Arena deal, mayor, win big in Sacramento City Council races

Sacramento residents didn’t vote on the Kings arena plan Tuesday night, and Mayor Kevin Johnson wasn’t up for re-election. But both did pretty well at the polls.

City Council candidates aligned with the mayor and supportive of the city’s plan to subsidize a downtown arena did better than opponents who tried to capitalize on a perception that the public is angry about the arena deal and unhappy with the mayor.

Councilman Jay Schenirer soundly defeated labor organizer Ali Cooper in the race to represent Curtis Park, Oak Park, South Land Park and other neighborhoods south of the central city. Schenirer is a close ally of the mayor and has been a vocal supporter of the arena plan.

In the district representing the Pocket, Greenhaven and Valley Hi neighborhoods, nonprofit executive director Rick Jennings held a big lead over former city fire chief Julius Cherry.

Jennings – a close friend of the mayor who once led Johnson’s nonprofit organization – had received just over 50 percent of the vote as of Wednesday. With hundreds more ballots to be counted in the district, it was too early to tell whether he would maintain a majority and win outright to avoid a runoff with Cherry in November. Regardless, Jennings seemed likely to finish the election with more votes than his rival.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, another mayoral ally and strong arena supporter, ran unopposed in North Natomas and was elected to a second term.

The mayor wasn’t willing on Wednesday to take a victory lap, noting through a staff aide that 77,000 ballots remain to be counted in the county. The mayor’s views on the race were clear, however; a smiling Johnson posed for photographs with Jennings at the candidate’s election-night party.

It wasn’t just candidates who saw Tuesday’s election as a gauge of the city’s feelings toward Johnson and the arena.

Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork, or STOP, a citizen group that sought a public vote on the arena plan and has been critical of the deal, donated $1,600 to Cooper’s campaign and urged its supporters to vote for Cooper and Cherry. The group posted messages on its Facebook page in recent days urging voters to make the primary a “referendum by electing candidates who support our right to vote and who will represent the public interest and oppose more giveaway subsidies.”

Cooper was highly critical of the city’s plan to contribute $255 million toward the arena. He described Schenirer as a “downtown insider” who has ignored his district’s neighborhoods in favor of the arena. And Cooper’s supporters – most notably a coalition of labor unions – attacked Schenirer for backing Johnson’s November ballot measure seeking to increase the powers of the mayor’s office.

Cooper was also critical of the amount of spending in the race, saying in an interview that “what we learned (from the election) is that we’ve got a system where if you spend a lot of money, you win at the end of the day.” Schenirer raised roughly three times as much as Cooper and benefited from more than $100,000 in television ads and campaign mailers funded by outside business and labor groups.

In an email to supporters, Cooper said that low voter turnout, “coupled with monied special interest, stifled our ability to get across the finish line ahead of our opponent.” He also vowed to fight Johnson’s strong-mayor plan.

Schenirer said voters did not express outrage to him over his support of the strong-mayor plan or the arena.

“I think there were two messages from Tuesday: That we’ve done a lot of work in the neighborhoods supporting their goals and that the city is moving in the right direction,” he said. “The arena is obviously a part of that.”

Cherry also attempted to make Johnson a theme of the campaign, posting on his website that he isn’t “the mayor’s favorite candidate.” He opposed the arena subsidy plan and told The Bee on Tuesday that he “got a lot of punishment for that,” referring to campaign mailers funded by an independent expenditure committee criticizing his $188,000-a-year pension.

Jennings said his campaign “didn’t buy into” the notion that Johnson’s performance was a top issue on the minds of voters. And he said that most people he spoke with supported the arena.

“We heard people are excited about the arena deal, especially when we talked to them about the impact the deal will have on jobs for residents and the impact on businesses in the district,” he said.

The Pocket-area race was the most expensive of the four City Council campaigns, with Jennings, Cherry and Valley Hi resident Abe Snobar – who finished third – combining to raise $280,578, according to campaign finance records. All together, candidates in the four City Council races raised a total of $725,000, and independent expenditure groups spent $216,000, according to election filings.

Money didn’t translate to victory everywhere in the city.

Financial adviser Cyril Shah was sitting in third place in the campaign for the district representing east Sacramento and South Natomas – despite raising roughly three times the total of his six competitors combined.

He was trailing contractor and parks commissioner Jeff Harris and teacher Ellen Cochrane. All three candidates are going to fall well short of receiving 50 percent of the vote, meaning the top two will face off in the November general election. Just nine votes separated Cochrane and Shah for the second spot on Wednesday.

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