A candid chat with Robbie Waters about retirement, being a Republican and his book.
The last Republican that the City of Sacramento will ever elect to office is a few weeks shy of his 83rd birthday. He has already outlived many of his contemporaries and pals from a vibrant and eventful past that grows more distant every day.
Robbie Waters was a Sacramento city councilman for 16 years and he was once elected county sheriff. Before that he was a headline-grabbing detective with the Sacramento Police Department. He has served on the county grand jury. He has a public library named after him in the Pocket-Greenhaven neighborhood he once served. He did it all while having the “(R)“ next to his name, the last of a breed in the state capital.
“I’ve built my whole life around being conservative,” Waters said recently in his Greenhaven home. For most of Waters’ childhood and into his early adulthood, Republicans were in the majority in the state Assembly. They were in city politics. Sacramento most notable native son – retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy – is a Republican. So was Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the Sacramento-raised Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. But Cantil-Sakauye recently left the GOP. So did District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, also a Sacramento native.
Waters last ran for office in 2010, when he was defeated in the June primary by two Asian American candidates. Darrell Fong, also a former Sacramento cop, eventually won Waters’ old seat in November of 2010 and Republican elected officials quietly became extinct within Sacramento’s city limits.
In Waters’ lifetime, the changing demographics of the city were one reason the GOP fizzled here as it has throughout most of the state. When Waters was 4 years old in 1940, Sacramento was 94.2 percent white. Asian Americans made up 4.3 percent of the population, African Americans 1.4 percent and Latinos less than 1 percent.
When Waters was elected Sheriff in 1982, more than 60 percent of the city population was white and the percentage was higher in the county But by the time of his last campaign in 2010, white population had dropped below 50 percent in Sacramento. Latinos, Asians and African Americans combined for nearly 60 percent of the city population.
As those numbers were changing, the GOP in California aligned itself with anti-immigrant rhetoric and “tough-on-crime” initiatives now seen as draconian, ineffective and racially biased.
Today, the Democrats in the state legislature have veto proof super majorities. The state GOP has only a handful of congressional representatives and the City of Sacramento is led by Mayor Darrell Steinberg, one of the most progressive Democrats – if not the most – that Sacramento has ever elected.
When I told Waters that he was “it,” that his time as a conservative thorn in the sides of progressives on the Sacramento City Council was the last waltz for the Grand Old Party in Sacramento, he just smiled and said, “I think you’re right.”
There is no mourning this fact by a tough old bird like Waters. He’s too transactional for that. He’s too irrepressible for that. Waters ran headlong into the changing face of Sacramento and he had trouble with it – a lot of trouble. He said he left the Sacramento Police Department only because he felt he was unfairly passed over for a promotion to captain by African American candidates he felt were not as qualified as he.
This was in the early 1980s and I am old enough to remember that time. Some of those memories are not fond ones. The state and the nation was changing and you saw the first burst of diversity into jobs that had never had diversity before. You saw it on college campuses. Suddenly people of different races were vying for positions that never used to have such competition.
I saw this on my college campus, and I saw it in my own workplace. Sometimes there were hard feelings and angry words and severed relationships.
Waters leaving Sacramento PD because he felt hard done by diversity was hardly unique in Sacramento or anywhere else in those years. But to his credit, Waters didn’t give up.. He started running for things.
He ran for sheriff in 1982 and he won, which speaks to his ability to garner support. We understand now how myopic and closed-off the sheriff’s department can be and that Waters took over that department is remarkable in retrospect. He was an outsider who had never so much as been a captain. And then there he was: Sheriff Waters.
How myopic and how closed-off was the department Waters was joining?
“After being elected Sheriff, the deputies hung me in effigy,” Waters wrote in his self-published book, “Through the Years.” “In the Sheriff’s garage, they had a dummy with pants stuffed and a paper head.”
Waters said his new troops wanted to pick a No. 2 man from within department ranks. Waters refused and brought a friend from Sacramento PD. He might as well have declared war because he served a single four-year term fraught with tension.
His nadir was a 1984 DUI arrest. He apologized immediately but it dogged and still haunts him.
The events of Waters’ life are about achievement against debilitating odds. (He chronicles his life in his book – if you’re interested in obtaining it, contact Waters at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“Debilitating” came in the literal form. In junior high school, Waters had a polio scare and was hospitalized and quarantined. For a time, his family thought he would be wheelchair-bound. “To this day, I see people in wheelchairs and think that could have been me,” he said. Waters eventually played football and ran track at Sacramento High School.
And after his DUI and retirement from the sheriffs department, Waters built houses before running and winning a spot on the city council in 1994. He was re-elected three times. He served long enough to be one of the closest allies of former Mayor Kevin Johnson. Despite his law-and-order background, and his Republican soul, he helped push through Sacramento’s medical marijuana ordinance. He got a library built in his district that bears his name.
Are there some parts of Waters’ book that made me wince? Yes, Waters’ descriptions of his frequent clashes with the late Joe Serna Jr. – the first Mexican American Mayor of Sacramento – are cringe worthy. “(Serna was) Latino first and Mayor second,” he wrote. “That was his whole philosophy.”
Serna has been gone for almost 20 years but if you knew him, and I did, you knew that he didn’t back down from anyone. Waters wrote these confrontations always took place behind closed doors. Ultimately, that’s how diversity works. It’s not achieved through platitudes. It’s achieved through blunt and honest conversations which sometimes take years to sort out.
Republicans in Sacramento and California haven’t figured out how to adapt to a changing state. Waters did, in his own way. He felt the way he felt but he also figured out how to get things done and stay relevant for a long time. We won’t see another like him again.