The campaign for Sacramento mayor kicked back into motion Wednesday night, when the two front-runners for the city’s top political post engaged in a mostly cordial forum in front of nearly 200 members of the business and labor communities at the Crocker Art Museum.
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby and former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg were asked a series of questions focusing on business, development and transportation issues. But they also used the forum – hosted by the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce – to promote their résumés and take subtle shots at one another.
Steinberg began the forum by touting his experience. As state Senate president, he said he was a key figure in tackling a $42 billion state deficit by “negotiating, prodding and reasoning with the other side (of the political aisle).” He also promoted his role in the development of the new $507 million Golden 1 Center downtown; Steinberg was a key ally of Mayor Kevin Johnson in that fight and pushed a state bill that helped streamline the environmental review of the facility.
Ashby was also a supporter of the arena project.
On economic development, Steinberg said his priority would be on developing the Sacramento riverfront, which he said should be the city’s “main street”; expanding the convention center and Community Center Theater; and seeking to offer zero-interest loans to locally owned restaurants that want to open a second location.
Ashby was a political newbie when she won her council seat in 2010, quickly emerging as a popular voice in North Natomas, where many residents had complained the city failed to make good on its promises of developing a safe and family-friendly neighborhood. She has also served on the City Council as Sacramento emerged from the recession and began a wave of new development, especially downtown.
“Momentum is on our side,” Ashby said. “Stay with me. Stay with me. You started this journey with me and we’ve made incredible progress together.”
Steinberg has been in local politics for more than 20 years, representing Sacramento at City Hall and the state Capitol. In addition to deep political support, Steinberg has the endorsement of the Central Labor Council union organization.
Steinberg said he thinks highly of Ashby. But, he said, “I don’t think there’s any comparison in terms of (our) experience.”
While Ashby’s council colleagues appointed her vice mayor twice in her first term, Steinberg noted that a majority of the current City Council has endorsed his campaign.
“I think that is a statement of how they view my leadership,” he said.
“I didn’t go to the City Council to make friends and I’m clearly not the establishment candidate in this race,” Ashby responded.
Ashby said “big experience and big results are relative.” She touted her neighborhood advocacy, saying crime has been drastically reduced in North Natomas during her terms, the numbers of jobs have increased and 53 acres of new parks have been built.
Ashby, who was first elected to the City Council to represent North Natomas in 2010, announced her candidacy in October, the morning after Johnson sent an email to supporters saying he would not seek a third term. She immediately secured the support of the deep-pocketed firefighters union, as well as endorsements from the police union and state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento.
One week later, Steinberg jumped in – although rumors of his candidacy had circulated around town for weeks. He was joined by most of the city’s political leadership during a campaign kickoff event and enters the race with access to a campaign bank account of around $1 million.
The Metro Chamber’s endorsement is one of the last key endorsements remaining in the mayor’s race.
While Ashby and Steinberg are the front-runners in the June primary, two other candidates are running for the mayor’s seat. Neither of those candidates was involved in Wednesday’s forum – and they weren’t happy about it.
Former boxing champion Tony “The Tiger” Lopez issued a press release criticizing the “political establishment” for excluding him from the forum. He also suggested the establishment is worried he will appeal to a large Latino voter base in the city and that the political powers “feel their time of dominance ending.”
Disability and homeless rights activist Russell Rawlings also did not appear on stage during the forum. Rawlings said he didn’t expect to be considered for the Metro Chamber’s endorsement, given his support for a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Still, he called his exclusion from the event “disappointing.”
“I believe that if something is going to be called and referred to as a debate, it needs to include everyone," he said.
Metro Chamber spokeswoman Colleen Spitz said in an email that the forum was an extension of the chamber’s endorsement process. She said Ashby and Steinberg requested the organization’s endorsement in the fall, after declaring their candidacies. She said no other candidates have sought endorsements, although the chamber has a meeting scheduled later this month with Lopez.