On the June night Angelique Ashby lost her bid to become mayor of Sacramento, she climbed on top of a wooden picnic table in a Natomas brewery armed with the rough-and-ready charisma that got her into the race – and helped knock her out.
High heels balanced on slatted boards, she faced the crowd of supporters knowing her aspiration to be the city’s chief was over. The polls were still open, but she’d accepted she was the also-ran “before I ever got in the car and drove to my party,” she said.
She felt defeat that morning when the first 100 votes skewed heavily in favor of her rival, Darrell Steinberg, and she couldn’t see a way to hold him under the 50 percent mark she needed to prolong the race to the fall.
A sense of foreboding had been creeping in for a long time.
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She felt it back in March when Steinberg announced the transfer of a $1.4 million stockpile of cash that he collected for a possible run for lieutenant governor, an amount that seemed “borderline insurmountable,” she said. Around the same time, a Sacramento Bee investigation determined she relied on faulty crime statistics in her campaign.
She felt it in May when her campaign barred Bee reporter Ryan Lillis from a news conference and the newspaper’s editorial board subsequently compared her to Donald Trump, who has notoriously brawled with the press, a characterization she said was brutal but had impact.
She felt it later that month and into June, when mailers funded by an independent expenditure committee, which Ashby had no input on, caused an uproar for unfairly implying Steinberg was tied to corruption scandals in the Senate, influenced by developers and had voted against farmworkers. Combined with a lawsuit she filed to block the transfer of Steinberg’s money, her campaign was criticized for turning negative. The Steinberg camp labeled her “desperate.”
“I doubt there will be a harder campaign or a higher hill or more obstacles or more stacked against me than there was in this race,” Ashby said. “I’m sure we made a hundred-million mistakes.”
She ran on being bold, outspoken and assertive, someone with the confidence to brawl where she believes.
Detractors pegged her as rinky-dink, petty and amateur, charging her flaws were untempered by experience or sophistication and presented a fat-chance against Steinberg’s effortless polish, which made her seem dim by comparison.
Steinberg seemed to float around her clumsy punches, letting her trip over her own feet. Never mind that she’d pick herself up and keep going. The race was, as pundits predicted, Steinberg’s to lose.
She carried all that baggage onto the picnic table with her, and despite the end of the election, she brought it back down again.
With the primary two months gone and the presidential campaign hurtling toward November, most voters have largely forgotten about the mayoral race.
She’s immersed in another campaign for power at a more familiar table: the one at City Hall, where Steinberg will soon hold the center chair and hopes to be a political force akin to a strong mayor without the need for a change in the city charter. Ashby is working to navigate a path to reconciliation with voters, Steinberg and the council, most of whose members endorsed him, that will allow her position four seats to the right of the mayor to remain a relevant one.
“I am ready to play my part on this team,” Ashby said recently. “I will do everything in my power to help Darrell Steinberg be a very successful mayor.”
Keeping a meaningful voice on the council is vital to her political future whether her aspirations remain local or skew grander. Some politicos mention Doris Matsui’s congressional seat as a possible aim for Ashby, though it would likely be another long shot.
But first she’s got to handle the public and private legacy of her run. Can she learn from the experience and put enough savoir faire into her gumption to manage the divisions created by her campaign? Or will her colleagues and the public only remember the bad?
“Is she damaged goods forever? Probably not,” said Andrew Acosta, a local political consultant who did not work on either campaign. But he added that he didn’t believe the campaign was a “net positive” for Ashby.
“It would be one thing if she had run a very positive race to raise her name ID,” he said. “When you run a campaign and it becomes a bit nasty and negative, there becomes a little bit of blowback.”
Barbara O’Connor, a director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State, sees it differently. Although she supported Steinberg, she has a “great respect” for Ashby’s abilities and thinks she can “rebound if she chooses to do so.”
In these gap months before Steinberg takes power and while the current mayor is often absent from meetings, Ashby is returning to a role in which she is both comfortable and effective, and one that may hold the most potential for repairing her reputation: being a bold, assertive and outspoken voice on the council.
The unvarnished attitude that didn’t play against Steinberg is more potent in the smaller confines of City Hall.
Ashby, first elected in 2010, is now the senior member of the council, with an evident knowledge of both procedure and how policy is made. For all her flaws on the campaign trail, the Ashby on the council dais is clear-headed on her aims and abilities and understands the nuances of power at this level.
At a recent meeting of the law and legislation committee that dealt with a new bike ordinance, it was Ashby who pointed out that a provision making it legal only for kids under age 13 to ride on sidewalks was both arbitrary and could have the effect of forcing families to break up during bike rides. She successfully suggested raising that age limitation to 18.
A few weeks later, during a contentious moment regarding the funding of the Fire Department, Ashby held her ground to insist the full council debate the issue rather than allowing it to go directly to committee. She argued that it was up to the full council to set a vision for what the city wanted from the department in coming years.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, she provided institutional memory during a discussion on bikes, pointing out that it was a bridge connecting pathways in North and South Natomas near the intersection of Interstates 5 and 80 that won the city a “silver” city designation from national advocacy organization League of American Bicyclists. She then – along with other council members – talked about the importance of investing money not just in central city bike paths, but to connect places like Oak Park and Meadowview to downtown through programs like bike sharing and paths that extend beyond the core.
Her philosophy is “to try to understand what each of my colleagues is trying to accomplish,” she said. “When you understand that, then you understand their motivation for being there. Then when you craft something you really want, you can help them achieve their goals too, then all boats rise in a high tide.”
Ashby also said she will also continue to advocate for more women in city government. Currently, men hold seven of the 10 top paying jobs in City Hall, and Ashby is the only female on the council.
One of the reasons she ran, she said, was because she thinks women who don’t seize the opportunity are rarely offered it.
“For women in particular the hierarchy holds us out,” she said. “It benefits the people who are already there. If you want more women on the City Council, you can’t just have deference to people who are there because they are all men,” she said.
When she was debating whether to throw her hat in the ring, she said, the names being floated as contenders were Johnson, Steinberg and former State Assemblyman Roger Dickinson.
“When I decided to run, I did not know who else was going to run, including Kevin (Johnson). … But they had all, in true buddy fashion, made deals that Roger (Dickinson) wouldn’t run against Darrell (Steinberg), Darrell wouldn’t run against Kevin. And I just sort of washed my hands of all that and said, ‘Well, when those guys roshambo to figure out which one of them wants to run for mayor, I’ll be here,’ ” she said with a bit of her campaign-trail brashness.
She also didn’t want an uncontested race, and thinks the city benefited from her campaign.
“If I hadn’t run, there would have been no debates, no public dialogue or discourse,” she said. “We forced each other to answer people’s questions by being present.”
She said she sat down with Steinberg for a three-hour meeting in July at a restaurant on R Street, and said there is common ground on issues they both care about. During the campaign, their positions on many topics were so close that it became problematic to find meaningful conflict between them.
But by many accounts, Steinberg didn’t like the negative tactics Ashby used, especially the lawsuit.
While the system is supposed to give each council member, including the mayor, equality with a single vote, an unhappy mayor has power.
In 2009, Kevin Johnson rewarded council supporters with prestigious appointments to the law and legislation committee while banishing four rivals who failed to back his strong-mayor bid to the personnel and public employees committee, which handles grunt work like nominations to the city’s Board of Plumbing Examiners.
Steinberg said he hasn’t “looked at committee assignments at all,” and considers Ashby a “smart and able” member of the council.
“There’s a time for a campaign and a time for governing,” he said. “When you’re leading a Senate of 40 members, I suppose you can afford to have one or two you don’t choose to work with. But when you talk about nine people (on City Council), it’s a pretty small family and I’m going to work well with everybody. I’m not looking for a bunch of 5-4 votes. I’m looking to build broader consensus.”
Whatever her political future holds, Ashby said she has little regret about running.
“The thing I was always trying for was just to get that audience with Sacramento voters. … I hope that what we walk away with is that people see in me a person who they’ll give a chance to next time … that people saw in me a woman with integrity and heart for the city,” she said. “I didn’t win enough support this time around to be mayor, but I won enough support to know that I am right where I am supposed to be.”