Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Darrell Steinberg makes mayoral race the most interesting in years

Former California Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, center, arrives at a Sacramento luncheon event prior to speaking with members of the press about his possible candidacy for mayor of Sacramento on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015.
Former California Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, center, arrives at a Sacramento luncheon event prior to speaking with members of the press about his possible candidacy for mayor of Sacramento on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. rbenton@sacbee.com

Darrell Steinberg has the skill set for much bigger jobs than mayor of Sacramento.

Nevertheless, he’s expected to appear Wednesday at the new Mill at Broadway residential project, where he’ll announce his candidacy for a post that will offer him far less power than he wielded as leader of the state Senate.

Mayor of Sacramento isn’t in the same league as other jobs Steinberg might have attained had the right opportunities been available to him. There must have been a political calculation that Gov. Jerry Brown would not appoint Steinberg to replace Kamala Harris as state attorney general should she win the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer in 2016. Steinberg also has the legal and intellectual chops to become a justice on the state Supreme Court. But again, that would depend on Brown.

Nothing else interests Steinberg politically, he has said, except being mayor of Sacramento.

So there Steinberg will be on Wednesday, surrounded by supporters, aiming to return to a Sacramento City Council he first joined nearly a quarter century ago. Others politicians might see this as a step down, but not Steinberg. He’s approaching the coming mayoral campaign against Angelique Ashby (and potentially others) with the same enthusiasm that has marked his career as a councilman, assemblyman and Senate leader.

Steinberg is so enthusiastic about becoming mayor that his candidacy had become the worst-kept secret in the region. It’s hard to avoid bumping into someone who hasn’t talked to Steinberg about his plans. He’s intently listened to advice from anyone and everyone on the subject. But he’s had this on his mind for a long time.

After Mayor Kevin Johnson announced last week that he would not seek a third term, there was noticeable change in Steinberg. He has been playing it cool for months while Johnson debated his future, freezing the mayoral race long past its logical starting point this summer.

Steinberg has been practicing law since he termed out of office late last year. He could make a ton of money in that capacity. His considerable insights into how the Capitol works are valuable and in demand. But he hasn’t been himself.

At 56, Steinberg lives for the political arena. Something in him clicked once Johnson stepped aside. By late this past week, he wasn’t the circumspect lawyer anymore. You could see it in his face as he played coy with reporters during a speech at the Harry Truman Democratic Club this past week. People were exhorting him to run, endorsing him even before he formally announced his intentions. The TV cameras were back. Steinberg seemed to grow a few inches taller. His political game face, hidden for months, was suddenly in full view.

It’s far too early to say whether Steinberg beats Ashby (or vice versa). What’s clear now is that this is gearing up to be one of the most interesting political races Sacramento has seen in a long time.

What Steinberg brings to the table is the institutional memory of someone who has been around Sacramento since he was a law student at UC Davis in the early ’80s. He was a classmate of Tani Cantil-Sakauye, now the chief justice of the California Supreme Court. A Bay Area native, Steinberg fell in love with Sacramento as many of us do: He was charmed by the city and felt connected to a broader community.

“I’m not a newcomer to this,” Steinberg said in an interview earlier this week. “I’ve got 20 years of goodwill built up.”

He’s also got the chops of an accomplished politician. As Senate leader, Steinberg pushed through SB 743 – which reformed the California Environmental Quality Act and made it considerably harder to secure an injunction blocking construction of the Sacramento arena. The bill held up to numerous legal challenges. Because of this, Steinberg can claim that he played a huge role in keeping the Kings and revitalizing downtown.

The 700 block of K Street is being developed after years of delays, in part, because Steinberg helped broker a deal between the state and the city over financing of the block’s redevelopment plan. He was influential in the deal that saw local owners purchase the downtown rail yards after years of delays.

That’s not to mention Steinberg’s statewide accomplishments: Producing legislation reducing carbon emissions, being a key player in the passage of high-speed rail, and helping to broker a deal that settled a dispute between between California and U.S. federal courts over state prison overcrowding.

The knock on Steinberg is that he can be too close to labor. That he can be too eager to compromise. The fear among some business leaders is that he wouldn’t be as bullish on economic interests as Johnson was. Those fears could provide an opening for Ashby. We’ll see.

If elected mayor, Steinberg said he wants to use his statewide expertise to benefit the city. He wants to find ways to use state funding to build permanent supportive housing to ease Sacramento’s homeless burden. He wants to continue promoting and expanding Sacramento’s economic development.

He symbolically chose the Mill at Broadway for his announcement because the housing development is an example of what he wants for Sacramento: a place where affordable housing, investment, parks, schools and other amenities converge.

“We’ve got to take the same energy and dynamism that we brought to the arena and spread it to other parts of the city,” Steinberg said. “When Mayor Johnson announced that he wasn’t running, I could have experienced two gut feelings: A knot in my stomach or excitement.

“I felt the latter. I feel excited.”

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