A small, ranch-style home on Azevedo Drive in South Natomas was gutted by fire more than two years ago. It sits charred and abandoned, its windows boarded, because the federal government won’t allow any building in the area until nearby levees are upgraded.
More than six miles away, in the wealthy Fab 40s neighborhood of East Sacramento, a stately brick Tudor with five bedrooms and five fireplaces is for sale at $2.3 million. The home is on 45th Street, a tree-lined block where Ronald Reagan lived when he was governor.
And on Northgate Boulevard, the commercial hub of the working-class Gardenland neighborhood, it’s easier to find used tires than a gallon of milk. The largest business on the street is a 99-cent discount store. Nearby residents complain that homeless campers from the nearby American River Parkway are scaring away nicer shops.
These three very different Sacramento neighborhoods have one thing in common: They’re represented by the same person on the City Council. The mishmash district was drawn during the City Council’s last redistricting process in 2011.
The District 3 seat is up for grabs in November. Two men with closer ties to East Sacramento than to South Natomas survived a June primary election and are competing in a tight runoff campaign: Jeff Harris, a city parks commissioner and homebuilder; and Cyril Shah, a flood control board member and financial adviser. The candidates were separated by just 230 votes in a primary that featured seven candidates.
In addition to South Natomas and East Sacramento, the territory Shah and Harris seek to represent includes the downtown railyard and the River District, a mostly industrial area along the southern bank of the American River that’s being made over with offices and housing.
Harris and Shah each seek to replace outgoing Councilman Steve Cohn, who is stepping down to run for state Assembly. Cohn’s departure is a momentous event at City Hall; with 20 years’ experience, he is believed to be the longest-serving council member in the city’s history.
Both candidates have sought to connect with the South Natomas and Northgate side of the district, where the average family income is slightly more than half what it is in East Sacramento. They’ve attended park cleanups, spent nights and weekends going door-to-door to speak with residents and narrowed their messages to address the biggest worries of the working-class sections of the district.
Neighborhood leaders and longtime residents said both candidates have made attempts to win over the area, and they’re eager to see if the winner of the November election balances the needs of the entire district.
“We’re not concerned with someone from East Sacramento representing us, we just want to make sure our voices are heard,” said David Marvelli, 33, who has lived his entire life near Northgate Boulevard and is the treasurer of the neighborhood association. “Our issues are a lot different than what they’re facing over there, and it could be hard to compete with the money from the Fab 40s and the East Sac side.”
Harris, 61, said he doesn’t see juggling the concerns of both parts of the district as a challenge. “Working on things like (home) design review in East Sacramento is not going to be an incredible time issue,” he said. “Working on things like crime in Gardenland/Northgate will just require more time, but there’s enough time to tackle all the issues.”
Shah, 39, said “there are common issues in East Sacramento and South Natomas, and I think we can work together.” He said he would create a council of neighborhood association leaders in the district that would convene regularly and develop priorities for his office to tackle, from crime on Northgate Boulevard to design standards for new homes in East Sacramento.
“It’s not about only dedicating resources in East Sac or River Park,” he said. “There are things we can do for the entire district.”
The top issue for many in South Natomas, the most heavily populated section of the district, is the ongoing effort to improve the levees protecting the area from floodwaters, according to neighborhood leaders. After years of delays, President Barack Obama signed legislation in June authorizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finish the levee upgrades, but Congress has not appropriated funding for the work and it’s unclear when the money will be made available.
Until the levees are fixed, houses such as the one on Azevedo Drive – and another just a few blocks away on Pebblewood Drive – can’t be rebuilt after fires. Flood insurance rates are manageable, neighborhood residents said, but are scheduled to increase every year until the levees are strengthened.
“We’re sitting in this abyss, waiting,” said Molly Fling, a longtime South Natomas activist.
‘He knows flood control’
Flood control is a focus for Shah, who sits on the American River Flood Control District board and the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA). Harris said at a candidates’ forum last month that the levee issue is “under control,” but Shah disagrees. He said “there’s a tremendous amount of work left to be done” to ensure that the federal government funds the remaining levee improvements.
“Flood control is a huge public safety issue that can be more devastating than any other safety threat in Sacramento,” Shah said.
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who represents North Natomas and has been one of City Hall’s top lobbying voices for levee funding, said she is supporting Shah largely because he would be the first new council member with flood control experience.
“He knows flood control, and I know he’ll bring a great fiscal mind to the council that I’ve seen him bring to SAFCA,” Ashby said. “We need council members who understand we’re not at the finish line and will stay on top of that issue.”
Shah grew up in Sacramento County and lives in East Sacramento with his wife and two children, ages 6 and 4. He’s been a financial adviser for 17 years, is the son of Indian immigrants and is the former president of the East Sacramento Improvement Association.
Sitting at a table inside the 33rd Street Bistro on Folsom Boulevard in East Sacramento last week, Shah touted a “very broad and diverse group” of supporters. He said the variety of endorsements shows he will be independent, noting that he opposes the strong-mayor measure on the November ballot backed by Mayor Kevin Johnson, yet received Johnson’s support nonetheless.
His backers include the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Sacramento Central Labor Council and several building trade unions. State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, also supports him, as do council members Jay Schenirer, Kevin McCarty and Steve Hansen.
“Even though this disparate group of organizations doesn’t agree on much, they all said, ‘We know we can work with Cyril,’” Shah said.
Shah also is supported by the unions representing police officers and firefighters. He said he speaks regularly with police officials about the need for newly hired cops to be assigned to District 3. He also is advocating for more Community Service Officers in the area and wants to explore updating 911 technology so emergency calls made on cellphones reach the correct dispatcher more quickly.
“There may be more violent crime in other parts of the city, but we need our fair share of resources here,” he said.
Northgate Boulevard’s problem with crime and blight stems in part from the abundance of absentee property owners on the street, Shah said. He said he would create a small-business coalition in the district and use his background serving on the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commission for eight years to help revitalize the thoroughfare and address homeless issues in the area.
“Affordable housing should not be concentrated in one area,” he said.
Shah said he would leverage his financial background – which includes an economics degree from UC Berkeley – to work to attract private firms to Sacramento that conduct business with the state’s two largest public pension funds: CalPERS and CalSTRS, both headquartered here.
“These pension funds have half a trillion dollars in assets under management and they have hundreds of private-sector partners, some on Wall Street and many headquartered in Los Angeles,” he said. “There’s no reason why I can’t personally make the case for (the private firms) to open an office in the shadow of the CalPERS building and create livable, high-paying jobs.”
Focus on the homeless
The first thing Harris mentions in many public settings is his desire to tackle a homeless problem he said is prevalent throughout the district. Business owners on Northgate Boulevard and in the River District complain that the homeless population creates a serious quality-of-life issue, Harris said. East Sacramento isn’t immune, either. Homeless people regularly congregate on the sidewalks of Alhambra Boulevard around Safeway.
“This is a more pervasive issue than we’re really owning up to,” Harris said. “We’ve seen homeless in Sacramento for so long that for many people, they tend to become invisible.”
Harris acknowledged many of his ideas for addressing the homeless issue – including creating permanent housing and boosting services – are underway through the efforts of Sacramento Steps Forward, a regional organization. But he said he would advocate for a steady funding stream for the group. Earlier this year, the City Council voted to dedicate $1 million to the organization over the next two years.
“It’s exciting to me, because the pieces are all there, and if we coordinate them and fund them, we can make a difference,” Harris said.
Harris has lived in East Sacramento for nearly 30 years, the last 24 in the quiet residential area of River Park. He is a contractor who does much of his work remodeling homes, and says that background has made him appreciate the importance of upholding design standards in East Sacramento, where many residents are concerned about old homes being torn down and replaced by larger ones.
In an interview on the patio outside the Tupelo coffeehouse not far from his home, Harris said his experience on the city’s parks commission has “really helped me understand how the city works.” He has been on the commission for four years, serving as the chairman since last year.
As president of the River Park Neighborhood Association, Harris helped lead the fundraising charge in 2009 to maintain limited hours at the pool in Glenn Hall Park. The pool – and many others around the city – had been slated for closure that summer because of budget cuts.
Harris also helped design changes at the park aimed at combating crime. That effort led to remodeled bathrooms and automated closing gates in the parking lot. “Working with the neighbors to achieve a goal was very satisfying,” he said.
Todd Damiano, the current head of the River Park Neighborhood Association, said Harris “has done nothing but put himself out there to keep River Park a great neighborhood and keep it safe and clean.”
“To do all he’s done, that to me indicates that’s somebody who has a clear interest in what they’re doing rather than someone with a political agenda who is trying to get started and (a City Council seat) is a stepping stone to something else,” Damiano said.
In 2012, Harris was part of a group that began exploring a funding source for city parks. That effort eventually led to the crafting of Measure U, a ballot measure passed by voters that increased the city sales tax by one-half percent. The measure provided $29 million to the city budget this year.
“We did something that really benefited the city,” Harris said.
He is supported by former mayors Heather Fargo, Anne Rudin and Burnett Miller; former state Sen. Deborah Ortiz, who also served on the City Council; the Democratic Party of Sacramento County; and the local chapter of the Sierra Club.
Harris has been outspent by his opponent. Through last week, he had raised just over $50,000 and had not employed a campaign manager or fundraiser. Harris has made money a campaign issue, criticizing Shah’s war chest.
Shah, who has raised nearly $250,000, countered that Harris was present during many of the same candidate interviews he attended with interest groups, and just failed to obtain their support.
Harris said getting outspent by a wide margin requires him to rely on volunteers. “It just seems there’s a limit (to fundraising) at which you say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Harris said. “I’ve raised just about what I need, and what I need it not a huge pile of cash.”
Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat.
Occupation: General contractor
Birthplace: Los Angeles
Residence: River Park
Education: Attended UC Davis, plant pathology, apiculture, 1971-72; attended Naropa Institute, music, 1984-85; attended CSU Sacramento College of Continuing Education, Bachelor of Vocational Education program, 1990-94.
Experience: Business owner, Cadence Construction Co., 1986-present; Sacramento Parks and Recreation Commission, 2010-14, chair 2013-present; River Park Neighborhood Association board member, 2004-09, president 2009; tree mitigation committee, Sutter’s Landing Park, 2012; ad hoc committee for Measure U ballot measure, 2011-12; stakeholders advisory committee for city tree ordinance, 2014; McKinley Playground steering committee for playground rebuilding, 2012-13.
Supporters: Former Mayors Heather Fargo, Anne Rudin, Burnett Miller; former state Senator, Assemblywoman and Councilwoman Deborah Ortiz; Democratic Party of Sacramento County; Friends of the Sacramento River Parkway; Sierra Club, Mother Lode Chapter; Latino Democratic Club; Veterans Democratic Club; Green Democratic Club.
Occupation: Financial adviser
Birthplace: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Residence: East Sacramento
Education: Bachelor’s degree, economics, UC Berkeley, 1996.
Experience: Financial adviser, 1997-present; East Sacramento Improvement Association, 2003-present, board president 2008-10; American River Flood Control District board, 2012-present; Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commission, 2005-12; Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, 2011-present; Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, 2012-present.
Supporters: Sacramento Central Labor Council; Sacramento Firefighters Local 522; Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce; Sacramento Police Officers Association; Sacramento County Women Democrats; State Sen. Darrell Steinberg; Mayor Kevin Johnson; Councilman Jay Schenirer; Councilman Kevin McCarty; Councilman Steve Hansen