Angelique Ashby’s run for mayor has been shaped by Gov. Jerry Brown in an unexpected way.
Had Brown signaled he would have appointed Darrell Steinberg to state attorney general – to replace current AG Kamala Harris, should she be elected to the U.S. Senate this year – Ashby’s political prospects might be much different.
She might have been running against a more conventional opponent, such as one of her City Council colleagues, instead of against Steinberg, the former state Senate leader and arguably the most accomplished politician to make a mayoral bid in Sacramento’s history.
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In some ways it would have been easier for Ashby to run against current Mayor Kevin Johnson. The knives would have been out for KJ had he sought a third term. Old enemies were preparing to leverage long-standing accusations of sexual misconduct against Johnson.
As the only woman on Sacramento’s City Council, Ashby could have drawn a stark contrast to the controversial mayor. That possibility ended last October when Johnson stepped aside just moments before Ashby announced that she was running.
The euphoria of her grass-roots bid was short-lived. Steinberg was waiting in the wings with a $1.4 million war chest amassed when he was the Senate leader. He knew the issues, policies and politics better than Johnson. And Steinberg had more loyal friends than anyone in local politics.
Ashby isn’t just running against Steinberg. She is running against the majority of her City Council colleagues who endorsed Steinberg. She is running against a majority of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors who also endorsed Steinberg. She is running against a majority of school board members from Natomas, Ashby’s home turf, who endorsed Steinberg. She is running against Steinberg’s network of friends, some of whom eagerly monitor social media to press Steinberg’s cause and broadcast any of his opponents’ gaffes.
I’ve been asked by some prominent people if I’m tough enough. Are you kidding me? Is that a real question?
There are stumbles in most campaigns, but Ashby’s stumbles have been magnified when compared to the polish of her seasoned opponent.
It was a rookie mistake when Ashby cited incorrect statistics that overstated how much crime dropped in her council district. Instead of owning it, she let the chief of police and city manager take the blame. Her campaign handlers seemed amateurish when they failed to talk her out of temporarily blocking a Sacramento Bee reporter from covering one of her events.
Even more damaging has been Steinberg’s work ethic. His signs are everywhere. In a recent debate, Steinberg told Ashby he had “outworked” her on the campaign trail, and it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration.
All of this would paint a picture of Ashby heading for a lopsided loss in the June 7 election. But every time Ashby presses her case, she shows the skills that lifted her from community organizer to a force on the council. The mother of two small kids and a college-age son, Ashby, 41, is representative of young families that are the future of Sacramento.
On issues such as bolstering Sacramento’s economy, Ashby has an insider understanding shaped by her six years on the council. She also presents an alternative to a Steinberg-led City Hall. She is more conservative than her colleagues, as evidenced by endorsements from city police, fire and the Metro Chamber. If she were to become mayor, there could be more dynamic tension with city policy debates.
Unlike Steinberg, Ashby is against Measure Y – which would levy a 5 percent tax on marijuana cultivation in the city and raise $5 million a year for children’s programs provided by community nonprofits. On June 7, city voters must pass Measure Y by a two-third majority for it to be enacted.
Steinberg isn’t enthusiastic about Measure Y and acknowledges that sin taxes are poor methods to pay for services. It’s preferable if city revenue pays for city services ran than going to voters for a tax. He’s supporting it, but says Measure Y symbolizes Sacramento’s limited tax base.
Ashby agrees Measure Y reveals Sacramento’s economic limitations. She said she is all for using more city money for children’s and after-school programs (and finding better ways to run them), but wants the council to control that money and for the city to spend it. She also worries how Measure Y could affect neighborhoods.
“This is not in the best interests of the city,” said Ashby over coffee on Monday. “It’s so symbolic of Sacramento. Someone sees an area they want to champion and they carve out dollars in perpetuity. ... There are going to be negative impacts to more marijuana grows but there is no money set aside (in Measure Y) to address that,” she said.
To create a larger tax base for the city, Ashby wants to make it easier to do business in Sacramento. While Johnson has been supportive of a more pro-business environment, he hasn’t been as successful in bringing that environment into City Hall.
“We can try and recruit businesses all day long but the final decision is made in some planning department somewhere,” Ashby said. “That’s often where we lose (potential businesses). It’s the bureaucratic piece.”
She said businesses are often scared off by high fees in Sacramento for zoning changes, sanitation, conservation and public works, among others things. “Businesses will choose us if we make it easier for them to choose us,” she said. “It’s about redoing an entire system of thinking, engaging all the interested parties. ... No one is opposed to this. It just hasn’t happened.”
Ashby is fighting to prove she can make it happen for Sacramento. She is doing so while enduring indignities that few male politicians experience.
“Sometimes people send you notes saying you’re hideously ugly or gross,” Ashby said. “I’ve learned to compartmentalize, but there is this dominant paradigm that some people are ignoring. It comes from years of not seeing women in these positions.
“I’ve been asked by some prominent people if I’m tough enough. Are you kidding me? Is that a real question?”
The true, real question is whether Sacramento’s mayoral race will be decided with the June 7 election. Can Ashby keep Steinberg from receiving 50 percent of the vote and winning outright? Can bail bondsman Tony Lopez siphon off enough votes to push Steinberg and Ashby to a November runoff?
“Every candidate wants to be victorious in June because these campaigns are brutal,” she said. “They are hard on you, your family and everyone around you. But I think Sacramento would be better off to have a dialogue that lasts into November to be able to really vet the two candidates.
“I don’t think enough voters know the leadership role I’ve played in the city. I’m trying very hard to be the narrator of my own story.”