There have been few substantive nods in the recent mayoral debates to the most pressing issue facing Sacramento.
Darrell Steinberg and Angelique Ashby, Sacramento’s primary mayoral candidates, are adept at mouthing the words for what ails the city. But the need to create jobs in the state capital gets far less attention in the mayoral campaign than homelessness, an issue that disproportionately dominates public policy, discussion and media coverage in Sacramento.
This makes little sense if you simply focus on the numbers. According to Sacramento Steps Forward, the lead homeless agency in the county, there are approximately 2,600 people living on Sacramento’s streets on any given night.
With 2.3 million people, Sacramento is the 22nd largest metropolitan region in the United States. It also has a 24.3 percent youth unemployment rate. Of major U.S. cities, only Detroit, Memphis and Riverside have higher rates.
Barry Broome, CEO of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council, the nonprofit charged with recruiting new businesses, said the regional jobs picture is still far from what it should be.
“We don’t operate from a competitive platform. If you look at Denver and Austin and Seattle, they focus on competitiveness,” he said. “Our community isn’t educated on the economy because all we talk about is politics.”
Broome said a big challenge in Sacramento is dispelling the notion that jobs “just show up.” He said Sacramento lacks venture capital and infrastructure for investment.
The links between poverty, lack of education, unemployment and youth crime are well established. Sacramento, like other cities across America, has poor and uneducated young people filling its main jail.
Last week, four young people between the ages of 17 and 24 were arrested in connection with a south Sacramento home-invasion robbery that resulted in the shooting deaths of a father and his two sons.
We don’t operate from a competitive platform. If you look at Denver and Austin and Seattle, they focus on competitiveness. ... All we talk about is politics.
Barry Broome, CEO of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council
Three of the suspects – legal adults whose booking photographs were released publicly – are college-age kids. But the hardened looks of Daniel Nguyen, 24, Elijah Johnson, 21, and Amanda Tucker, 18, speak to the disconnect between the desperate lives some young people lead and Sacramento’s capacity to improve them.
It’s not that Steinberg and Ashby don’t care. They do. It’s that neither they – nor other political leaders in Sacramento – seem fully committed to the issue of economic development as a critical city priority.
Steinberg opened Monday’s debate by saying: “Will the next generation choose to live in Sacramento? If we aren’t serious about making this more than a government town, if we aren’t serious about diversifying our economy, the answer will be no.”
Ashby said: “Do we have enough jobs for our young people? Right now, we don’t have enough.”
In their campaign materials, both candidates talk about the economy in general terms. Ashby repeats Broome’s primary recruitment pitch, the one about luring more high-tech jobs from the Bay Area to Sacramento. She talks about streamlining permits for businesses, but that’s a long-running refrain repeated by many around town. Steinberg talks about making Sacramento more “business friendly.”
Steinberg likes to say that Golden 1 Center, the new downtown arena set to open this fall, should be the beginning of the economic development conversation in Sacramento and not the end. He’s right. But at least right now, that conversation doesn’t go much deeper than slogans and lip service.
When Steinberg speaks, as he did Monday at debate sponsored by The Sacramento Bee, Channel 10 (KXTV) and Capital Public Radio at Sacramento State, he was most animated when describing homelessness, mental health and education.
All were core priorities for him when he was the leader of the state Senate. These issues are undeniably important, and they play a role in crime and poverty in Sacramento.
Befitting his comfort zone as a longtime state legislator, Steinberg’s plans for Sacramento include tapping into state money to improve the city’s housing stock. That could help get more homeless people off the street. Steinberg wants to bolster Sacramento’s parks department to give young people more access to healthy recreational activities. He wants neighborhood priorities to be enhanced. He wants Sacramento’s City Council to be more like the one he served on in the early 1990s.
But here is the problem: It’s not the ’90s anymore, and Sacramento has lost the illusion of being a small town. Triple homicides like the one in south Sacramento are part of a major spike in violent crime in the capital.
Violent crime was also high in early 1990s Sacramento. The majority of the crimes occurred then where they occur now: Meadowview, Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, Strawberry Manor, Lemon Hill – where many young people are poor and desperate.
Advocating for parks is fine mayoral pledge, but the city needs to do more than provide recreation. The city needs to foster industry that will create jobs for all Sacramentans, including young people.
It was good that when the homeless questions came up at Monday’s debate, Steinberg rejected the idea of a legalized homeless camp in Sacramento. That red herring of an issue has dominated news cycles in Sacramento since December.
Earlier this year, a delegation of four council members, the city manager, the police chief and others visited Seattle to study the issue. Since then, civic leaders such as Councilman Jay Schenirer have spent months studying the homeless issue.
Where is the similar urgency to create jobs? Again, it’s not that Steinberg, Schenirer and others don’t care about economic vitality. It’s that their civic passions are wedded to more traditionally liberal policy concerns.
If you look at Steinberg’s TV commercials, you see a nice guy who seems to be all about public services and parks. That message plays to the roughly 30 percent of Sacramentans expected to vote in the June primary. But Sacramento’s next mayor needs to work to include a broader audience with his or her message, people who are disconnected from a civic life many of us take for granted.
Ashby is the candidate backed by the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce. But she often obscures that message with her reflexive tendency to tout her public-safety backing. A stronger economy and jobs base is a great public-safety strategy. Former Sacramento police Chief Rick Braziel used to say that all the time.
Ashby’s enthusiasm becomes apparent when she talks about putting more cops on the street and having community service officers. But she’s mostly addressing that smaller group of June voters with this message instead of broadcasting a more citywide vision. Ask people in Del Paso Heights, Oak Park and Meadowview what they need most and the answer will not be more cops. They need more jobs.
Until or unless Sacramento’s mayoral candidates make job creation a priority – until they partner with Broome and other business leaders trying to transform Sacramento into something more than just a government town – nothing will substantially change in a city that’s crying out for change.