Arena, ties with mayor are key issues in Sacramento City Council District 7 race

05/27/2014 12:00 AM

05/26/2014 10:12 PM

No one elected to the Sacramento City Council for the first time this year will have any control over whether the city subsidizes a new downtown sports arena. That decision has already been made.

Candidates running this spring will be equally powerless over whether city residents should vote on a strong-mayor ballot measure. That proposal, which would increase Mayor Kevin Johnson’s powers, has already been placed on the November ballot.

Those two issues nonetheless have emerged as focal points of a highly competitive campaign for a City Council seat representing the Pocket, Greenhaven and Valley Hi neighborhoods. A pair of well-known, well-connected candidates are battling for the seat.

One is Julius Cherry, a former Sacramento Fire Department chief and an attorney for more than two decades. He opposes the arena financing plan and has boasted about his differences with Johnson, who is pushing the strong-mayor proposal.

The other candidate is Rick Jennings, who served for 12 years on the Sacramento City Unified School Board and runs an organization that provides counseling and other assistance to families and young people. He is an ardent supporter of the arena and a longtime friend of Johnson’s, and he said the time is right for a strong mayor in Sacramento.

Abe Snobar, a former teacher who is working construction jobs while he runs for office, is a third candidate in the race. But he has raised a fraction of the money of his two competitors and does not have any high-profile endorsements.

The candidates are running to replace Councilman Darrell Fong, who is stepping down to run for the Assembly after one term at City Hall. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote in the June 3 primary, the top two finishers will face off in the November general election.

Both Cherry and Jennings have lived in the district for many years. They agree on some issues – both support a public bike trail proposed for the levee along the Sacramento River – but are split on some key citywide issues. The city’s big special-interest groups have also split their support between the two candidates.

Cherry is backed by Fong, the major Democratic Party clubs, many unions and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. Cherry sought to create distance between himself and the mayor early in the campaign, boasting on his website that he’s “not the mayor’s favorite candidate … but I’d like to be yours.”

Jennings was the head of Johnson’s nonprofit St. HOPE Academy for five years and voted to grant control of Sacramento High School to that organization while on the school board. Jennings’ wife, Cassandra, is a senior adviser in the mayor’s office.

In addition to the mayor, Jennings is supported by the city police union, the Sacramento Metro Chamber and building groups.

As of last week, Jennings had spent $132,631 and Cherry $105,605 on the race. Outside political committees have also been active, most notably a wealthy network of statewide interest groups that have spent nearly $40,000 on mail pieces attacking Cherry over his $188,212 public pension.

‘Collective wisdom’

Cherry worked for the Sacramento Fire Department for 30 years, most of it in the department’s management ranks. He retired in 2007 after serving for three years as chief, and he has promoted his tenure overseeing a department with 600 employees and a roughly $100 million budget.

“I understand how cities are supposed to work,” he said.

Cherry, an Air Force veteran, has lived in all three neighborhoods represented by District 7. Sitting in the popular Caffe Latte in the Pocket, he talked about his decision to seek office. “This community has been terrific to me, and I have a sense of personal obligation” to run for the seat, Cherry said, adding that he would not have run against Fong had the councilman sought re-election.

“I think he’s done a great job,” Cherry said. “He’s independent, which is what I want to be.”

Fong, in return, has supported Cherry since the campaign began last fall. The two have known each other for many years; Fong was a high-ranking official in the city Police Department when Cherry was moving up through the ranks in the Fire Department.

“I think he’s a good public servant,” Fong said. “He understands public safety, and he understands Sacramento.”

Fong said that Cherry also is “a strong supporter of the form of government we have now,” a reference to Johnson’s attempts to increase the mayor’s powers. Cherry said the strong-mayor plan is “a solution looking for a problem.”

“I don’t believe fundamentally in putting all the powers in the hands of one person,” he said. “I think collective wisdom is better.”

Cherry said he’s also uncomfortable with the size of the public contribution approved this week by the City Council for the arena project, noting that the annual debt payments made by the city for its $255 million contribution will nearly double the annual total debt service currently backed by the city’s general fund budget.

“I’m concerned about paying for basic services,” he said. He vowed on his website to “control developer giveaway subsidies.”

Cherry said the city needs to invest in job training programs and focus on growing the agricultural, health and higher-learning job sectors to build Sacramento’s tax base.

“You’re not going to cut your way out of the (budget) problems,” he said.

Cherry’s career with the city has been the target of attack ads.

The California Senior Advocates League, a statewide political committee that gets its funding from other deep-pocketed groups, has circulated mail pieces criticizing Cherry for his pension. Cherry receives an annual taxpayer-funded retirement of $188,212, the highest among all former city employees.

Cherry has defended his pension, saying he did not create or advocate for the system that resulted in his retirement. And he has been critical of the mail pieces, which compared him to Julius Caesar.

“I just think it’s appalling, and there’s no place for it,” he said.

Jennings said he had no knowledge of the fliers before they were sent out; the literature was funded through an independent expenditure.

‘The red carpet’

Driving around the district last week, Jennings said his connections to the community are stronger than his opponents’. And he criticized Cherry’s attempt to make the mayor a central figure in the race.

“Where is the platform?” he said. “I know what this community needs. He’s the kind of guy who’s in a suit and tie and just shows up.”

Jennings took over as the head of the nonprofit Center for Fathers and Families in 1997. He said he turned an organization with no budget and no programs into a $2.5 million operation that provides counseling, tutoring and educational services to 400 families a month.

Jennings also served on the city school board from 1996 to 2008, was a corporate manager for Xerox for 12 years and played professional football in the 1970s.

Among Jennings’ ideas for the district: creating a business advisory committee to cultivate ideas on how to attract businesses to commercial areas with high vacancy rates.

“We need to cut red tape, roll out the red carpet and make sure we are business friendly,” he said.

Jennings said he would build stronger communication with residents through town-hall meetings and events, and would advocate for a large community center in the planned Delta Shores development along Interstate 5 south of the Pocket.

As he pulled his SUV into the parking lot of a shopping center in Valley Hi, where most of the storefronts were empty, Jennings said he also would create a “community and nonprofit resource center” that would serve as an incubator for organizations in the area.

“This is a community in need,” he said. “If we forget about Valley Hi, we’re going to have a bigger problem than anyone wants.”

Jennings is unabashedly pro-arena, saying he is comfortable with the risk associated with the financing plan. “We can’t afford not to do the arena,” he said, calling the downtown project “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“If we don’t do this arena and all the ancillary benefits that come as a result of the arena, then we’re never going to grow,” he said. “I think it’s so important we get rid of this cowtown mentality.”

He said a strong-mayor form of government would also help that cause.

“I’ve talked to other mayors in the state, and they tell me that if you want to move your city forward, if you want to recruit the talent that other cities have, the only way you do it is with a strong-mayor government,” he said.

The mayor called Jennings “passionate, committed and energetic about moving our city forward.”

“I’ve seen Rick in the trenches, tackling tough problems, building partnerships and getting things done,” Johnson said.

The Sacramento Central Labor Council, a coalition of local unions, criticized Jennings’ stance on the strong-mayor system in a mail piece.

It also was critical of his vote to grant control of Sacramento High School to Johnson’s St. HOPE – which reopened the campus as a charter school employing nonunion teachers – and for his vote on the school board to grant pensions to district administrators. That retirement arrangement, called the California Administrative Services Authority, was later found to be invalid by the state’s pension fund and was blasted by the Sacramento County grand jury.

Jennings said he is proud of the Sac High vote, noting that more than 90 percent of the school’s seniors are now accepted to four-year colleges. As for CASA, Jennings said he takes “full blame,” but contends that the school board was misled into approving the pension plan. CASA was dismantled in 2004 after four years.

Snobar, a Valley Hi resident, taught for 16 years, including six years at Valley High School. He downplayed the significance of the large donations and multiple endorsements that have gone to the other two candidates.

“Those endorsements don’t necessarily come from the district,” he said. “I take pride in my neighborhood, and you get tired of constantly cleaning roads and calling City Hall, so I decided to take care of it myself.”

Like Jennings, he said he wants a community center in Delta Shores that will draw residents from throughout south Sacramento. And he supports cutting fees to attract businesses to Mack Road.

“My goal is to make District 7 a destination,” he said.

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