Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Mayoral race could challenge conventional wisdom

Angelique Ashby and Darrell Steinberg, who squared off last month for a moderated discussion of city issues, are competing to lead a city that is focused on continuing its recent stretch of growth.
Angelique Ashby and Darrell Steinberg, who squared off last month for a moderated discussion of city issues, are competing to lead a city that is focused on continuing its recent stretch of growth. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Conventional wisdom says Darrell Steinberg will cruise to an easy victory in Sacramento’s mayoral election this June.

He is sitting on a $1.4 million war chest from his days as a state legislator. He has name recognition, having been a popular fixture in Sacramento politics for more than 20 years. And he is taking nothing for granted, working tirelessly to become Sacramento’s mayor, though the former leader of the state Senate has the chops to chase much bigger jobs.

But hold on a second.

This week, Sacramento became a microcosm for political lessons playing out in the presidential primaries. Chief among them is that conventional wisdom is often uninformed talk.

Those who underestimate Angelique Ashby – Steinberg’s chief opponent – are discovering that the 40-year-old councilwoman from Natomas is not a pushover.

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Steinberg doesn’t thinks she is, but some of his supporters do. They should reconsider. This week’s endorsement of Ashby by the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce PAC provides an undeniable lift to the underdog mom of three kids. It says that some of Sacramento’s most influential business leaders have more confidence in Ashby than Steinberg.

Some in Steinberg’s camp dismiss the Metro Chamber endorsement on various fronts. They say the Metro Chamber is out of touch and prone to pick losers. They contend that a group heavily populated by conservative Republicans was never going to pick Steinberg, the liberal Democrat once charged with leading that constituency at the state Capitol.

Maybe. But there are two themes familiar to Sacramento’s business leaders at play here. They can be distilled to a fear and a wish.

The fear is that Sacramento is going to move backward when Mayor Kevin Johnson steps aside later this year, that the city will become dominated again by talk of neighborhood priorities and union wish lists over the need for investment in Sacramento.

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Johnson punctuated this point at his final State of the City address last week by showing a video of a roller coaster climbing a summit. He had his aides freeze the film when the roller coaster reached the apex. “Are we going to get over the hump?” Johnson asked an audience at the Crest Theatre. His meaning was clear: Will Sacramento become a business-friendly city that encourages investment?

New businesses will boost Sacramento’s tax rate and pay for services, Johnson said. A failure to achieve a favorable business climate will lead to inevitable service cuts and calls to raise taxes to balance Sacramento’s bottom line.

The wish of business leaders is that the next mayor will make economic development a top priority, one that is not measured by words but by results. They want the next mayor to commit to bringing higher-wage jobs to Sacramento and to make the city an easier place for entrepreneurs to do business.

It’s not that business leaders dislike Steinberg. He’s well-respected. But his résumé raises red flags.

When does Steinberg seem most engaged and passionate? When he is talking about mental-health issues. When he is advocating for tapping into state money to build permanent supportive housing for homeless people.

Which constituency is most passionate about Steinberg? Organized labor.

The Metro Chamber vote was a statement of concern that these realities will overwhelm the economic momentum Johnson created if Steinberg were elected.

Enter Ashby (also a Democrat, by the way). She’s young. She’s energetic. She’s part of a new generation of Sacramento leaders.

First elected in 2010, Ashby rose from grass-roots beginnings to help enliven a stodgy, fractured Sacramento City Council. Over the years, she has inspired strong emotions. Those who support her like her passionate and hard-charging support of her issues. Those who oppose her dislike her passionate and hard-charging support of her issues. Some have called her self-aggrandizing when she advocates for Natomas, flood control and law-and-order issues. Most of her council colleagues have endorsed Steinberg.

In addition to the Metro Chamber, Ashby has been endorsed by Sacramento cops and firefighters. The local firefighters union gave her $11,000; Sacramento’s police union donated $10,000.

Steinberg has raised more money than Ashby since the two declared their candidacies for mayor last fall. He brought in close to $243,000 in 2015, according to campaign finance records filed with the city clerk. But the $168,000 Ashby netted in 2015 is a big number for Sacramento city politics.

What’s curious is that Ashby is being embraced by business leaders who wish Johnson wasn’t leaving. However, Ashby and Johnson have a fractured relationship. Soon after announcing her mayoral bid, Ashby released a poll stating that she could have beaten Johnson in a head-to-head race.

Meanwhile, Steinberg and Johnson remain close, and Steinberg has the support of business leaders such as Mark Friedman, the developer and Kings owner who is also very close to Johnson.

Sacramento needs to continue developing its local economy. The city can’t turn inward and focus solely on provincial concerns as it has done in the past. But it’s not fair to assume Steinberg would take Sacramento backward economically. It’s also not fair to assume that Ashby couldn’t be elected citywide.

The takeaway from this week is that Sacramento has a real mayor’s race on its hands, the best possible outcome for a city that must keep moving forward.

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, mbreton@sacbee.com, @MarcosBreton

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