City Beat

Sacramento mayor’s race turns tense in final days

A campaign mailer arrived at Sacramento homes Tuesday describing mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg as an anti-union politician working on behalf of “powerful special interests” to harm Latino farmworkers.

That same day, roughly 300 members of the United Farm Workers union gathered in Sacramento to call Spanish-speaking voters and urge them to vote for Steinberg, a former labor attorney widely considered a pro-union candidate.

This is what the final week of an expensive, competitive election looks like.

Steinberg and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby are in their final push toward the primary on Tuesday. Steinberg appears to be the front-runner and, if he is able to secure at least 50 percent of the vote, would win the race outright. If neither of the candidates earns 50 percent, the race will extend to a runoff election in November.

The contest has been the most expensive in city history, with the candidates and outside special interest groups spending nearly $2 million. Steinberg has accounted for more than half the spending.

The tenor of the already tense campaign became more negative over the past week, when three mail pieces funded by the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee and a Central Valley farm that has battled labor unions were sent to local voters. All three ads attacked Steinberg for issues related to his time in the state Senate.

The mailer regarding farmworkers outraged union leaders. “There was probably no bigger champion of farmworkers in the California Legislature than Darrell Steinberg,” said Fabrizio Sasso, head of the Sacramento Central Labor Council. “It’s insulting they’d put something out like this; it’s garbage.”

The ad – along with two others in the last week knocking Steinberg for his time in the state Senate and his vocal support of the McKinley Village development in East Sacramento – was funded by interest groups working independent of Ashby.

Asked to respond to the content of the ads, Ashby consultant Josh Pulliam said Steinberg’s campaign spending was to blame for the wave of negative mailers targeting him. Pulliam said the spending had shifted the focus away from the issues and toward “hearing about how (Steinberg) supported the McKinley Village development, raised taxes and hurt working families.”

Ashby took direct aim at Steinberg this week on another issue: his work for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. After The Sacramento Bee revealed Steinberg has advised the south state water district since July, Ashby called her opponent “a hired gun.”

On Thursday, the campaign entered the courtroom. A Sacramento Superior Court judge denied Ashby’s request to force Steinberg to surrender roughly $220,000 of his campaign bank account – much of which was raised when he was pondering a run for statewide office. Ashby’s campaign still declared victory, pointing out that Steinberg pledged not to use the money in the mayor’s race.

Steinberg’s campaign spokesman, Jason Kinney, fired back, calling Ashby “desperate” and saying she was “trying to achieve in a courtroom what she clearly can’t achieve at the ballot box.”

Ashby had argued that the $220,000 had been transferred illegally from an account Steinberg established for a potential lieutenant governor’s race. Steinberg has raised more than $2.1 million in the race – including $1.4 million he transferred from the statewide account – more than five times Ashby’s fundraising total.

Much of the flood of campaign spending has gone into glossy fliers that have crammed voters’ mailboxes in recent days.

The latest campaign piece attacking Steinberg pictures the candidate in front of an image of farmworkers toiling in a field. The ad says he “worked to strip Latino farmworkers of their voting rights – he put special interests before people. That’s the Steinberg Way.”

The ad cites Senate Bill 25, a bill authored by Steinberg in 2012 that would have allowed the state’s Agriculture Labor Relations Board to implement farm labor contracts secured through mandatory mediation even if employers appeal. The UFW supported the bill, arguing it was needed to avoid delays in contract disputes. But opponents said it would give unions unfair leverage in negotiations. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill in 2014.

The bill did not directly address the rights of union members to vote on contracts.

“It’s nonsensical,” UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said of the mailer.

Other ads have criticized Steinberg for serving as the state Senate president when three members of his Democratic caucus faced criminal charges. Steinberg has said he acted appropriately by suspending each of the senators with pay. Steinberg was never connected to the criminal cases.

Steinberg also came under pressure from critics and his opponent this week after The Sacramento Bee reported that he has been working as an adviser for the massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California since last July. That district, which is paying Steinberg’s law firm $10,000 a month, pumps water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to serve some of its 19 million south state customers.

After the contract was made public, Steinberg’s campaign said he would step down from his full-time law firm position if elected mayor, but could maintain a limited role. Steinberg’s campaign declined to release a list of his other clients at Sacramento law firm Greenberg Traurig, citing a rule from the American Bar Association that prohibits law firms from releasing the identities of their clients without the clients’ consent. If Steinberg is elected and keeps a part-time gig at the law firm, his campaign said, he would identify his clients.

Steinberg said he is not working on MWD’s advocacy of Brown’s controversial plan to construct $15.5 billion tunnels designed to improve water flow from the Delta to Southern California. Steinberg’s campaign said he opposes the Delta tunnels project.

Instead, Steinberg’s work with MWD is focusing on habitat restoration and flood control projects in the Yolo Bypass, according to his contract with the water district. Still, the general manager of the water district said that while the Yolo Bypass work is not directly linked to the tunnels, “everything, of course, has an inter-relationship.”

Steinberg’s campaign released a written statement from the candidate saying, “As I’ve made clear from the day I announced, if I’m fortunate enough to be elected mayor, my full-time energy and attention will be focused on doing that job to the best of my abilities for the people of Sacramento, and I will relinquish my full-time role with my current employer.”

Ashby said Steinberg should reveal the names of his clients.

“I think when you’re an elected official, you should be as transparent as possible and erring on the side of over-reporting is better than erring on the side of under-reporting, especially if those clients could be a cause for concern given the post that you’re seeking,” she said.

Most members of the City Council maintain outside employment, including Ashby. She is a partner in Ashby Consulting Group, a firm she founded with her father in 2005 that helps nonprofits and government agencies develop programs to help foster youths and former prison inmates.

Ashby earned a law degree from the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in 2003. After failing to pass the state bar exam, she said she shifted her focus to the company and raising a family.

Ashby said her work with the firm has steadily diminished since she took office in 2010. Ashby has reported less than $499 in income from the consulting firm each of the past five years, according to statements of economic interest forms she filed with the city of Sacramento.

Ashby’s clients include WestCare California, a Stockton nonprofit that provides mental health and social services to the homeless and former prison inmates. The firm also wrote a service program for New Alternatives, a San Diego nonprofit that helps foster youths, and developed job training programs for the Prison Industry Authority.

The last client Ashby listed on public forms is the Sacramento County Office of Education. Her firm’s contracts with that office ran from 2006 to 2010 and included the development of a program that connects parolees with job training and education, according to SCOE spokesman Tim Herrera.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis