It might have been easier for Angelique Ashby to try to unseat Kevin Johnson as Sacramento’s mayor, despite Johnson’s higher profile and money-raising prowess.
The only woman on the Sacramento City Council and a former single mom who put herself through law school while caring for her baby, Ashby could have drawn stark distinctions between herself and a political leader damaged by sexual harassment allegations.
But earlier this fall, Johnson decided not to seek a third term. He made the announcement not long after that now-infamous 1996 police video surfaced, the end of his mayoral career becoming entangled in a news cycle of sordid headlines.
Now instead of facing a powerful but wounded opponent in her quest to become mayor, Ashby is facing a powerful and popular one. It would be hard to find anyone who would bad-mouth Darrell Steinberg, the former state Senate leader and Sacramento city councilman. Steinberg has more friends than Johnson has enemies, and that only begins to describe the task before Ashby’s campaign.
With a smile on his face and never a discouraging word publicly, Steinberg is carrying out a much more ruthless game plan behind the scenes, observers say. His campaign staff is trying to isolate Ashby and make it difficult for her to raise money.
Ashby already has received endorsements from both the police and fire unions. Political consultants have said she will need the financial support of those unions in what’s likely to be an expensive race against Steinberg.
On the labor side, Steinberg has enlisted Bill Camp – the longtime Central Labor Council bigwig – to twist arms on his behalf. It has worked. The labor council endorsed Steinberg, though some in labor resented it.
Brian Rice, president of the Sacramento Area Firefighters union, said he was frustrated by the Central Labor Council vote. “What really concerned me was that people were making decisions based on social justice issues (like homelessness) and not on actual building and labor issues facing the city,” Rice said.
On the business side, Steinberg has enlisted longtime friends such as land lawyer Tina Thomas, a powerful force in Sacramento’s business community. That relationship helped Steinberg secure an endorsement from Region Business, an advocacy group for local business with strong ties to Johnson. Josh Wood, chief executive officer of Region Business, said they chose Steinberg because of his state connections. They feel he has the best shot of continuing Johnson’s efforts to increase investments in the city.
Mark Friedman, a Kings owner, is a strong supporter of Steinberg, who also has locked up support from most of Ashby’s City Council colleagues.
Steinberg has $1 million from his state coffers that he could use in the mayoral race. So the task before Ashby is daunting.
Early in her campaign, Ashby released a poll showing that she could have beaten Johnson head to head. According to her polling, she had 44 percent of the local vote and Johnson had 38 percent. Clearly, those numbers should be taken with a pound of salt. But the more interesting information in Ashby’s poll involved Steinberg.
When voters were asked who they would support for mayor – Ashby, Johnson or Steinberg – they chose Ashby ahead of Johnson but placed her behind Steinberg.
Ashby, 40, is still relatively new to politics. In 2010, she became the first candidate in years to unseat an incumbent on the Sacramento City Council. Her grass-roots campaign trounced Ray Tretheway’s in the large and growing Natomas council district.
Ashby became a force for her own district. She became an ally to Johnson on the plan to build a downtown arena. But becoming mayor in the state capital is no small task.
Ashby doesn’t have Steinberg’s war chest or his years in elected office. And she’s working in a political system that generally operates under strict ascension guidelines. You wait your turn in Sacramento, and you get bad-mouthed if you step out of line. Most of the city’s official firmament has lined up behind Steinberg, in part because people feel it’s his turn.
It’s worth noting that Ashby was the only person who was willing to take on Johnson when it looked like he was still in the running. Steinberg waited for Johnson to announce he wouldn’t be seeking for a third term and then gave it a few days before appearing with almost every elected official in the area to jubilantly announce his campaign.
Does this mean he’s a lock to win? No way. Ashby’s supporters have close, intense relationships with her.
Along with having personal ties with police and fire union leaders, Ashby has been their champion on the council. While other council members criticized public safety unions for balking at paying into their pensions, Ashby took a different tone. Her supporters are hoping that her relationships with public safety will appeal to voters concerned about rising crime in Sacramento.
Rice and his group risked the wrath of Johnson and Steinberg by endorsing Ashby before they knew who would be running against her. But Rice said they have no regrets throwing their support behind the two-term councilwoman.
“When I see her, I don’t just see an average council member. I see a community leader,” Rice said. “Any city can have entry-level jobs, service jobs. But Sacramento has to focus on bringing industry and a professional presence in this community. … We’ve got to build an emerging job market. To me, (Ashby) is the best person to accomplish that. I think she has a great chance.”