Strong Mayor Deja Vu
Is ‘Boss’ Steinberg looking for more power?
By R.E. Graswich
A decade ago, many Sacramento residents were outraged when Mayor Kevin Johnson tried to make himself a “strong mayor.”
Johnson wanted to change the city charter and allow the mayor to serve as City Hall’s chief executive. He would have veto power over City Council decisions. The city manager and staff would answer to him.
Johnson was stopped cold.
But a strong mayor campaign could soon return to Sacramento. Mayor Darrell Steinberg has conducted polling on whether Sacramento voters are willing to give him powers denied to Johnson.
Mary Lynne Vellinga, the mayor’s spokesperson, denied Steinberg was ready to push a strong mayor ballot measure. Her denial included a significant loophole.
“The mayor has absolutely no plans to move forward with a strong mayor initiative at this time. We poll frequently on a variety of questions, and we won’t be commenting on the substance of those polls,” Vellinga said.
Her keywords were “at this time.” She could have easily ended the sentence without that qualifier. But she didn’t.
Until now, Steinberg hasn’t needed to change the charter to grab more authority. With the velvet touch and ruthless methods he mastered while climbing to the pinnacle of power in the state Legislature, Steinberg has been the city’s strong mayor in everything but title.
He’s “Boss” Steinberg.
He bullies and threatens councilmembers, lines up political and financial support, and wins fights before they begin. He does what he pleases and metaphorically taps his breast pocket, knowing it typically contains five City Council votes—a majority.
But threads in Steinberg’s pocket have begun to fray. He publicly challenged the 2019-2020 budget proposed by City Manager Howard Chan and exposed a rare lack of mayoral control.
He watched as two councilmembers—Jeff Harris and Angelique Ashby—publicly accused him of recklessness when Steinberg moved to turn the Measure U sales tax into a bonding scheme that would mortgage the city’s general fund. (Their opposition was announced at insidesacramento.com.)
Steinberg’s pettiness was revealed when he cut a new Natomas aquatics center from his budget priority list. Harris and Ashby represent North and South Natomas.
As someone closely involved with Johnson’s power grab—I was special assistant to the former mayor during his first term—I can both admire and feel nauseated by Steinberg’s ability to wield a stiletto at City Hall.
Unlike Steinberg, Johnson was honest about his thirst for power. Johnson announced his intentions during his first campaign for mayor.
His staff reviewed California law and precedent, researched similar-sized cities, interviewed likeminded mayors, and produced hundreds of pages to validate how Sacramento was ready to join the roster of strong mayor cities.
One day, we brought Willie Brown to meet Johnson. Brown had experience as a strong mayor in San Francisco. And he knew Sacramento from his legislative career. Surprisingly, Brown told Johnson not to mess with strong mayor. Changing the charter would be too difficult, he said.
“It’s a lot easier to learn to count to five,” Brown told Johnson. “The only reason I was Assembly speaker for 15 years was because I could count to 41. The day I couldn’t count that high, I was out.”
Johnson explained that at least five members on the City Council in 2009 would never support him. That’s why we needed to change the charter. Brown laughed.
“There’s no need to change the charter,” Brown said. “Change the board. Elect people who support you. Get rid of those who don’t. And let them know you’re going to get rid of them.”
It took Johnson four years, but he finally learned to count to five. His enemies on the council quit or were defeated. He was strong mayor by proxy during his second term.
Steinberg is far more sophisticated—and dangerous. He operates behind the scenes, in secrecy, and has no problem hiding his true intentions behind fake sincerity and reassurances. He copied Brown’s political playbook, minus the fedoras and Wilkes Bashford tailoring.
Steinberg sold voters a fictional story with Measure U when he pretended the money would not go toward pension obligations. He’s desperate to keep the fiction alive, and eager to take budgetary control from Chan.
Under the current system, Steinberg is “Boss” Mayor until he can only count to four. That’s why he will soon push voters to embrace a strong mayor.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.