years on City Council before nine years in the Assembly. He’s tempted to brag on his legislative accomplishments, most of which involve money for education. Good for him, but meaningless from a mayoral perspective. The city has no authority over education.

Steinberg boasted in 2016 about his connections to state government. He emphasized how those relationships would help the city. Voters swallowed it. This time they will expect more from anyone associated with the state Legislature.

McCarty left few fingerprints on City Council. He was rarely seen around City Hall. He treated his council job as a launchpad for the Assembly. His most significant council votes were big mistakes. He voted three times against city participation in Golden 1 Center.

Had McCarty prevailed, Seventh and K streets would be an empty shopping mall. The Kings would be in Seattle. He won’t campaign on that record.

Pan has a different problem. He spent 12 years shifting between the Assembly and Senate, but nobody really knows him. His personality is—how to put it?—distant. He’s a pediatrician and med school professor whose bedside manner is more ice water than chicken soup.

If Pan is comfortable communicating through a stethoscope, voters will wonder why he seeks the mayor’s chair. Good question. The idea of Pan wrangling a raucous, profane City Council meeting is ridiculous. His legislative highlights included Medi-Cal stuff and the sanctity of vaccinations.

Which makes Pan a weird fit for muni government. The city’s public health duties are microscopic. If he’s interested in community health, Pan should run for county supervisor. The county runs health services.

Hansen is an intriguing candidate. Even people who don’t like the lawyer admit he was the smartest person on City Council. He out-smarted himself in 2020 after two terms. He barely campaigned against unknown Katie Valenzuela. She flanked him with support of the Sacramento River Parkway bike trail and bounced him from office.

Hansen admits he mishandled the parkway. (Another mistake was his refusal to speak with Inside Sacramento. We’ve reconciled.) He joined Lighthouse Public Affairs and improved his status with the professional class. He brings the brightest track record of any candidate on three problems: infill housing, public safety and homelessness.

If Hansen campaigns with the intensity he showed in 2012, he can advance to the November 2024 runoff and win.
Serna suffers from a substance deficiency. His late father was mayor 30 years ago, but left no lasting accomplishments. Few city voters pay attention to the county board, where Serna has managed to stay hidden and inconsequential.

Cofer, policy director for Public Health Advocates, is an interesting protest vote. She lacks funds and struggles to deliver her story to voters. Her platform is grievance, police brutality and institutional racism.

This is the deepest mayoral field since 2000, when six legit prospects competed and Heather Fargo won. In 2024, the winner can impress by not making things worse. That will be a huge improvement.

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

Stay up-to-date with our always 100% local newsletter!

* indicates required
Type of Newsletter
Share via
Copy link