There is a sad truth to the northern reaches of Sacramento that even the two men vying to represent the area on the City Council agree upon.
You can see it in the empty storefronts of Del Paso Boulevard. It's in the crime stats and foreclosure rates, both among the highest in the city. It's in the scandal-plagued school district and the nostalgia of people yearning for the past.
This is a place that needs help.
Now, for the first time in 12 years, the area has a competitive council race as Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy prepares to step down in November.
On one side of the ballot is the area's former councilman, Rob Kerth, whose family has lived for three generations in Woodlake, a relatively affluent neighborhood of older homes off Del Paso Boulevard. He argues that political experience is vital to tackle what ails North Sacramento.
"Now is not the time to invite somebody in with no experience at all to try and fix things," said Kerth, 53, who represented the area on the City Council from 1992 to 2000.
On the other side stands Allen Warren, 48, another native son, who was raised in Del Paso Heights and played football at Grant High School a badge of honor in that neighborhood. A developer whose firm is based on Del Paso Boulevard, Warren said he would be a voice for a neighborhood that for too long has been underrepresented at City Hall.
"I grew up out here; it's a pretty tough community," he said last week, driving past his childhood home. "And I'm a product of that upbringing. I learned not to give up."
Both candidates are well known.
After leaving the council, Kerth was a project leader for the Sacramento Tree Foundation and a SMUD board member. Last year, he resigned as head of the Midtown Business Association in a split that both sides said was amicable.
Warren's New Faze Development company was once one of the city's most active, although its workload has been hit by the economy. Warren has brought new housing and investment to an economically depressed area that attracts little interest from other developers, but he has been dogged by lawsuits alleging unfinished work and unpaid bills.
This is a closely watched race citywide. Mayor Kevin Johnson and the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce are supporting Warren, while Kerth has the support of most of the city's unions and Democratic Party organizations.
Kerth and Warren emerged from a field of six candidates in the June primary, with just 129 votes separating the pair.
Aiming to boost district's clout
Kerth is the product of a fiercely independent culture in North Sacramento. That area, now divided into several neighborhoods, was its own city until 1964, when it merged with Sacramento after a bitter election decided by six votes.
Talking over eggs and hash browns at Lil Joe's, a Del Paso Boulevard diner, Kerth spoke longingly of a North Sacramento with more optimism and political clout.
If elected, he said, he would work to mobilize neighborhood interests in the area, creating one-year improvement plans for each of the 15 neighborhoods the district encompasses. And he wants to break down what he describes as bureaucratic "roadblocks and hurdles" that prohibit small businesses from thriving.
Kerth says his criticism of the state of North Sacramento has less to do with Sheedy's performance "I have to say, things have happened (during her tenure)," he said and more with how the area is treated by the rest of the city.
"There is a sense that this is the city's forgotten place, remembered only when they need to bury a problem," he said, mentioning homeless camps on the nearby American River Parkway. "That is every North Sacramentan's view of the world."
As a councilman from 1992 to 2000, Kerth, a Stanford-educated engineer, had a reputation as a guy who could fix things. He drove the effort to build the Arden-Garden connector that links Arden Way and Garden Highway, brought Little League baseball back to North Sacramento and helped secure millions in grants and bonds for school facility improvements.
But when he ran for mayor in 2000 against Heather Fargo, he learned he was not well-known outside his district. Despite out-raising Fargo and knocking on thousands of doors across the city, Kerth was soundly defeated.
Warren's supporters say it's time for someone new.
"Rob had a chance at the wheel, he did it for eight years, and it's time for a new voice," said David DeLuz, head of the Greater Sacramento Urban League.
Kerth's supporters argue that his political experience is just what North Sacramento needs now.
"He helped other council members get what they wanted, because he knew that to get the votes (on council issues), you have to give, too," said Bill Farrell, a longtime activist from Woodlake and the neighborhood association's president. "He's a good politician. It's a thankless job, but he has the vision and the historical ties to get it done."
Kerth has deep ties in the district. More than 70 years ago, his family founded the Iceland skate rink on Del Paso Boulevard. After the rink was torched by an arsonist in 2010, 750 volunteers helped rebuild it, an event Kerth said compelled him to run again for council.
"We'd lost our last landmark, and I said, 'No more,' " he said. "(The volunteers) proved we can still punch above our weight class."
Development and legal issues
North of Kerth's base, in neighborhoods such as Del Paso Heights and Robla, the years have also been difficult.
"You hear people on the sidelines talking all day long," Warren said. "At some point, you can't sit around and bitch about it anymore."
Warren was raised in Del Paso Heights but left the neighborhood for the suburbs before moving back late last year to run for council. He and his family share a modest home, although he has plans to purchase and renovate a larger home a block away.
Warren rejects the assertion that political experience is needed to represent the area. "Ultimately, you should be judged on what you can do for the district," he said.
He founded New Faze Development in 1990. At one time, the firm was a force in local development, operating out of a sleek building on Del Paso Boulevard. The company helped build the Sacramento Urban League headquarters and led the Del Paso Nuevo housing development, a master-planned subdivision that offers move-up housing that's hard to find in the district.
Like other builders, New Faze has seen its work hammered by the economy. Warren recently stepped down as CEO to focus on his campaign, but is still involved on an advisory level.
"We've had our bumps, but the company is doing some very innovative stuff," he said. The firm has projects on T Street near Stockton Boulevard and in south Sacramento.
Warren said he would use his background to attract and retain business to the district. He supports offering incentives, including tax breaks.
The mayor and others said Warren would bring new focus to Del Paso Heights and other struggling areas.
"This district has been crying out for strong leadership for years," Johnson said. "Allen Wayne Warren will hit the ground running because of his strong roots in the district and he knows how to get things done."
Warren estimates his companies have put $50 million into North Sacramento. "I've invested time and treasure in this community," he said.
Warren also has been the target of numerous lawsuits, some of them aimed at his personal finances.
His companies have been named in more than 70 lawsuits at Sacramento Superior Court since 1994, a large number even for a developer in the downturn. Warren said some of those cases involved subcontractors or suppliers who worked on New Faze projects. He said his company has never lost a case it fought.
Last year, one of Warren's firms was sued by the city, which alleged it had failed to complete infrastructure work on Del Paso Nuevo. That lawsuit was dropped because Warren's firm, a subsidiary of New Faze, filed for bankruptcy protection. The city is now suing the company that issued the bonds backing the work and that company is, in turn, suing Warren.
Warren also owes $82,609 in back property taxes on the New Faze headquarters, according to county tax records. He said he has not paid the taxes because he disputes the assessed value on the property used to calculate the tax rate. However, county records show he has not appealed the rate.
The financial issues extend beyond New Faze.
Wells Fargo has sued Warren three times since 2010 for a combined $2.1 million in what the bank alleges are unpaid credit card and line of credit charges, according to court documents.
Warren was ordered by a judge last month to pay more than $200,000 for charges to a Wells Fargo credit card. During some months, Warren made tens of thousands of dollars in purchases on the credit card, including large bills at upscale clothier Julius and trips to Jamaica and Europe, according to court documents. While Warren made large payments to the card in some stretches, he stopped making payments in 2010, records show.
Most of the money sought by Wells Fargo stems from lines of credit issued to Warren in 2005 and 2006. In that case, the bank is seeking $1.8 million in a lawsuit scheduled for trial later this year.
Warren contends the lines of credit and credit card account were tied to an investment sold to him by Wells Fargo that underperformed. In a written declaration filed in court last year, Warren wrote he was "concerned that I have been a victim of the type of racial profiling which has recently led the bank to pay hundreds of millions in settlement (dollars) to their other victims of racial profiling."
An attorney for Wells Fargo disputed that claim.
"Based upon what I've seen to date, there is no proof (Warren was a victim of racial profiling)," said attorney Mark E. Ellis. "On behalf of the bank, I believe we have a good case."
Anticipating that his legal troubles would become an issue in the race, Warren has taken an active approach, reprinting part of an article about New Faze's financial difficulties in his campaign literature.
He said the legal challenges are a reflection of the volatile business he is in and have no bearing on his ability to lead the district to better days.
"The thing that is concerning to me is, these are all distractions from the issues," he said.
Occupation: SMUD board member, former city councilman
Key quote: "Now is not the time to invite somebody in with no experience at all to try and fix things."
ALLEN WAYNE WARREN
Neighborhood: Del Paso Heights
Key quote: "Ultimately, you should be judged on what you can do for the district."