Fenced Out of Office

How river access barrier sank Hansen

By R.E. Graswich
April 2020

A broken, unwanted levee fence cost Steve Hansen his political career.

One year ago, Hansen decided to stop people from walking onto the Sacramento River levee in Little Pocket. He told city park officials to build a black iron fence and gate on Riverside Boulevard near 35th Avenue.

The barricade summarized Hansen’s attitude toward public access and recreation. Don’t come here. You’re not welcome. This river is private.

People hated Hansen’s barrier. They hated the exclusion it represented. Within weeks, the fence was twisted and bent so people could climb through. And on Election Day, voters in Sacramento’s fourth City Council district showed Hansen what they thought about his policies and priorities. Thousands rejected the two-term incumbent councilman and voted for his opponent, Katie Valenzuela, who had never run for public office.

Valenzuela never trailed in ballot counts and won easily. She defeated an entrenched incumbent who enjoyed support from City Hall and the Downtown establishment, led by Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

Under city rules, Hansen serves until mid-December. He’s the Invisible Man, living a slow political death.

Until the final weeks of the campaign, Hansen hardly acknowledged Valenzuela. He debated her once in early February at McClatchy High School. His appearance was prompted by the realization that Valenzuela had gained traction with voters as she walked precincts, visited constituents and out-worked Hansen in Midtown, Land Park and Little Pocket.

Rising housing costs prompted Valenzuela to run for City Council. She rents her home in Midtown and felt nobody at City Hall cared about people such as her—young, educated, professional, making her way in the nonprofit advocacy universe of Sacramento. She had neither money nor support nor a realistic chance of winning.

But when she started knocking on doors, meeting voters and asking what they wanted from their City Council representative, she heard a common narrative—Hansen ignores us, he’s never here, he doesn’t care. She heard frustrations about high rents and the explosion of homelessness around Broadway.

And she heard about Hansen’s efforts to prevent the completion of the Sacramento River Parkway in Little Pocket. He wanted to keep the levee private for the exclusive enjoyment of about 40 riverfront homeowners.

“I can’t tell you how many people brought up the levee access issue and showed me copies of your magazine,” Valenzuela told me. “I didn’t know about the issue, but I started reading about it, and realized why people are so upset. I can’t believe he would stop people from accessing the river.”

Housing, homelessness and access: those were the issues voters discussed on the campaign trail. Many voters believed Hansen ignored housing and homelessness and was obsessed with river access. His staff spent weeks pushing parks officials to hurry up and build the fence at Riverside and 35th Avenue.

Hansen dredged up discredited arguments made by riverfront property owners in Pocket and Greenhaven—even the absurd claim that they “own” the levee. He scapegoated homeless people, saying they set brush fires, trashed the shoreline and forced the city to build the fence to block residents from enjoying the levee. He falsely blamed the Americans with Disabilities Act for preventing the city from opening stretches of the levee parkway in Little Pocket.

When his messages were challenged, Hansen pleaded poverty. He said the city could not afford a 1-mile asphalt bike path atop the levee north of 35th Avenue. His arguments were weak if not false, but Hansen was clever enough to make some voters believe he was on their side and trying his best. He made them believe the dream of a river parkway from Freeport to Downtown, promised by the city in 1975, is just too much to ask.

He was wrong. The city is moving ahead with the river parkway in Pocket and Greenhaven. Valenzuela can celebrate her victory by ripping down Hansen’s fence on Riverside. The disgraced barrier is a symbol of Sacramento’s past, not its future.

 

OTHER CITY ELECTIONS

Two City Council elections will be decided with runoffs in November. In District 2, which includes Woodlake, North Sacramento and Del Paso Heights, incumbent Allen Warren faces Sean Loloee. Neither reached a 50.1 percent majority in the primary. In District 8, which includes Meadowview, Mai Vang and Les Simmons will campaign to replace Larry Carr, who retired.

Measure G, the Children’s Fund Act, was defeated. The initiative would have given nonprofits about $12 million per year from the city’s general fund, requiring cuts to public safety and parks. The campaign was tainted by scandal when Children’s Fund promoter Derrell Roberts of the Roberts Family Development Center agreed to pay the state $400,000 to settle a lawsuit by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra alleging misuse of public funds. The story was first reported by Inside Sacramento.

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

 

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