Behind his back and out of his ear shot, some people criticize Mayor Darrell Steinberg for “trying to be all things to all people.”
The common refrain fails to describe a 59-year-old career politician who is more intense, controlling and hyper sensitive than he likes to let on. The mayor does seem to have fingers into everything. He is pushing multiple boulders uphill. He’s in a hurry to move Sacramento forward and he has the personal tools to make it happen that few mayors have had before, if any.
But the choices he makes while pursuing the most ambitious civic agenda Sacramento has ever seen are not equal. Some may think he’s trying to be all things to all people, but he’s not. Ask homeless advocates, you’ll hear one Steinberg described. Ask Black Lives Matter, you’ll hear another.
He’s clearly better at some things than others and the choices he makes on the issues with which he struggles could imperil the choices he makes on the issues where he soars.
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But first, just consider all that he is doing.
Steinberg wants to put a major dent in the city’s homeless problem. He wants business to invest in Sacramento like never before. He wants to enliven a drab city waterfront and a weather-beaten Old Sacramento. Steinberg already stepped in to help entice a billionaire to buy Sacramento’s minor league soccer team.
And he wants Sacramento’s economically disadvantaged neighborhoods to reap the benefits of prosperity after generations of being left behind.
That’s a lot. But Steinberg is doing so much more publicly, and does still more privately – including helping people he likes and admires secure gainful employment.
The Mayor of Sacramento is a bottomless pit of good intentions. A Bay Area transplant, he wants his adopted hometown to thrive and he wants city dreams to be realized on many fronts this year.
Chief among these are for city residents to begin sensing a noticeable drop in the number of homeless people on Sacramento’s streets. Steinberg said during his 2016 mayoral campaign – and he has said many times since – that he wants to judged on more than just getting needy people into housing. He wants residents to see fewer homeless people sleeping in doorways, in parks or in communal clusters in front of City Hall.
Who else but Steinberg would ask voters to hold him to account if he fails to bend the misery curve of homelessness when other cities, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, only saw the problem worsen when huge resources were thrown at it?
That kind of stand-up accountability is what people want in elected officials. But it may also explain why Steinberg snapped last week and abruptly apologized to community members upset that Sacramento police had moved homeless campers off the City Hall grounds, in the middle of a rainy night.
“As the mayor of this city, I want to apologize,” Steinberg said Tuesday. “I’m taking the responsibility... that should not have happened. People should not be asked to leave at 2:30 in the morning or whenever it was, in a rainstorm, period.”
Steinberg also scolded the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency for not moving as fast as he wants in crafting a plan to deploy 100 tiny homes for homeless people in Sacramento.
Not everyone agrees this is the best plan. People don’t want these structures near them. People think that along with compassion, we need rules – for safety and health reasons. What about others’ needs? What about business people downtown who are compassionate but who also have to confront homelessness in acute ways that well-heeled homeless fundraisers and supporters never do?
The rubber is hitting the road on this issue and Steinberg drove us to this place. We’re just marking the end of January, and Steinberg is already throwing down the gauntlet. The mayor wants to stop talking about big plans for Sacramento and start realizing the results.
His moves are political, yes, and all Steinberg’s moves are politically executed in ways no one else on the local scene can emulate. But the matter is also personal. Homelessness moves Steinberg emotionally. He sees other government agencies as dithering while people suffer on the streets, in inclement weather.
“I don’t think we should be rousing people in the middle of the night,” Steinberg said. “Rain or no rain. The rain makes it worse. But I’m going to look into it.”
After speaking out last week, Steinberg left to prepare for a cross-county trip, while the enormity of his ambitions and the limitations of his powers festered.
SHRA is not beholden to him. And Steinberg doesn’t have the sole authority to call off police officers enforcing a city a ordinance prohibiting anyone from spending the night on City Hall grounds.
The cops work for Sacramento City Manager Howard Chan and Chan reports to the entire council, not just Steinberg. This form of governance separates Sacramento from other big cities in California. Steinberg grows frustrated over big city problems such as homelessness partly because he doesn’t have the power of the city charter behind him to move resources and personnel on his own. He has the power to cajole. And he is cajoling in a huge way.
For the same reasons, Steinberg has been frustrated and upset that public meetings boiled over after police-involved shootings. He took intense community heat after the March 2018 killing of Stephon Clark by city police officers. Steinberg showed great restraint when Stevante Clark, Stephon’s brother, stormed a city meeting, screamed at Steinberg and other council members and then jumped onto the dais. The meeting appeared it would spin out of control before order was restored.
Again, Steinberg has no direct control over Sacramento’s police department, the focus of community anger. He has no direct control over Chan. Meanwhile, African American advocates have vented at him after police shootings just as homeless advocates have vented at him while people braved winter weather on the streets.. But how Steinberg has reacted to the two most daunting issues facing Sacramento proves that he doesn’t try to be all things with all people.
Steinberg hasn’t been as directly remorseful toward African American protestors as he has toward homeless advocates. While pushing government agencies to do more about homelessness, Steinberg has appeared defensive about criticism of police by community activists.
“(Steinberg) seems like he’s always ready to fly off the handle,” said Tanya Faison, founder of Black Lives Matter Sacramento.
Politics play a big role in why he handles one civic crisis differently from another.
With homelessness, Steinberg can point the finger at other government agencies –SHRA, Sacramento County, the state, the feds – to do more to get people off the streets. The mayor is the spur to action.
But on police shootings, the finger is pointed at city cops. The city is legally liable for the actions of police, and politicians such as Steinberg get curbed by lawyers to avoid making comments that will increase city liability. Politicians, including Steinberg, also want to have good relations with cop unions and front line cops. Steinberg also endorsed Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, as did most of the city council – the type of alliance that frustrates African American advocates.
So a funny thing happens when BLM and other African American advocates raise their voices: Steinberg and his council colleagues feel antipathy toward the citizens holding them accountable. The council, led by Steinberg, adopts a defensive posture. Or they don’t even look at speakers decrying police-involved shootings. Members of the council have said to me privately that they don’t know what BLM and others want.
So I asked:
“I’d like the mayor to apologize to the families of people killed by police,” Faison said.
Some council members privately grumble that advocates are wrong to protest police shootings at City Hall when council members have no control over the district attorney legally judging police actions in fatal shootings. This where Steinberg and his colleagues have failed to find the proper words to help soothe legitimate public concerns about the deadly use of force by police and the awesome power that cops have.
Steinberg and the council seemed cowed – they seem to have bought the lie that if they insist on holding the Sacramento Police Department to account that they are somehow showing “hatred” toward police. It’s not true.
“They can put pressure on the chief of police and Chan, Faison said. “They can use their influence. They can call out the DA.”
She is not wrong. City leaders should use their platforms to check the power that Sacramento Police Department has. Steinberg can use his platform to do the same because very soon the DA will likely clear the cops who killed Stephon Clark.
Any civic unrest that follows will be fueled by community anger and frustration, with the view that law enforcement agencies take care of each other while elected officials either stand by or mouth their talking points.
Steinberg and the council are elected to serve the people, remember?
Until or unless Steinberg and other city leaders find the words to reach out to constituents rightly concerned about fatal shootings involving police, the frustration directed at politicians will continue. And Steinberg will prove, for all the wrong reasons, that he isn’t all things to all people despite all the great things that he wants for his city.