Marcos Bretón

Darrell Steinberg is the right man for this Sacramento moment

Sacramento's Mayor-Elect Darrell Steinberg backs Measure G

Mayor-Elect Steinberg urges support for parcel tax supporting students in Sacramento City Unified School District.
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Mayor-Elect Steinberg urges support for parcel tax supporting students in Sacramento City Unified School District.

Sacramento’s Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg was on a bus to San Francisco last week, conversing with business leaders from throughout the capital region, when he unexpectedly bounded to his feet and grabbed a tray of sandwiches.

“Is anybody hungry?” asked Steinberg, 56, in an unassailably sincere tone. It would be an hour before the bus reached its destination, a sleek tech firm on Market Street and a joint event extolling the shared business interests of Sacramento and the Bay Area.

Steinberg was the most prominent member of Sacramento’s traveling delegation. But there he was passing out sandwiches to legislators and business leaders. There he was talking to every last person on the bus, at once commanding and affable, shrinking the distance between himself and people he’s been wooing to his side for decades.

Steinberg’s momentary gesture of humble subservience was a vintage move by a man you might think you know, because most people in Sacramento think they know this guy. He’s nice Darrell. He’s hardworking Darrell. He’s well-meaning Darrell. Everybody loves Darrell.

His landslide victory in June was no surprise to anyone. After his standout performance as the Senate’s powerful pro tem, many people felt lucky he’d even consider a stint as mayor. Given the right timing, he could be California’s attorney general, a justice on its Supreme Court, a U.S. senator.

More than one pundit called him overqualified.

But as I watched Steinberg make his moves in cramped quarters as we traveled west on Interstate 80, I caught a glimpse of a man clearly ascending to his moment. He was thoughtful and effective in the Senate. But his greatest legacy may be the one he’s about to create.

It was the same week that Golden 1 Center opened to rave reviews – and that disturbing video shed light on the July 11 shooting of a mentally ill black man by city police. The Sacramento that awaits Steinberg is a bustling jumble of optimism, promise and big-city worries.

Steinberg is the man aching to take it all on.

On Dec. 13, he will be sworn in for a mayoral post that – at least technically in Sacramento – wields far less direct authority over city operations than the city manager.

Something tells me that’s going to change.

You could see it in the way Steinberg broke bread with people on that bus ride. With each interaction, he disarmed his fellow passengers, endeared himself. Steinberg had the respect of everyone on that bus when we left Sacramento. He had their affection by the time we arrived in San Francisco.

That he was on the trip at all was revealing.

Steinberg’s primary opposition during his mayoral run flowed from a core constituency in Sacramento’s business community. Who could forget the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee helping to fund misleading ads against him in the June primary?

Steinberg was gracious in San Francisco. But Peter Tateishi, the chamber’s CEO, was clearly cast in a supporting role on Wednesday’s trip, judging by his body language and by Steinberg’s embrace of a more heavyweight player: Barry Broome, who heads the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council.

Broome has been the force behind the effort to forge Sacramento’s economy with that of the Bay Area. He arranged the joint partnership with the Bay Area Council, known as “the voice of Bay Area business.” His vision: Create a unified Northern California market to lure and retain tech companies – and a unified front against states such as Texas looking to steal business away.

Steinberg threw himself into the pitch. “Sacramento never again will be a stop between the Bay Area and Lake Tahoe,” he said to loud applause from business leaders during an event at the Twitter Building in downtown San Francisco.

“We are hungering for high-tech in Sacramento.”

The evening concluded with Steinberg and Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman exulting together as the San Francisco Giants beat the New York Mets in a stirring playoff game. “I think we opened some eyes,” Steinberg said of the trip.

Broome’s brusque manner has been the subject of griping among some local business leaders. Steinberg has the emotional maturity to get beyond the superficial niceties (or in this case, lack of) to see the value of what Broome is selling. He is pitching Sacramento as a vibrant brand to Bay Area leaders. Little by little, he’s luring tech to Sacramento.

“Barry is asking the right questions,” Steinberg said. “He’s asking if we are undervaluing Sacramento as a destination and convention city. And he’s asking if we are marketing that resource as effectively as we can.”

Steinberg is asking the right questions, as well. The right leader for the right time.

Kevin Johnson was the right man for the job when that job was holding onto the Kings, raising a glimmering new arena from a dusty downtown core, vitalizing nightlife and our belief that we deserve to live someplace special.

But moving forward, we have pressing issues that require a different skill set: An economy still too reliant on state government. A homeless problem spilling into Land Park and East Sacramento. Mentally ill people wandering the streets, and a police department not adequately trained to deal with them.

Last week, Steinberg finally said what someone on the Sacramento City Council should have said weeks ago about the police shooting that left Joseph Mann lying dead in North Sacramento in July and his family asking why.

“There is way too much tail wagging the dog,” Steinberg said of city officials who initially concealed dashcam footage of the episode.

“We are not going to be afraid to have full public hearings on issues of policy. What is the training protocol for dealing with people with mental illness? Who gets the training? How many hours of the training? What is the quality of the training?”

Steinberg will push to create a police commission with real teeth. He will push to enhance the supply of housing for homeless people, and convene a rare joint city-county session to make it happen.

“We’re going to create a cosmopolitan city with high-wage jobs, but that will be good and not great unless we connect that prosperity to our most challenged neighborhoods,” he said. “There is not a strong culture of collaboration in our region right now, and we’re going to change that.”

Steinberg has built his political career on his ability to move between the podium and the trenches, creating allies – and policy change – one relationship at a time. One could see him crafting those bonds on the San Francisco trip.

When it came time to make the long ride back to Sacramento, he was offered a seat on a private jet headed to the capital. Steinberg turned it down.

“I came here on the bus, and I’m going home on the bus,” he said. And so he did, playing Beatles music on his phone for fellow travelers, hearing everyone out and detailing all the things he’s anxious to do when he finally takes the oath of office.

He can’t wait, and neither can the city.