Darrell Fong fancies himself an independent everyman on the Sacramento City Council, someone who isn't afraid to tell it like it is. For him, it's a badge of honor to declare, "I'm not a politician."
He certainly isn't a polished or predictable one. That was on full display in Janelle Lathrop's living room at a recent neighborhood watch meeting.
Fielding one question after another from a dozen Pocket residents, Fong didn't play it safe. He suggested that the local soccer league was too powerful and commiserated that the city's yard waste pickup "sucks." For someone who doesn't speak up often at council meetings, Fong was a chatterbox. More than once, he said he shouldn't say something, but then did anyway. "I don't shy away from anything," he boasted to the group.
Untethered from the usual political alliances in town, he is a wild card who could be the swing vote on big issues coming before the council, including whether to let voters decide in June on the latest plan to give more power to the mayor.
Fong sees a bigger role for himself in 2012. He hopes to earn enough respect among his colleagues to become a consensus builder on an often-divided council. "I'm still learning," he told me. "I think I'm getting into my groove."
Maybe so. Yet to some inside City Hall and out in the community I count myself among them he's an enigma.
Fellow first-term council members Angelique Ashby, who was chosen by her colleagues as vice mayor Thursday, and Jay Schenirer, a former city school board member, have pretty much performed as advertised. So far Fong, by contrast, has defied expectations and perplexed supporters.
A retired cop, he voted to slash the police budget. He has been the lone dissenter on some votes, confounding council-watchers with his explanations. He is low-key, even a bit awkward, in public, far less comfortable in the spotlight than Ashby or Schenirer. Yet, he has also faced down parks and garbage workers, telling them they had to perform better if they wanted to keep their jobs.
A year into his first elected office, he readily admits that he's not exactly having fun and that people in City Hall call him "grumpy."
"The most common thing people have asked me is, 'Are you enjoying yourself?' No. To me, it's been public service," Fong says.
A surprise on police budget
The one thing that seemed certain about Fong was that he would be a strong voice for police, just like his predecessor Robbie Waters, whom he ousted in the June 2010 election. Fong's candidacy revolved around his three decades with the Police Department the credibility it gave him with voters, the contacts it provided among movers and shakers, the knowledge it gave him of the community.
On May 17, when the council first discussed $12 million in proposed budget cuts to police, Fong played to form. He praised the "finest police department" in California, noted that he had worked with many officers in the audience and declared, "Public safety is my priority."
No one was cheering three weeks later when he voted to cut the police budget and lay off cops. During the 6-3 vote, he poured salt on the wound; he said he was disappointed that union leaders didn't offer more salary concessions, accused them of posturing about cooperation with the council and even noted that many officers don't live in the city.
During the final budget debate, he quietly donated his $60,816 council salary to the department. But the damage was done.
Police union leaders haven't forgiven him. They say Fong knew that the cuts would put officers at risk, and that police had already given back more than other employees.
"It's not a dead issue for us," says Mark Tyndale, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association.
Fong says while he hopes the relationship can be repaired, he has no regrets. He maintains that police officers have to help the city get through tough times and that some pension reform is inevitable.
Tyndale says that Fong could start making amends by voting to put Mayor Kevin Johnson's strong-mayor initiative on the ballot in June. Fong says he hasn't made up his mind, but did have a good talk with the mayor on Tuesday.
If the councilman continues to buck the union, Tyndale warns, it will find someone to run against him: "If we don't fix the relationship, we don't want him on the council."
Taking criticism in stride
Fong has heard the critiques of his job performance, but says he's used to scrutiny from his police career.
When observers notice that he doesn't engage often in council debates, he says he studies staff reports and doesn't ask questions if he knows the answer. "I'm not going to sit there and talk just to talk," he said during a 75-minute interview in his fifth-floor City Hall office.
When some notice he can be stand-offish at fundraisers, he confesses not only that he isn't very good at glad-handing for campaign cash, he finds it "distasteful."
When people criticize his votes, he says he's trying to put the city's best interests first, no matter the politics.
Fong was part of a majority with Rob Fong (no relation), Kevin McCarty, Bonnie Pannell and Sandy Sheedy that voted to do a national search for a new city manager instead of keeping interim manager Gus Vina. Over the loud objections of residents and ministers, that coalition also approved new council districts that split UC Davis Medical Center from Oak Park. Mayor Kevin Johnson, Ashby and Schenirer were on the losing side of both votes.
Fong says he's already decided to endorse McCarty, Pannell and Sheedy in the June election (Rob Fong isn't running), but hasn't decided whether to support the mayor.
While the two get along, Fong had backing in his campaign from the mayor's rivals on the council; former Mayor Heather Fargo, whom Johnson defeated in 2008; and groups that oppose the mayor, such as the teachers and plumbers unions.
Fong replaced Waters, a reliable ally for the mayor. Waters endorsed Fong in the runoff election, but now says he's "very disappointed."
Besides the police budget vote, Waters says Fong hasn't paid enough attention to community appearance concerns, such as signs cluttering utility poles and roadsides, and has voted too often with Rob Fong. Other than redistricting and hiring new City Manager John Shirey, Fong also agreed with Rob Fong on opposing a controversial "crash tax" on out-of-town motorists designed to boost the Fire Department.
He has split with Rob Fong, however, on the proposed downtown arena. He and Sheedy were the only ones to vote against spending $555,000 on consultants to vet a potential financing plan, and again on Dec. 13 against asking private companies if they're interested in a long-term lease of city-owned parking that is central to the plan.
Fong told the Pocket neighborhood group that he has serious concerns about threats to the city's general fund, that he's sorely disappointed by the lack of regional funding, and that he believes residents should get to vote on investing in an arena.
Catering to constituents
Because he likes to be hands-on, Fong says he spends about 60 hours a week on what is supposedly a part-time job.
He holds monthly "community office hours" and returns most calls from constituents himself. As district representatives have to do, he has paid attention to bread-and-butter concerns. He's using some of his $58,000 annual office budget to hire a part-time crew to respond to park cleanup complaints. He started an online missing pet alert system. When a stink blanketed the Pocket, he mobilized the bureaucracy to try to trace the source, which still isn't entirely clear.
Some neighborhood leaders give him credit for being responsive. "He's a straight shooter," says Linda Knecht, president of the Valley Hi Neighborhood Association who walked precincts for Fong. "If you ask him a question, he's going to give you an answer."
Others, however, are less impressed. "He's in a learning curve," says Greg Hatfield, co-president of the South Pocket Homeowners Association.
Fong is already planning to run again in 2014, in part because the economy and city finances might have turned around by then. Rather than the current struggles to preserve services with less money, he hopes a second term would be more about accomplishments and more enjoyable. "It's always easy to make decisions when things are good," he says. "It's hard to make decisions when it's tough because nobody is going to be happy."
It's not quite that simple.
How you explain, or even dress up, decisions to interest groups and voters sometimes matters as much as the votes themselves.
Fong may pride himself on not playing the usual games. But if he truly wants to become a bigger player on the council, he may have to be less of an enigma and more of a conventional politician.