As a rookie politician who unseated an incumbent with nearly 20 years in elected office, Mayor Kevin Johnson used to lament about the “old guard” that ruled over Sacramento City Hall. It was a building where politicians remained in office for years, and Johnson got pushed around a bit by the veterans in his early days.
Now, just six years after taking office, Johnson is suddenly the elder statesman of city politics.
This November election placed the finishing touches on a complete overhaul of the Sacramento City Council. Since 2008, the year Johnson defeated then-Mayor Heather Fargo, every one of the nine seats on the council has turned over at least once, making Johnson the longest-serving politician in the city.
It’s a striking change in the makeup of the city’s elected leadership. Fargo and the City Council she sat with had a combined 91 years of experience by the time her term was over in the fall of 2008. Five members of the council, including Fargo, had been in office at least a decade.
The City Council that will preside over Sacramento after three new members are sworn in next month will have a grand total of 18 years in office. Three members will be rookies. A fourth will likely be a first-timer after an April special election to fill the seat vacated by Councilman Kevin McCarty, who won a spot in the Assembly last week.
Unlike the council that presided over the city in 2008, most of the members who will be in office by the end of this year are seen as strong allies of Johnson. Still, Johnson, who admittedly despises the political side of his job and attempted to remove himself from the City Council with a failed strong-mayor ballot measure, joked last week that his seniority at City Hall is “terrifying.”
“Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, I am now the senior statesman on the council,” he told reporters the morning after his strong-mayor measure was defeated. “Lord help me.”
Political consultants said the circumstances that led to the drastic change at City Hall may not be repeated for some time. Three current council members ran for state Assembly at the same time this fall, leaving their districts open. A fourth council member – Bonnie Pannell – stepped down in June due to health issues.
Phil Giarrizzo is a Sacramento political consultant who worked on the campaigns for Councilman Allen Warren, elected in 2012, and Councilman-elect Rick Jennings, who will take office next month. Giarrizzo said new term limits that allow first-time state legislators to spend 12 years in either house may reduce the prospects for council members to make the leap from City Hall to the Capitol as legislators potentially remain in the same state office longer.
“Challenging incumbents (in the Legislature) is not something that is easily done,” he said. “With the tightness of opportunities, people have to really enjoy serving on the council and doing the work of the council because if you’re using it for a steppingstone, it’s probably going to be a long step to the next stone.”
Giarrizzo said there also may not be a public outcry to replace the current council members anytime soon. Six years ago, the city faced record budget deficits, the real estate market was crashing and the unemployment rate was beginning to skyrocket. “Now, there are a lot of people who say the city is going in a good direction,” he said.
Steve Maviglio, a political consultant who has worked for the mayor, said the new council will face “some troubled waters ahead,” including unfunded pension costs for city workers and the expiration in 2019 of a city sales tax that has funded police officers, park improvements and fire department operations. He said it will be worth watching how a council that appears to be in harmony – and is generally supportive of Johnson – tackles those issues.
“Clearly the mayor has a strong coalition on the City Council,” Maviglio said. “With the strong-mayor measure behind them, I think everyone is ready to roll up their sleeves and do good things. I think (the council members) are fairly independent, they had a broad base of supporters who helped get them there and I think that bodes well.”
Jennings was elected in June to represent the Pocket, Greenhaven and Valley Hi neighborhoods. The seat was left open when Councilman Darrell Fong decided to run for the Assembly after serving one term at City Hall.
Jeff Harris, a city parks commissioner, was elected last week to represent East Sacramento and South Natomas. That seat had been held for the past 20 years by Councilman Steve Cohn, believed to be the longest-serving council member in city history. Cohn ran unsuccessfully against McCarty for the 7th District seat in the Assembly.
In winning the council election, Harris reversed a trend in city politics: He raised just over $60,000, about one-fifth the amount raised by his opponent, flood control board trustee Cyril Shah. Harris’ fundraising total was by far the lowest for a successful City Council candidate in a competitive race since at least 2008.
“I hope it shows other people who want to run for council that it can be done; you can pull this off with a reasonable sum of money,” Harris said.
Larry Carr earned victory in the race to replace Pannell in south Sacramento. Carr vastly outraised his three opponents and, with the early support of Pannell, assembled a long list of endorsements from the city’s political establishment.
Carr, who has served on the SMUD board for nearly 16 years, called his election “one of the most humbling experiences of my life.” As for the high turnover on the council, Carr called it “a perfect storm of circumstances.”
“I don’t think you could have predicted these things would have happened, and I don’t think you could have organized (the upheaval) even if you tried,” he said.
While Carr is one of three new council members who have never held elected office at City Hall, he cautioned that none of the newcomers should be considered untested outsiders. Jennings was on the Sacramento City Unified School Board for 12 years, and Harris was on the parks commission for four years, including more than a year as chairman. Besides serving on the SMUD board, Carr worked for years as head of the Florin Road Partnership, a business improvement group in south Sacramento.
“All of these people have been involved in the community at a very high level,” Carr said. “Even though the number of years (the City Council has served) is relatively small, we’ve all worked together before.”
Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916)321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat.