Angelique Ashby casts herself as outsider in Sacramento mayoral race

Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby stands with supporters at a press conference, Wednesday, October 21, 2015, after formally announcing her candidacy for mayor of Sacramento.
Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby stands with supporters at a press conference, Wednesday, October 21, 2015, after formally announcing her candidacy for mayor of Sacramento. lsterling@sacbee.com

Angelique Ashby said she was ready to take on a Goliath.

She’ll get her chance, even if it’s not the political heavyweight she had in mind.

A two-term Sacramento councilwoman from North Natomas, Ashby jumped into the race for mayor last month just a few hours after Mayor Kevin Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek a third term in 2016. In an email to supporters a few days later, Ashby said she was prepared to challenge Johnson in a head-to-head race and released an internal poll showing she could have won that contest.

“I knew we needed a new mayor with the energy, the experience and the ideals to keep Sacramento moving in a positive direction,” Ashby wrote. “But no one else stepped up. That’s when I decided to run for mayor.”

With Johnson now out of the way, Ashby instead will face a different opponent with broad political support, a seven-figure campaign war chest and name ID that stretches citywide.

Darrell Steinberg, the former state Senate leader who held elected office in Sacramento for more than 20 years, entered the race last week. He made his public announcement during a festive rally at a housing development under construction near downtown, surrounded by more than 200 supporters and members of the city’s political and business elite.

“Darrell brings people together from all of Sacramento – business, labor, environmentalists, advocates for the poor,” said state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, one of those supporters. “It’s really a unique coalition.”

Steinberg was introduced at his rally by Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, whose father, the late Joe Serna Jr., was mayor when Steinberg was on the City Council in the 1990s. Steinberg went out of his way to note that a majority of the current City Council is with him, along with members of the Natomas Unified School District in Ashby’s home neighborhood.

The stage at his rally also featured trustees from the Sacramento City Unified School District, at least five former Sacramento City Council members and big-time political donors like developer Mark Friedman, a Sacramento Kings part owner.

“I think the breadth of support is a reflection of the fact that I’ve worked with this community very closely for a long time,” Steinberg later told reporters.

That support – combined with a campaign bank account that will likely start off around $1 million – makes Steinberg the instant front-runner in the 2016 mayoral race, political consultants said. However, with more than seven months to go until the June primary, Ashby has ample time to introduce herself to voters outside of her neighborhood and raise the money she needs to compete.

“On any given election day, anything can happen,” said Sacramento consultant Phil Giarrizzo. “What Angelique can represent is not an attack on Darrell, but a different approach from an outsider. And if she has the resources and can frame her campaign (as an outsider), she can cause a legitimate debate.”

So far, Ashby has sought to play the role of the young outsider (she’s 40 years old, Steinberg is 56). In an interview Thursday, she called Steinberg “the establishment guy” and “a partisan politician.”

“He’s been around a long time, so it’s not a surprise that everyone else who’s been around a long time feels connected to him,” Ashby said. “The person that I’m up against is a nice guy with a storied career, but he’s an entrenched politician coming from one of the most bureaucratic machines in our country, California’s state government.”

On Friday, Ashby’s campaign sent an email asking Steinberg to run a clean race and refrain from using money from other campaigns in the mayoral race. Steinberg has $1.4 million in an account he established for a possible lieutenant governor’s campaign, and city elections officials have said most of it is eligible for transfer into a mayoral account. Ashby suggested on Twitter that Steinberg donate the money to a worthy cause.

“Darrell Steinberg has a unique and storied history of running positive, unifying and highly ethical campaigns in Sacramento – and he’s already made a specific commitment to do so in this mayor’s race,” Steinberg campaign strategist Lisa Gasperoni said in an email. “We hope and expect other candidates will follow suit, since the voters of Sacramento deserve nothing less.”

Regardless of whether Steinberg uses all the cash in the lieutenant governor account, Ashby will need to assemble deep-pocketed supporters to expand her name recognition beyond North Natomas residents and those who have paid close attention to City Hall politics since she was elected to the council in 2010, consultants said. That likely means gathering support from law enforcement unions – one of her key allies in the past – and the business community. She has the early support of the firefighters union, one of the biggest donors to city campaigns.

Ashby doesn’t have the broad name recognition to start with, “but that’s where money comes in,” said Sacramento political consultant Rob Stutzman. “Her name ID could be built.”

While Steinberg, a veteran of more than a half-dozen campaigns going back to 1992, is better-known to city voters, “it’s not clear how positive Steinberg’s name ID is,” Stutzman said.

“The state Legislature may not be the experience people are looking for to run the city,” he said. “People may prefer someone who’s been more involved in the city recently than Darrell has. And then there just might be the possibility that people don’t like the Legislature and would not prefer a career politician.”

Ashby has a history of playing the underdog role. In 2010, she emerged as a community activist running a neighborhood watch program to defeat Councilman Ray Tretheway – a three-term veteran of City Hall who had the backing of most of the city’s special interest groups and outspent Ashby by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

Steinberg said he’s expecting a tough race.

“I have an opponent who’s a very good public servant herself and who I know is going to work hard,” he said. “That’s what democracy is all about: You put your ideas forward, you put your experience forward and in the end, people make a decision and I’m confident going forward.”

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis