There isn’t a Walmart in Sacramento’s City Council District 5. In fact, there’s only one of the stores in the entire city.
But the superstore chain is a big reason why the area’s councilman, Jay Schenirer, is facing an opponent as he seeks a second term in the June primary.
Ali Cooper, a labor union political organizer, has attacked Schenirer for raising $50,000 from Wal-Mart’s charitable foundation to support a neighborhood initiative Schenirer started in Oak Park called WayUp, which conducts health screenings for elementary school students, mentors high school students and builds community gardens. The Wal-Mart funding was part of $1.4 million Schenirer has raised for WayUp over the past three years.
Schenirer was also a leading voice when the City Council voted 6-2 last year to ease restrictions on big box stores such as Wal-Mart, a vote that angered union leaders who have battled the retailer for years over its wage and benefit policies. With tight rules in place, city officials said they were losing millions of dollars in tax revenue to bordering municipalities. There are five big box stores in the city, but 35 in the surrounding region.
Cooper and his supporters have argued that Schenirer’s position on the big box stores is emblematic of a councilman who cares more about corporations than the hyper-local issues that define Sacramento’s neighborhoods. They also describe him as a “downtown insider” who is too focused on a new downtown arena for the Kings.
Schenirer rejects those arguments.
The donations from Wal-Mart, he said, helped bolster a wide range of services in one of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods. Schenirer has said he would have voted to ease the big box rules regardless of whether Wal-Mart had supported his foundation and that his vote was consistent with other votes he has made to ease red tape placed on business in the city.
“This notion that I’m this downtown business person and I’m not out in the neighborhoods is just patently false,” Schenirer said. “When you look at the work I’ve done and where I’ve spent my time, I feel like I’ve added value to the arena discussion and downtown development, but I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time representing the neighborhoods.”
Cooper’s campaign slogan is, “Putting Neighborhoods First.”
“People in these neighborhoods say, ‘Things aren’t better than they were 12 years ago, things aren’t better in this area than they were 20 years ago,’ ” Cooper said. “They feel neglected.”
The candidates are seeking to represent a diverse cluster of neighborhoods on the city’s south side that includes Curtis Park, South Land Park, Oak Park and pockets of working-class areas around Executive Airport. Schenirer was elected to the seat in 2010.
Michael Boyd, president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, said Cooper has not been a presence at neighborhood functions – a situation he said has upset some of the area’s longtime residents. While the neighborhood association has taken no position on the City Council race, Boyd lauded Schenirer for his work in the area.
“Without Jay, we wouldn’t have the renovations at McClatchy Park,” Boyd said in reference to $2.8 million in work being done at the park, funded by a state grant. “Without Jay, we wouldn’t have the Broadway Triangle (housing and retail development on Broadway), because he was a mediator to help bring the project. And without Jay we wouldn’t have WayUp, which I think is having a big impact in Oak Park.”
Rosette Nguyen, co-president of the Colonial Heights Neighborhood Association, said Schenirer helped fund an after-school program at the neighborhood library, a ceremony where a mural was dedicated to a longtime neighborhood advocate and newly designed street signs that are part of a beautification project in the working-class area.
“They’ve been very attentive,” she said of Schenirer and his staff. “And it’s not only about the money (for programs). They’ve put in a lot of time.”
Asked if Cooper has been a presence in the area, Nguyen replied, “I don’t know Jay’s opponent.”
And in Hollywood Park, Karla Fung, the community association’s president, said Schenirer’s office has helped fund and organize an annual Fourth of July parade and movie night in the park. Schenirer also helped fund an after-school program for children and adults at the neighborhood school.
Chamber funds TV ads
With the city facing tough budgets over the past three years, Schenirer turned to outside dollars to support his largest neighborhood effort, WayUp. Most of the donors to WayUp are health care organizations and hospitals in the Sacramento region. The largest supporter has been the California Endowment, a private foundation that focuses on affordable health care. The foundation has donated nearly $900,000 to WayUp, records show.
Schenirer does not earn a salary from WayUp.
WayUp is organizing health screenings for elementary school students in Oak Park, with the goal of eventually screening all of those children. At the same time, WayUp has partnered with state and local health officials to connect Oak Park families with medical coverage. The initiative has also helped residents start more than two dozen community gardens and brings hundreds of elementary school students from Oak Park to the nearby UC Davis Medical Center campus to expose those young people to careers in medicine.
Much of the focus for WayUp in the future will be on creating a medical research zone along Stockton Boulevard, bordering the medical center, Schenirer said. Business consultants and graduate students are helping the organization develop a plan for attracting research firms.
“We are in serious conversations with organizations that are looking for space,” Schenirer said.
Schenirer acknowledged that the City Council has been “downtown-centric” and said he’d like to see more focus placed on neighborhood issues, especially in developing business corridors in places such as Franklin Boulevard.
“The voice I want to be is around the work I’ve been doing,” he said. “It’s about neighborhood development, it’s about youth issues and it’s about homeless issues. Those things define who we are as a city and will define our future.”
As the race hits the final weeks, Schenirer’s business supporters have come to his side.
In recent weeks, the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce filed campaign paperwork revealing it spent $63,761 on polling and television ads in support of Schenirer. Of that, $5,000 originated with a Wal-Mart donation to the chamber, according to campaign documents.
The spending was through an independent expenditure, meaning Schenirer had no knowledge of the expense. Wal-Mart spokeswoman Delia Garcia said the company has supported the Metro Chamber for years, and “Wal-Mart does not designate how its (political action committee) contributions should be used, and any claim to the contrary is simply inaccurate.”
Cooper said he considers the Metro Chamber spending a sign that his campaign is being taken seriously.
“You have a City Council member who has taken tens of thousands of dollars from (Wal-Mart) for his private ventures,” Cooper said. “Now that he’s under threat from a community organizer, they’re coming in and essentially rescuing him.”
Union support split
Cooper’s roots in the labor movement are evident as he talks about the need for good-paying jobs and criticizes public subsidies for development. Cooper was most recently a political director at SEIU Local 1000, which represents state workers. He was also a political organizer at the Sacramento Central Labor Council.
Bill Camp, head of the Central Labor Council, said his organization “sees a real difference between Jay Schenirer and Ali Cooper.”
“Working people see Ali Cooper as someone who stands with them, and that’s what this race is all about,” Camp said. “This race is about whether the people living in the neighborhoods should be considered when decisions are made – or just big financial interests.”
But Schenirer also has his share of union support. He has been endorsed by labor unions representing workers in construction industries that will be involved in the arena project, as well as the unions representing city police officers and firefighters. Cooper’s supporters include the city teachers’ union and most of the local Democratic clubs.
Cooper said Schenirer has changed course on two pivotal issues facing the city: a plan to help finance a new downtown sports arena with $255 million in public money, and a proposal that will appear on the November ballot to increase the authority of the mayor’s office through a strong-mayor form of government.
Schenirer opposed previous strong-mayor plans. And he told The Sacramento Bee in 2010 that he did not favor “any public subsidies” for an arena.
Schenirer said his point of view has evolved, and that he supports the latest strong mayor plan. He said it places adequate accountability with the mayor. Many of the duties proposed to be given to the mayor under the plan currently reside with an unelected city manager.
Schenirer also said the current arena plan is far better and more conservative than previous proposals. He has been a consistent supporter of the plan since it surfaced last year.
Cooper said the strong-mayor measure “concentrates too much power in one office” and “codifies access to power by just the wealthy people.”
As for the arena, Cooper said the city is rushing into the plan without conducting a proper economic analysis and that the public contribution is too large. He also said he wants a Community Benefits Agreement – a plan pushed by some labor unions – that would ensure good wages and benefits for workers hired to build development projects around the arena.
“I’m concerned we’re not being more thoughtful about this notion of shared prosperity,” he said. “If the billionaires (owners of the Kings) do well, then our community should do well also.”
Among Cooper’s ideas for the district: a before- and after-school program, an environmental stewardship plan that pays young people to clean up blighted streets, and a job apprenticeship program.
Unlike Schenirer, Cooper said he would not raise outside money for those programs. Instead, he said he would seek to tap the city’s general fund budget, which has a surplus for the first time in seven years and pays for most core city services. Cooper provided no specific financing for his ideas, saying he would “start the conversation” with his City Council colleagues.