Darrell Steinberg is unlike any candidate who has run for mayor of Sacramento.
He doesn’t have the national profile of current Mayor Kevin Johnson, but Steinberg’s $2 million war chest is the largest ever for a city campaign.
Steinberg might have focused on becoming attorney general of California right now, but he clearly didn’t get enough of a signal that Gov. Jerry Brown would have appointed him should Kamala Harris win the U.S. Senate seat this year. So instead of mounting his own 2018 campaign for AG – as Sacramento-based Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has – Steinberg likely made a political calculation and put his bid in for mayor instead.
This is revealing of how Steinberg works and how he contrasts against other local pols like Jones, who succeeded Steinberg on the Sacramento City Council nearly 20 years ago.
Smart and driven, Jones has blazed a successful trail from councilman to assemblyman to insurance commissioner, and he has seemed willing to pursue his ambitions at any cost. Steinberg is no less ambitious, but it’s not in him to break with a close ally like Brown by running against the governor’s hand-picked AG appointee. He wouldn’t throw himself into anything if, at its core, the endeavor were about defiance. It has to be about building bridges as opposed to burning them or Steinberg won’t play.
The former leader of the state Senate has the reputation of being a nice guy, which is often used as faint praise to damn this career politician in this political town. You hear it all the time. Steinberg isn’t tough. He isn’t strong. He goes along to get along. He doesn’t challenge the system.
When you ask Sacramento’s back-seat drivers for an example of who was tough and strong – who is the model that Steinberg doesn’t match – the answer is often silence. Or you hear names like Willie Brown, the former speaker of the Assembly who ruled flamboyantly from 1980 to 1995.
But for term limits, which came about to rid the Legislature of characters like Willie Brown, Steinberg would likely still be running the state Senate. And here is the counterargument to the “he’s a nice guy” slap: When Steinberg wanted to win a vote as Senate leader from 2008 to 2014, he usually won it.
Who was the state leader who most consistently stood up to Jerry Brown? It was Steinberg. But it’s how Steinberg opposes that often leads him to being mislabeled and underestimated as a politician.
In 2013, Steinberg stood up to the governor when Brown wanted to go to war with federal judges ordering California to ease prison overcrowding. At a lunch during the heat of that battle in the late summer of 2013, Steinberg showed me a private side of himself that he conceals in public. He was angry that Brown’s original plan was to increase prison capacity without fully confronting recidivism.
He fought Brown behind closed doors and then there he was, standing with Brown, with a compromise that bought the state more time rather than releasing 10,000 state prisoners by the end of that year. He got more money pumped into treatment programs designed to keep parolees from re-offending.
It was hailed as a major victory for Brown, but it wouldn’t have happened without Steinberg, who didn’t gloat, didn’t complain about a lack of credit, didn’t sulk. The end result, a solution that accomplished something, was worth being overshadowed by Brown.
When he wants something, like reforming the California Environmental Quality Act, to help Sacramento’s downtown arena go up without being stopped by nuisance lawsuits, Steinberg will endure being slapped around privately by opponents or rivals. He will weather tongue lashings, threats of retribution or disrespectful behavior if it means winning a victory to support his core beliefs.
He got his CEQA reform. Lawsuits against Golden 1 Center were dismissed, construction moved forward and the building will open this fall in the former Downtown Plaza mall.
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“Disagreement isn’t the enemy of progress. Dysfunction is,” Steinberg said last week during a break in a mayoral campaign he hopes to wrap up on June 7.
He doesn’t care what it looks like when he’s making law. What matters is how it ends up. He was criticized for not firing some longtime Senate employees, who had overseen security in the upper chamber, after there were complaints of favoritism. Steinberg saw a victory in easing them out without lawsuits so that his successor, Kevin de León, could start with a clean slate.
Angelique Ashby, Steinberg’s primary opponent, has called Steinberg out for bringing his $1.4 million state war chest over to their race when she is restricted by tighter city rules. She’s even sued him over the money.
Their recent debates have gotten a bit snippy. But Steinberg has dismissed Ashby’s lawsuit as a desperate act. “I’ve outraised you and I’ve outworked you,” he said to her at a debate hosted by KFBK. He didn’t say it maliciously and has even seemed to enjoy the back-and-forthing.
Steinberg, 56, presents an even more daunting challenge for Ashby than Johnson would have had he run for a third term. He has brought money and state experience to his campaign for a position that doesn’t have the same authority that other big-city mayors have. Sacramento rejected a strong-mayor ballot measure in 2014.
Normally, a politician like Steinberg wouldn’t see this position as much of a plum after being one of the most powerful politicians in the state. But he says that something about Sacramento speaks deeply to him. “This city gets in you,” he said. “It’s a special place.”
If Steinberg were more combative, he would be like Jones, pursuing the AG post even though some other candidate will emerge with Brown’s blessing should Kamala Harris take the U.S. Senate seat she is favored to win.
If Steinberg were a different sort, he would be coasting though a campaign based on his name value alone. But he really has been knocking on doors nonstop like a rookie politician. He really does want to be mayor.
If he gets more than 50 percent of the vote on June 7, he would have six months to formulate a plan to bolster Sacramento’s economy. He would begin tapping his Silicon Valley contacts for ways to help Sacramento become a tech hub for Bay Area companies looking to operate more cheaply.
He wants to get homeless people off the streets and riverbanks by creating more capacity for affordable housing. He wants the city and county to partner in an all-out effort to attack homelessness.
He wants to develop the riverfront, expand the Convention Center to attract more business, get businesses to adopt schools and give Sacramento students paid internships to prepare them for the workforce.
It’s an ambitious agenda and the only person standing in his way is Ashby, who will be profiled in this column on Wednesday.