Three Sacramento City Council members aim for Assembly seats

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Sep. 23, 2013 - 8:09 am

The historic transformation of the Sacramento City Council continues, with the allure of the Capitol dome proving too strong for even the city's most veteran politician.

Three City Council members in recent weeks have announced their intentions to run for the state Assembly in 2014, seeking to make the same leap that five others from City Hall have made since the 1980s.

The roster of likely candidates includes Steve Cohn, believed to be the longest-tenured council member in the city's history; Kevin McCarty, who was narrowly defeated in an Assembly attempt three years ago; and Darrell Fong, who will relinquish his council chair after serving just one term.

The outcome of the elections could result in seven of the eight council seats having new occupants since before the 2010 election. That's a massive shift in stability for a council that for years saw little alteration, with most incumbents sailing to re-election and staying in office for multiple terms.

Sacramento political consultant Doug Elmets said the City Council has experienced "amazing turnover," especially since Mayor Kevin Johnson took office in 2008.

Johnson has raised the profile of the City Council, attracting larger fields of candidates to races that for years included few challengers. The mayor has also helped supplant some council members by recruiting and supporting candidates.

The latest departure announcements, Elmets said, result from openings higher up the political ladder.

"The City Council is a great steppingstone for those who are politically ambitious," he said. "There is a perceived pecking order, which goes from local government to state government to the federal government. And for some of these people, the Assembly is simply a way station toward future political office."

McCarty and Cohn are running against one another in the Assembly's 7th District, which represents most of the city of Sacramento, West Sacramento, and parts of Antelope and North Highlands. The seat is being vacated by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who plans to run for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's seat when Steinberg's term expires next year.

McCarty nearly won the Assembly seat in 2010 – falling to Dickinson by just a couple hundred votes – and was an early entrant into the race this time around. Cohn said he only decided to run recently.

Their campaign could make for some tense council dynamics between now and next June's primary. The councilmen agree on most issues at City Hall. But the big exception is the financing plan that's been approved for a new downtown sports arena.

Cohn is a booster of the project, having served on a City Council arena committee. He also has voted in favor of every arena financing proposal before the council the past two years.

McCarty has been a consistent skeptic of the proposed $258 million arena subsidy from the city, voting no on this plan – as well as another proposal last year.

Elmets said the arena "could be a significant issue" in the campaign and that many of the city neighborhoods in the Assembly district tend to disapprove of a significant public subsidy for the arena project.

"It remains to be seen whether McCarty can use that to his advantage," Elmets said.

McCarty acknowledged the arena has been "a hot issue" with voters. He seems prepared to try to take advantage of his opposition to the plan.

"One thing that stands out in my leadership is being unafraid to take tough stands on hot issues," he said.

Cohn described the approval of an arena plan this year – pivotal to the city's effort to block the Sacramento Kings' move to Seattle – as "an important accomplishment."

"I'm not going to walk away from it," he said. "I think it was a defining moment for this city."

Both council members said they would keep a congenial attitude toward one another at City Hall, even as they wage what will likely be a costly campaign that splits some of the city's influential interest groups.

"I'm sure we will," Cohn said. "The fact is, if you run for another office, you're probably going to run against somebody else on the City Council."

In order to run for Assembly, Cohn must give up his council seat, which is also up for election next year. That will end his 20-year, five-term incumbency on the City Council.

McCarty's council seat does not come up for election until 2016, so he doesn't have to resign in order to run. West Sacramento Councilman Mark Johannessen also plans to run.

As for Fong, he'll likely face Elk Grove Councilman Jim Cooper in Assembly District 9. That district covers the Pocket/Greenhaven neighborhoods of Sacramento, Elk Grove, Galt and Lodi. Fong will have to relinquish his seat to run for the Assembly.

Fong and Cooper are planning to run for Assemblyman Richard Pan's seat. Pan plans to run against Dickinson for Steinberg's Senate post.

Fong was on vacation this week and not available for comment.

The former city police captain has battled the mayor on high-profile issues. Fong voted against this year's arena financing plan and cast the deciding vote against Johnson's 2012 request to place a proposal to enhance mayoral powers before the voters.

Johnson is already said to have recruited candidates to run for Fong's seat. The mayor's campaign spokesman, Steve Maviglio, said Johnson "enjoys tremendous support in this district and it would be likely he'd help a candidate with a forward-looking vision for the city."

Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_lillis.

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