Russell Rawlings, covered in a thick green parka, approached the public plaza outside Sacramento City Hall in a driving rain last week. A handful of homeless rights activists were gathered on the sidewalk, protesting the city’s anti-camping ordinance, and most seemed to know Rawlings by name.
A semi-frequent visitor to City Council meetings, Rawlings, 38, is also respected by many of the city’s elected leaders. He’s involved in the fight to raise the city’s minimum wage, was one of the first people arrested during Sacramento’s Occupy protests of 2011 and is a fixture at the Old Soul coffee shop in Oak Park, where he lives.
Yet even with a decent amount of popularity and a background in activism, Rawlings is a long shot in his latest endeavor: running for mayor of Sacramento. He acknowledges his chances are slim and is trying to take a pragmatic approach as he faces two political heavyweights.
“I’m not content to just go away,” he said, “but if I can get the dialogue going about the issues I’m raising, at the end of the day I’ll be much happier. I see this as a beginning for me and not an end.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby and former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg are the front-runners in the June 2016 primary.
Ashby has been a prominent and outspoken member of the City Council since she was first elected to represent North Natomas in 2010. She already has the support of the deep-pocketed police and fire unions.
Steinberg, who has more than 20 years in local politics, will likely enter the race with more than $1 million in campaign cash. Many of the area’s better-known politicians were by his side when he announced his candidacy in October.
Rawlings and former world boxing champion Tony “The Tiger” Lopez, another recent mayoral race addition, face long odds. But their emergence raises the possibility that neither Ashby nor Steinberg will receive at least 50 percent of the vote in the June primary, which would force a November runoff election.
If I can get the dialogue going about the issues I’m raising, at the end of the day I’ll be much happier. I see this as a beginning for me and not an end.
Sacramento mayoral candidate Russell Rawlings
A crowded field extended the last competitive mayoral race in 2008.
That year, five lesser-known candidates combined to garner just over 14 percent of the vote in the June primary. It wasn’t enough to catapult any of them into City Hall, but it did force a runoff between the eventual winner and current mayor, Kevin Johnson, and the incumbent he defeated that November, Heather Fargo.
Political consultant Steve Maviglio, who helped lead Johnson’s 2008 campaign, said the chances of Rawlings or Lopez winning next year stand “somewhere between 0 and 1 percent.”
“Running for mayor takes money, an army of volunteers and name recognition,” he said. “Lesser-known candidates, unless they have a sugar daddy to bankroll their campaigns, they stand little chance.”
So far, the political establishment is paying little attention to Rawlings and Lopez. Neither candidate is on the program for a mayoral forum the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce is hosting next month.
Maviglio said much of the support for the five lesser-known candidates in 2008 was the result of “protest votes” stemming from voters’ distaste for Johnson and Fargo.
“There doesn’t seem to be much of that this time,” he said. “I don’t think Ashby or Steinberg have high enough negative ratings to lead people to say, ‘I just can’t vote for either of those two.’”
Lopez, 52, said residents are dissatisfied enough with the other choices on the ballot for him to succeed. A boxing champion in the 1980s and 1990s who now runs a bail-bond operation downtown, Lopez scoffed when asked whether he stands a chance in the political ring.
“That’s a silly question,” he said. “Why would I do anything if I didn’t think I could win?”
Lopez is promoting himself as the anti-establishment candidate in the race and is relishing the underdog role.
“The biggest difference between me and them is, I’m not a politician,” he said, referring to Ashby and Steinberg. “I’m the guy next door who’s tired of the B.S. and is ready to make the changes.”
Rawlings is putting together the apparatus needed for a campaign. He said he intends to raise money for his run, though he is critical of the vital role money plays in politics. He’s enlisted the help of former classmates at Sacramento City College and fellow members of the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America to help spread his message. And he’s become active on social media, coining the Twitter hashtag #RollWithRussell.
Rawlings has cerebral palsy, uses an electronic wheelchair and leads an advocacy group called DOGFITE – Disability Organizing Group For Initiating Total Equality. He said he will begin classes next month at California State University, Sacramento, where he plans to study government and journalism.
Three issues drove him to run for mayor.
First, he said the city needs to do more to improve the conditions for homeless men and women. He called the current conditions “astonishing” and said simple things – such as public restrooms downtown and water bottle refilling stations – could go a long way to help that needy population.
“Since we’re re-envisioning downtown, that needs to be part of the vision,” he said.
Rawlings also supports a proposal to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. Labor advocates are seeking that increase as they collect signatures for a potential November 2016 ballot measure; Rawlings is the treasurer of one of those groups, Organize Sacramento.
He also wants the city to create an ethics commission with enforcement authority over City Hall officials. Earlier this year, the City Council approved the creation of a five-member ethics commission that, acting on the findings of an independent investigator, could hand out administrative penalties and fines. Critics have said the commission’s powers are not strong enough.
As he campaigns, Rawlings said he will seek to play the role of Bernie Sanders, the underdog candidate in the Democrats’ presidential primary.
“We need someone on the local level to say money isn’t everything,” Rawlings said. “This is about issues, and I’m interested in continuing this effort. I’m enjoying this.”