Local Elections

Ashby fights from underdog spot in Sacramento mayor’s race

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories profiling the frontrunners in Sacramento’s mayoral election. Up next: former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg.

Angelique Ashby finds herself in a familiar position in the Sacramento mayor’s race. Facing an opponent who is better known and has much more money, she’s the clear underdog.

But she’s not backing down.

“Some things are worth fighting for, and this is one of them,” Ashby said last month, sitting in a midtown coffee shop. “I think Sacramento wants a fighter as its next mayor.”

If Ashby were to win in the June primary, it would be a remarkable upset. Her opponent is Darrell Steinberg, a seemingly everywhere politician who has been a fixture on the local political scene for more than 20 years. He has a $2 million war chest – the largest in city history – most of it raised when he was head of the state Senate contemplating a run for statewide office.

Ashby, 41, has pulled off a big upset before. She surprised the local political establishment in 2010, when she emerged from the neighborhood activist ranks in North Natomas to wrest a City Council seat from Ray Tretheway, a three-term incumbent who outspent her 2-to-1. Her election was a jolt to politics as usual in Sacramento, where a seat on the council traditionally had come with rock-solid job security.

Her strategy for another upset is simple: trying to share her story with a voter base outside North Natomas that might not know her very well. She’s doing that by holding intimate meetings in voters’ homes (she did that twice Saturday) and taking part in a steady stream of candidate forums (she was in one Saturday). She’s also canvassing neighborhoods, although her door-to-door effort has appeared to lag behind Steinberg and his enormous army of volunteers.

It’s been tough from the moment Steinberg entered the race, days after Ashby announced she would run. A poll conducted by Ashby’s campaign last fall showed far more city voters recognized Steinberg’s name than hers. Despite that, Ashby secured a list of high-profile endorsements and has raised more than $350,000.

“Given her opponent is a candidate that’s well known, has positive ratings and a huge campaign war chest, this has been an uphill battle from the get-go,” said political consultant Steve Maviglio, who has advised Ashby in the past but has never directly worked for her. “But she’s not the type of person who’s going to give up, and Darrell Steinberg isn’t the kind of person who will take anything for granted.”

This fight, Ashby contends, has been unfair at times.

She has criticized Steinberg’s transfer of $1.4 million he raised for a potential lieutenant governor’s race into his mayoral campaign, arguing he should have been limited by city election code to using far less. The city attorney disagreed with her interpretation of the code and has allowed the transfer.

Ashby has cast herself as an outsider on the City Council, saying most of her male colleagues endorsed her opponent because of their own long-standing entrenchment in city politics, their friendships with Steinberg and because she is “not one of the guys.” Ashby has been the only woman on the City Council since 2014.

At debates and public forums, she says she would be a “Day One mayor” because she is already immersed in city issues, while Steinberg – also a former city councilman – moved on long ago to state government.

“You couldn’t be more prepared to be mayor than I am right now,” she said. “I have a depth of knowledge in what’s happening right now.”

She has embraced public safety as one of her main themes, but made a significant misstep early in the campaign when she touted crime reduction figures for her district that turned out to be wildly overstated. The police chief later said his department provided Ashby with faulty numbers and took the blame for the error.

Neighborhood roots

Ashby was born in Ashland, Ore., and moved to Roseville when she was 10. She developed a love for dancing at a young age, so her parents moved the family to Sacramento four years later so Ashby could attend the visual and performing arts program at Sacramento High School. She spent four years focusing on ballet, jazz and tap dancing and graduated from Sacramento High in 1993.

After graduating, Ashby took classes at American River College and taught dance at local studios. But then, at the age of 19, she got pregnant. Her son, Nate, was born in 1995 through an emergency cesarean section. It was a wake-up call.

“I felt like I needed to be a better person for this kid,” she said. “I took control of my life.”

Nate’s father, who was Ashby’s high school sweetheart, was not involved in the young boy’s upbringing. Ashby said she juggled classes with a string of part-time jobs – she was a saleswoman at Nordstrom and a waitress at an Old Spaghetti Factory in Roseville. In 1996, she enrolled at UC Davis and took a part-time job at Families First, a nonprofit in Davis that provided mental health services and other assistance to foster youths.

Ashby’s parents had divorced when she was in high school and the young mother was largely on her own. She bought groceries with food stamps, and she and Nate lived in low-income housing in South Natomas and the Pocket/Greenhaven area.

She graduated from UC Davis in 1999 and enrolled in night classes at McGeorge School of Law. While there, she was introduced to her cousin’s roommate from the University of Oregon. And in 2002, she married that man, Zachary Rucker-Christopher, now the assistant nurse manager at Sutter General Hospital. The following year, Ashby graduated with a law degree from McGeorge and the couple moved into a new home in the Creekside neighborhood of North Natomas, where they are raising two more children: Tyus, 11, and Alia, who turns 3 on Monday.

By the time she and her husband had settled on a home to raise their family, her demands were simple: “I just wanted a nice coach light out front,” she said. When their young family moved in, they didn’t have enough money to groom the backyard, so it remained a small dirt patch for the first several months.

Like thousands of others, her family was drawn to Sacramento’s newest neighborhood by the promise of a suburban lifestyle just a few miles from downtown. It seemed every street had a glossy “Coming Soon” sign, promoting new parks, grocery stores and schools. But in those early years, many of the promises were not kept.

Ashby’s discontent began with a small issue: She and her neighbors wanted a stop sign at the corner of Ottumwa Drive and East Commerce Way, the main entry point into Creekside. She attended a community fair in a nearby park to ask when she could expect to see the stop sign and returned home later that night as the president of the newly formed neighborhood association.

“There was a lot of need there,” she said. “We needed more police, a fire station, parks, streetlights, sidewalks.”

When a rash of home invasion and street robberies placed the neighborhood on alert during the summer of 2008, Ashby took charge as the co-founder of the North Natomas Crime and Safety Committee. She had a direct pipeline to the Police Department, accompanying top-ranking officers on patrols of the neighborhood. At community meetings, Ashby emerged as the voice of a neighborhood that felt the city had not followed through on its promise to provide good schools, nice parks and safe streets.

Still, a run for office was not on her mind.

“I had just finished law school and started a business (a consulting firm with her father),” Ashby said. “But the more frustrated I got, the more I thought about it.”

Molly Fling, a longtime Natomas activist who now manages a small public safety center Ashby helped launch in the neighborhood, said she remembers watching Ashby confront city officials and developers as residents grew weary of the area’s lack of resources. Ashby and others argued that revenue created by development in North Natomas was being used to support services in other parts of the city.

“A lot of us saw her as someone who could go and do things not just for the district, but for the city,” Fling said. “She draws people in, she builds relationships.”

Another complaint focused on fire safety. North Natomas had some of the longest emergency response times in the city because many homes had been built far from a fire station. Ashby served as a community representative with city officials to develop a financing plan for a new $9.6 million station on El Centro Road.

The City Council voted to spend the money for the new station in 2009. By that time, Ashby was in the early stages of a campaign against Tretheway, who had represented the area since 2001. Despite Tretheway’s massive fundraising advantage and longer list of endorsements, Ashby won the race in the June primary.

It was the first time in nearly 20 years an incumbent council member had been unseated.

‘Very good council member’

During her first few years in office, Ashby was a popular figure in North Natomas. And as city politics became increasingly competitive, Ashby’s position on the council was safe: She was the only council member since 2008 to run unopposed when she won re-election in 2014. Still, she wasn’t very well known in other parts of the city.

With a strong connection to Mayor Kevin Johnson and his growing coalition on the City Council, Ashby’s profile steadily grew. She was a central figure during the various stages of the Kings arena saga; Sleep Train Arena is in the middle of her district, and North Natomas residents have long been nervous about what will fill its huge footprint. Ashby had been critical of the Sacramento Kings’ pace of coming up with a new plan for the Sleep Train site, but has recently said she is confident the new use will fit the community’s needs and serve as “an economic driver.”

Ashby’s colleagues selected her to serve as vice mayor twice and mayor pro tem two other times. She led council meetings during the mayor’s frequent absences and was asked to help out with events around the city, reading to schoolchildren at south Sacramento’s Phoenix Park and helping to organize a candlelight vigil after a Grant High School football player was shot to death last year.

Ashby also played a central role in lobbying federal officials for money to fund levee improvements in Natomas, work that resulted in last year’s lifting of a building moratorium in place in the region since 2008. She served on City Council committees that led to the formation of a police oversight commission and ethics reforms at City Hall. When the city’s library system was threatening to close facilities, Ashby led the successful campaign to pass a parcel tax on the June 2014 ballot that has provided millions of dollars for library hours, staffing and technology.

Those accomplishments may not have been as high-profile as leading negotiations to fill a $42 billion state budget deficit or authoring a bill that streamlined California’s complicated environmental review of the Golden 1 Center arena – as Steinberg did during his time in the Capitol. But, Ashby argues, her résumé is more valuable for the job she is seeking.

She said the evidence of her knowledge – and her plans for the future – are included in a 66-page report her campaign released last month called One Sacramento. In it, Ashby calls for bringing back police units that do community-based patrols and are not tied to 911 response; increasing funding for traffic control and anti-DUI efforts; expanding the city auditor’s office; starting a city office to help small businesses navigate red tape; and launching a homelessness commission of activists, residents and service providers.

Steinberg says Ashby has been “a very good council member” and has joked at debates that he hopes to serve alongside her at City Hall. He points to the support he’s received from the majority of the current City Council as an indication of his strength in the race.

“Part of governing and part of leading is being able to put together votes and coalitions, and I’d begin with a head start,” he said.

Six of Ashby’s colleagues on the City Council endorsed Steinberg, and the other two – Mayor Johnson and Councilman Allen Warren – haven’t said publicly whom they’re supporting. Ashby said many of her colleagues have held high-profile positions locally for years or have close personal relationships with Steinberg.

But she said the political allegiances to her competitor are the result of something else, too.

“I do sometimes feel like, I’m not a guy, right?” she said. “I don’t hang out with them.”

“My priorities as a woman and where I am in my life as a mom with kids, just puts me in a different spot than them,” she added. “If I have an extra evening, I’d rather be at my kid’s Little League game than doing a bike ride or golfing (with one of her male colleagues).”

Councilman Steve Hansen, among those supporting Steinberg, said Ashby’s argument that she isn’t supported by her colleagues “because she’s a woman is preposterous.” Hansen, the city’s first openly gay council member, said, “We all have to work with each other, and our differences are more about policy than our race or gender or sexual orientation.”

“If she truly was the outsider, she wouldn’t have the accolades she claims for herself and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to serve as a presiding officer of the council,” he said. “The quality of Darrell’s character, the opportunity to have him as our mayor because of the type of leader he is, and his willingness to bring together disparate kinds of people and not make it about what divides them I think is very attractive to not just council members, but to the public as well.”

‘Basically my house’

Out in Sacramento’s neighborhoods, Ashby’s campaign effort appears to trail Steinberg’s. His homey-looking lawn signs began appearing around town weeks before the first Ashby signs showed up. Steinberg also has organized more than 50 “meet and greets” at homes around the city.

Still, Ashby said she has been happy with how she’s performed at the many mayoral forums and debates; she said there haven’t been enough of the events. And she appears at ease when she’s interacting with voters one on one.

As she walked last month along an East Sacramento street lined with brick Tudors and sycamore trees, Ashby was able to quickly adapt her message to whoever answered the door. Of the several voters she spoke with, only one said he was definitely voting for Steinberg – and that’s because he worked in the Capitol when Steinberg was a lawmaker.

Ashby’s first stop was a home where the front yard was filled with balls and bicycles. The playful yelling of two young children and a barking dog echoed from inside. “This is basically my house,” she said as she approached the front door.

Almost immediately, it was clear what the home’s residents wanted to talk about. Neil Ferrera, a prosecutor in the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, wanted to know about public safety.

For the next few minutes, Ashby talked about her experience as a neighborhood crime watch leader in North Natomas and the support she has from the city’s public safety unions. She said she wants the Police Department to reinvest in community-oriented policing – not reactionary policing – and promoted reading and after-school programs she helped develop in her City Council district.

“You’ve won me over,” Ferrera said, agreeing to place an Ashby campaign sign in his front yard. “Crime issues are what drive my local voting.”

A few houses later, Joann Brian answered the door. Ashby opened by mentioning she is “the only woman on the City Council” and she described herself as the underdog “against a machine.” The message resonated with Brian.

“It’s time for a woman to be in there,” Brian said. “We need a change.”

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

Sacramento mayoral debate

When: Monday, 3 to 4 p.m.

Candidates: Councilwoman Angelique Ashby; Tony Lopez, former boxing champion; Darrell Steinberg, former state Senate leader

Where: University Union Ballroom, Sacramento State, 6000 J St., Sacramento

Other details: The debate will be broadcast live on ABC10 and Capital Public Radio at 3 p.m., and live-streamed on capradio.org and sacbee.com. It will be rebroadcast on Capital Public Radio at 7 p.m. Monday.

Angelique Ashby

Age: 41

Experience: City councilwoman, North Natomas, 2010-present; vice mayor 2012, 2013; mayor pro tem 2014, 2015; former president Creekside Neighborhood Association; co-founder North Natomas Crime and Safety Committee

Education: Law degree, University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law, 2003; bachelor's degree, sociology, UC Davis, 1999

Key endorsements: Sacramento Police Officers Association; Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522; Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce; state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento; Sacramento Deputy Sheriffs’ Association; former Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully; Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove.