Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Controversy clouds Steinberg’s legacy as he leaves the Senate

An argument could be made that Darrell Steinberg is the most accomplished politician Sacramento has produced in nearly a century.

Since Hiram Johnson stepped aside as California governor in 1917, who else either born in or adopted by Sacramento has had a bigger impact on statewide policy?

John Moss authored the Freedom of Information Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act and several other important federal laws that bolstered legislative oversight during a distinguished 25-year congressional career that ended in the late 1970s.

Vic Fazio, Bob Matsui and Joe Serna also had decorated political careers and loyal followings.

But Steinberg makes a case for himself in securing lasting results for his constituents – achievements that are flowering only now as Steinberg is being termed out of office.

The first locally grown leader of the state Senate since 1883 will spend his last day atop the upper house on Wednesday, his 55th birthday.

Partly because of negative events that robbed him of a victory lap, the former Sacramento councilman is not reaping praise equal to his record.

But the bet here is that history will be kind. Steinberg will be missed as his work outlasts the failings of people who reported to him – and whose messes Steinberg dealt with in his final days so his successor, Kevin de León, could start with a clean slate at the end of this week.

Examples of Steinberg’s work are everywhere: On Thursday, a Sacramento Superior Court judge all but dismissed two lawsuits filed against the Kings arena being constructed at the old Downtown Plaza. The suits alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

Without legislation that Steinberg pushed through to Gov. Jerry Brown, any nuisance suit could have stopped arena construction with a legal injunction and dealt a crippling blow to a $255 million investment by the city of Sacramento.

Not anymore. With Steinberg’s CEQA reform measure – Senate Bill 743 – the standard to shut down construction is now “imminent threat to public health and safety.”

“Getting an injunction with the Steinberg law is a very high hurdle,” Donald Mooney, one of the lawyer’s suing to stop the arena, told The Bee’s Dale Kasler last week.

It was Steinberg who helped convince NBA officials that SB 743 would prevent delays in construction of the arena – a key promise that helped sway NBA owners away from the idea of relocating the Kings to Seattle.

The result is a renaissance of development in the once-dead downtown core of Sacramento. When the Sacramento City Council approved a financing plan to develop the 700 block of K Street last week, Steinberg’s fingerprints were all over the push to finally launch a remake of the blighted street that had been stalled for years.

Steinberg helped settle a fight between the state and the city over financing of the block’s redevelopment plan.

The settlement was completed in part by getting the arena deal get done. The Kings project contributed to making the land around the arena much more valuable. That changed the economics of the 700 block of K Street and made the financing possible.

The expectation is that the street will be brought back to life with new construction by the end of 2016, not long after the new arena opens.

By then, the long-abandoned downtown railyards should be sprouting new development as well. Steinberg is credited with helping broker a deal – not yet finalized – that will transfer ownership of the railyards to local developer Larry Kelley.

But long before this, Steinberg played a key role in lining up millions in infrastructure dollars that began transforming a toxic-waste site into the future of downtown Sacramento.

At the end of 2009, the California Transportation Commission allotted $31 million for the realignment of the old Union Pacific tracks to make way for development.

“Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has played a significant role in securing state funding for this project,” the Sacramento Area Council of Governments wrote at the time.

This is not to mention Steinberg’s statewide achievements. He wrote a bill to curtail auto exhaust, the single biggest source of carbon emissions. He marshaled Senate votes for high-speed rail and helped Brown with a court order to ease crowding in California prisons.

“(Steinberg’s) leadership bridged the state’s meltdown years and its current recovery. He managed, somehow, to cut when he had to cut while protecting safety-net programs from permanent extinction,” the Los Angeles Times wrote. This year, Steinberg got $250 million allocated for workforce training for California high school students – with $21 million available to Sacramento-area schools.

The list of achievements goes on and on.

But the transgressions of three senators and some longtime Senate employees have clouded his exit from the Legislature. Two senators have been indicted on criminal charges and a third was found guilty of perjury and voting fraud. Controversy ended the careers of the Senate’s longtime sergeant-at-arms and personnel chief.

While Steinberg cleaned house of them all, he did not do so in a politically expedient fashion. He has supported the due-process rights of those who got into trouble and, as he sees it, he has sought to preserve the privacy of whistleblowers within the Senate ranks. That has generated a drumbeat of criticism that’s following him out the door.

He accepts it as the price of leadership.

“I had to make hard decisions and do things that affected people’s lives,” Steinberg said. “But I’m feeling upbeat. I feel like I got done what I came to do. It wasn’t a straight line. It wasn’t all roses by any means, but it was rich. It was torturous. It was productive, and it was ultimately great.”

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.