Katie Valenzuela’s ready. Is the City Council?
By R.E. Graswich
Katie Valenzuela won’t join the City Council until December. But she is already learning how she won’t fit in. Steve Hansen, the two-term councilmember Valenzuela defeated in March, won’t speak to her. Other members smile and offer congratulations, but the words carry little weight.
At first, this bothered Valenzuela. “I was pretty depressed when the pandemic started,” she says. Sheltered in her Boulevard Park home with her two rescue terriers, socially distanced from work and friends, months from being sworn into office, Katie Valenzuela felt disconnected from the motivations that propelled her run for office.
Then she reconnected. Residents from Midtown and Land Park began to call and tell her their problems. They described their hopes for her, their eagerness for change at City Hall. “When I began to hear how passionate people were even when we were locked down, I thought, what a beautiful thing!” she says.
The protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police gave Katie Valenzuela more motivation. She conducted Zoom meetings and surveyed residents about local police practices and priorities.
She wondered about accountability for the proposed $157 million Sacramento Police Department budget—a $10 million increase over last year and $37 million more than SPD received in 2018. She wondered how cops became the city’s first responders to homeless complaints.
“It’s frustrating to sit here,” she says. “I’m forced to figure it out without any resources. But that’s OK. I’m getting all these calls and people really do want to figure out what’s the role of the police, what they should be doing and who are the best people to go out and do it. We’ve lost sight of those best practices.”
The long gap between her March election and December arrival at City Hall has allowed Valenzuela to confirm her non-conformity. While councilmembers often come from smaller elected or appointed jobs—insider paths like school board or commissions—Valenzuela is an outsider. She lacks municipal inoculations. She has no desire join the club.
With her background in state-level environmental organizing, she would rather interact directly with voters than with real estate developers who roam hallways at City Hall.
“I’ve already seen some interesting things,” Valenzuela says. “I made a decision not to take donations from law enforcement unions, not to take developers’ money. People wigged out over that. But the reason people give you money is they are trying to influence you. I have a responsibility to hear everyone out, but I won’t be influenced by them.”
Mayor Darrell Steinberg and City Council members supported Hansen over Katie Valenzuela. Some at City Hall worry she will be too radical and shatter the council facade that promotes a paternalistic leadership style directed by a wise and benevolent mayor.
Valenzuela laughs at the prospect of being a City Council outcast. She may be radical by traditional standards, but she’s also clever. She turned 34 in January and is more politically sophisticated than her council colleagues may know. She’s an agent of change—determined to introduce a youthful, grassroots-activist perspective to City Hall.
“I know people are saying, ‘She’s too far left. She can’t get the votes. She’s the crazy person in the corner who never gets anything done,’” Valenzuela says. “I want to be accountable. This is all about giving people a pathway to have their voices heard. Sacramento people are ready to exert their power.”
She noticed how the Measure U Community Advisory Committee was shut down from February to June. The excuse was COVID-19. But during that same time the City Council met and budgeted $90 million in Measure U tax money—half of it for police—with minimal public consideration.
Valenzuela believes public viewpoints are essential for good city governance. Community voices must be heard. She sees herself not as a leader but as a listener and facilitator.
“I love to go out and do block parties and have neighborhood meetings where we decide on action plans, not just talk,” she says. “In four years, maybe I won’t be able to raise money and this will be a one-shot deal on the City Council. But it will be a glorious four years.”
R.E. Graswich can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @insidesacramento.