A member of the Pannell family has represented Meadowview on the Sacramento City Council for 20 years. Most elections, they were voted back into office without much of a fight.
This year is different. An emerging political machine allied with Mayor Kevin Johnson has thrown its support behind a candidate challenging four-term Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell in District 8.
Betty Williams, the former chair of the local NAACP branch, is attempting to dislodge Pannell from the seat she has held since 1998. In a rare show of political force for south Sacramento, Williams is aided by a coalition led by Johnson, deep-pocketed business interests and several influential pastors.
Pannell's name has an iconic association in the area: Meadowview's community center is named for her late husband, who represented the area for six years until his death in December 1997. Pannell, who is 63, has said this would be her final term in office.
Driving around the district on a sunny morning last week, Pannell spoke warmly of new touches to the area, from massive subdivisions to planned drive-through ATMs. "When you work on something for more than 10 years," she said, "you want to see it through."
Williams, 55, has attacked Pannell's record of the past decade, particularly on crime and business development. And she criticizes the councilwoman for not standing with the mayor on critical council votes.
The Williams campaign is attempting to capitalize on the popularity of Johnson, who won nearly 70 percent of the vote in Meadowview and neighboring Valley Hi when he defeated then-Mayor Heather Fargo in 2008. Johnson's photograph appears on Williams' campaign signs. The mayor co-hosted a fundraiser for Williams at a downtown hotel last week and began going door-to-door with her on Tuesday.
His support notwithstanding, Williams said she would remain independent if elected. "I will not be a tool for the mayor," she said.
For her part, Pannell seems proud of a relationship with Johnson that at times has been antagonistic.
"He wants my vote all the time, every time, and I can't do that," she said. "I have my own opinions."
Pannell often bristles in public settings. She rarely gives media interviews and called a woman a swear word during a City Council meeting last year.
Removed from City Hall, however, she is in her element in Meadowview, where she has lived for 38 years.
"We work together to change Meadowview," she said. "Don't complain to me if you're not involved."
Pannell said her neighborhood has changed dramatically and does not deserve its crime-plagued, rundown stigma. "To me, Meadowview is just like any other neighborhood," she said. "Parents want their kids to achieve. They don't make a lot of money, but they want everything for their children."
She lists many neighborhood advocates among her supporters. "She has done a good job of taking care of the people in these neighborhoods," said David Bain, head of the neighborhood association in Cabrillo Park, where Pannell's office helped fund a public pool in 2009.
Pannell is proudest of the transformation of Phoenix Park, a housing complex once considered among the most dangerous neighborhoods in the region when it was called Franklin Villa. Pannell and city housing officials redeveloped the area after forcing absentee property owners out.
"If you go back and look at the homicides, the gangs, the kids who were killed, this has become my pride and joy," she said.
The area is now anchored by a community center where reading and English language classes are taught, young children learn computer skills, and photos of the neighborhood's youth choir adorn the hallways.
"It was total chaos," Jackie Rose, the resident services director of Phoenix Park, said of the environment before it was transformed. "It was a dangerous place to live, work and play. We did it with a labor of love."
Pannell says she wants the chance to transform another part of her district over the next four years. Hundreds of homes and large retail centers are planned for the 800-acre Delta Shores site, an expanse of undeveloped land just south of Meadowview along Interstate 5.
Pannell described the project as her legacy. "We have so much land, so much opportunity," she said.
Johnson has known Pannell for years. He sometimes refers to her as "Mama Pannell" during lighthearted moments at City Council meetings. But Pannell has voted against all of Johnson's strong-mayor plans and has split with him on almost every other key vote.
Last year, for instance, she voted to lay off police officers to help offset a large deficit, a move Johnson opposed. The council approved the layoffs in an attempt to leverage pension concessions from the police union.
Speaking at last week's fundraiser for Williams, also attended by former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, Johnson described Williams as "a tireless fighter in the community." He said persistent crime and unemployment in south Sacramento, combined with underperforming schools, mean "it's time for a change."
When asked recently why he supports Williams, Johnson brought up Pannell and suggested she opposes him for no valid reason. "I've been here for four years and I don't mind council members disagreeing with me or vice versa," he said. "But if somebody's agenda is clearly just to vote in a different way or if the mayor comes up with an idea, they're just going to say 'No,' I don't think that's in the best interest of Sacramento."
In addition to Johnson, Williams is backed by the Better Sacramento political committee, a coalition of business leaders and developers aligned with the mayor. The group has poured $30,000 into Williams' campaign, and paid for the signs with the mayor's picture on them.
Redistricting a factor
Williams said she had long considered running for office. What pushed her to act, she said, was the City Council's contentious redistricting debate last summer one that pitted the mayor against Pannell and the majority of the council.
A group of pastors and neighborhood activists joined Johnson in objecting to the council's decision to remove the UC Davis Medical Center from the district representing Oak Park, where Johnson grew up. Pannell and five of her council colleagues voted in support of the move.
"(The council) was not listening to my community," Williams said.
Pastors, mostly leaders of African American congregations in Oak Park and south Sacramento, sought a challenger to Pannell. They united behind Williams.
"We believe she gives us a better opportunity to get things accomplished," said Bishop Sherwood Carthen of Bayside of South Sacramento, one of the largest churches in south Sacramento.
Williams stepped down from her post as head of the local NAACP branch earlier this year to concentrate on her campaign. She works for a job-placement company based in Lodi, and her territory includes south Sacramento.
She cited crime as a significant issue in the district. "Right now it doesn't feel safe," she said. "We need to make sure it feels safe, and the jobs will stay there."
Pannell, however, said she receives few complaints related to crime and cites figures showing decreases in burglaries, auto theft and robberies.
The campaign has been nasty at times. Pannell's campaign points out that Williams moved into the district only a few months ago from another portion of south Sacramento. Williams says Pannell has been largely absent from Meadowview and out of touch with her constituents.
"They haven't seen her; she hasn't shown up," Williams said. "It doesn't matter if you're running unopposed (as Pannell did in 2008 and 2004). You should sit in that seat and act like you're running an election every day."