Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Tepid is the race for Sacramento mayor

By this point eight years ago, the race for mayor of Sacramento was heated and hotly contested – quite unlike the current snoozer of a campaign for Sacramento’s only citywide elected office.

Kevin Johnson announced his candidacy at the 11th hour in 2008 to challenge incumbent Heather Fargo. That campaign became a contrast of gender, race, personal style, generation and experience.

Johnson carved out crime and public safety as an issue, which sounds like Politics 101 in any city. But it was curiously missing from civic discussion until Johnson brought it to the forefront.

Despite a spring and summer filled with negative headlines, with some stories detailing inflammatory allegations of sexual molestation against him, Johnson took it to Fargo. He made leadership and the stagnant direction of the city central to his talking points.

Candidate Johnson benefited from being in the same election cycle as Barack Obama. To capitalize he claimed that some called him “Baby Barack,” though I never heard anyone say it but him.

However, voters wanted change and Johnson rode the Obama political tidal wave.

Allegations or no, Johnson won 46 percent of the vote in the June primary in a race with seven candidates. Head-to-head with Fargo in the general election, Johnson collected 92,288 votes – nearly 25,000 more than Fargo.

Johnson’s celebrity as a former NBA star/famous native son brought an intensity that is missing from the current mayoral campaign.

Though the current race for mayor has no incumbents running for the first time in 16 years, the potential of new blood hasn’t translated into a robust campaign yet.

That’s partly because the two leading mayoral candidates are not new in any way. Darrell Steinberg was first elected to the City Council nearly a quarter century ago before serving six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. Angelique Ashby is in her second term as the council representative of Natomas and has been one of the most visible city politicians.

With absentee ballots poised to go out in almost a month, the primary candidates are not taking the race to each other so far. It’s been a passive-aggressive campaign that’s been light on the aggressive and heavy on the passive.

If anything, Darrell Steinberg seems to be playing the role of incumbent even though he hasn’t been on the City Council in nearly 20 years. Most recently the leader of the state Senate, with a $1.2 million war chest to show for it, Steinberg benefits from a dull campaign.

It allows him to do what he does best: Talking to people all day. He’s never met a gathering he didn’t like. His volunteers are working overtime for him. They even reached me on my cellphone last week. (Please don’t do that again).

Unless the race changes in the coming weeks, the primary question is: Can the six other mayoral candidates besides Steinberg and Ashby siphon off enough votes to force a runoff in the fall?

Ashby is in the best position to influence this question but her campaign has only taken glancing blows at Steinberg so far. She seems to want to hit Steinberg for his time leading the state Senate, when several colleagues under his leadership ran into legal or criminal issues, but she’s pulled her punches. She seems to want to go after Steinberg for using the mayor’s race as a springboard for higher office, but she hasn’t fully engaged that either.

Clearly, there are dangers with unvarnished attacks on popular opponents.

Unlike Johnson, Ashby isn’t running against an incumbent with a City Council track record to scrutinize. She’s against an opponent who is playing it safe publicly and working hard privately. It’s on Ashby to take the race to Steinberg.

The question: Is Ashby’s strategy to go all out for a win? Or is it to run a credible campaign to build name value for another race on another day? She is just 41, the only woman on the City Council. She had a rough time recently when statistics she cited showing drops in crime in her district proved to be incorrect. Jason Kinney, Steinberg’s campaign manager, dinged her on social media for skipping an important council vote last week – while Steinberg made himself unavailable to talk about the issue.

That’s emblematic of the way the campaign is going, with Steinberg flying above the fray of a dull race where the only headlines Ashby has gotten lately have been bad ones.

This race doesn’t have to be this way and, frankly, Sacramento is better off if both candidates feel some discomfort in running it.

Ashby is supported by many in the business community. Some business leaders have concern that Steinberg won’t do enough to support efforts to attract investment to Sacramento.

Love him or hate him, Johnson talked up business and investment in Sacramento with results after decades of those critical areas only receiving lip service.

The spike in violent crimes in Sacramento is a critical issue, as is the lack of opportunities in communities such as Del Paso Heights and Meadowview, among others. What’s Steinberg going do about it? Or Ashby?

This mayoral race is a conversation still waiting to be had.

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