One of the most difficult transitions for professional politicians is from legislative leadership into an executive position.
A legislative leader who may be admired for skillfully making deals on legislation often comes across as cynically manipulative when appealing to a wider public audience.
The classic example of the syndrome is Lyndon Johnson, who was considered to be one of the Senate’s most effective deal-makers; as president he was seen as arrogant and forced out of office as his standing plummeted.
We’ve seen similarly difficult, albeit less dramatic, transitions in California, such as those of former Assembly speakers Willie Brown and Antonio Villaraigosa into the mayoralties of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
We are about to see another attempt by a legislative leader to don the executive mantle as Darrell Steinberg, the former president pro tem of the state Senate, becomes mayor of Sacramento.
Steinberg – not unlike Willie Brown – took great pride in his ability to forge legislative deals during a period when actor Arnold Schwarzenegger sat in the governor’s chair and the state and its budget were being hammered by a very deep recession.
However, sometimes – as with Brown – his eagerness to close the deal has come back to haunt him.
Steinberg’s most regrettable deal might be the one that nailed down the last senatorial vote for a state budget in 2009 – a pledge to place on the ballot the “top-two” primary system. His fellow liberals despise it because it allowed a bloc of moderate, business-friendly Democratic legislators to become influential.
Steinberg’s city has about a half-million residents, but the Sacramento region has nearly five times as much population, always a dilemma.
A metropolitan area approaching 2.5 million residents is mathematically one of the nation’s largest, comparable to the Kansas City, St. Louis or Indianapolis regions, and larger than Las Vegas.
However, Sacramento – even though it’s the capital of the nation’s most populous state – has historically stood in the shadow of San Francisco and one reason for that civic inferiority complex is that the region has rarely displayed political or economic unity.
Steinberg wants to enhance efforts to present a more unified regional image to the outside world, but it will be a heavy lift. The suburbs that surround his city tend to be more politically conservative and he not only wears his liberalism on his sleeve but has a record that makes suburban leaders somewhat suspicious.
As a Senate leader, he carried legislation to compel communities to adopt denser, “transit-friendly” land-use policies, and as an assemblyman he authored a bill aimed at forcing Sacramento’s suburbs to share their sales tax revenues with the city and Sacramento County.
The city-county alliance was shattered, however, after a somewhat mysterious amendment was inserted to make it easier for the city to lure auto dealers (and their sales taxes) from county territory into the city.
It will take all of Steinberg’s persuasive skills to forge the regional alliance he hopes to achieve – if he can.