Hero to Zero

There’s no comparison between last two mayors

By R.E. Graswich
April 2023

A dozen years ago, when I worked for the mayor’s office, we needed a slogan to describe the leadership goals of Kevin Johnson. We came up with “Think Big,” two words distilled by Chris Lehane, a political consultant who advised our little group. Chris was always good for snappy taglines.

At first I didn’t like “Think Big.” The slogan was simplistic, childish. But as the mayor’s office worked to fulfill Kevin’s ambitions for a new arena Downtown, I realized Chris was right. To get anything done, we had to think big.

Times were rough. Recession shut hundreds of local businesses. State workers were furloughed. The city budget was in shambles. Cops laid off, fire stations closed, parks neglected. Our NBA team was headed for Seattle.

Kevin believed he was the only political leader with the vision, connections and competitive heart to save the day. Crisis conditions fueled his narcissism. But even Johnson’s critics admitted he was the right guy at the right time.

History validated our work. While Kevin never reconciled the personal demons that wrecked his political career, Sacramento was indisputably better after Johnson’s eight years in office.

Which brings us to Darrell Steinberg. Nobody can say the town has improved under his guidance. With his quest for a judgeship seemingly snuffed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Steinberg is prepared to run for an unprecedented third term.
Meanwhile, the decline under Mayor Steinberg is palpable and tragically ironic.

Money powers communities. From a financial perspective, Steinberg is loaded. Torrents of taxpayer dollars poured into City Hall the past five years, gushing from many portals. There were voter-approved hikes in local sales taxes. There were federal and state programs to soften the pandemic’s impact. Sacramento has never been so rich.

Steinberg helped engineer these chunks of fortune, notably tax hikes. But he has almost nothing to show for it, nothing residents can celebrate.

Struggling to find accomplishments, the mayor’s office points to Aggie Square, a UC Davis research facility under construction on Stockton Boulevard. Aggie Square is nice, but it was foreshadowed by the 2004 decision to move UCD’s medical school from Davis to the Med Center campus. That was the game-changer.

A walk down Broadway or K Street or J Street or Alhambra Boulevard reveals a city in worse condition than in 2016, when Steinberg became mayor. He ran on the promise to resolve homelessness. The opposite happened, a nightmare that brings national shame and ridicule.

The number of rough sleepers was about 2,700 when Steinberg replaced Johnson. Today the homeless population is around 10,000. An honorable mayor would resign.

Mayoral failures can be mitigated with an experienced and wise City Council. But that’s not what Sacramento has, at least not today.

A council majority of six new members arrived since 2020, with three rookies seated in December. It’s too soon to measure the council’s independence and ability to isolate Steinberg and steer the city around his inadequacies. Early days are not encouraging.

Mai Vang, who represents part of Meadowview and Delta Shores, launched the new council into a dismal orbit when she publicly gathered five women members and said, “Mayor, all the progressive things you’ve wanted to do, this is your council, right here.”

With that surrender, Vang insultingly characterized her colleagues as Darrell’s hippie handmaidens.

By law, the new council must let Steinberg run meetings, even when he’s unable to control the audience. But councilmembers aren’t the mayor’s toys. They don’t need him. He’s just one vote.

His presence as a forgotten state Senate leader can still intimidate political novices. But none of today’s councilmembers won by promising to let Steinberg do “all the progressive things” he wanted to do, whatever that means.

Steinberg’s grand failure doesn’t involve leadership, progressive or otherwise. The mayor’s failure is his dependence on empty gestures. He’s a salesman, not a leader.

Hollow performances with no accountability or consequence powered his political career for three decades. He dances on air and leaves no footprints. For tangible solutions in economic development, public safety and homelessness, councilmembers must leave this mayor behind. Here’s a slogan for them: Think Big.

Correction: Last month’s City Beat column said the old Shanley’s bar on Broadway was now a pot shop. Not true, the pot shop is a block from Jamie’s, which replaced Shanley’s 37 years ago. I should know better than to mess up alcohol and pot.

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

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