Local Elections

Darrell Steinberg says he’s ‘all in’ to become Sacramento mayor

Darrell Steinberg ties his walking shoes on the bumper of his car before he walks door to door for a couple of hours in Land Park as he campaigns for mayor on Thursday, May 12, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif.
Darrell Steinberg ties his walking shoes on the bumper of his car before he walks door to door for a couple of hours in Land Park as he campaigns for mayor on Thursday, May 12, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. rpench@sacbee.com

Darrell Steinberg is trying to leave no doubt: he wants to be mayor of Sacramento and nothing else.

The political veteran of more than 20 years is running his race like a fresh-faced first-timer, crisscrossing the city as he chats with residents in their living rooms, sips coffee with young entrepreneurs and knocks on hundreds of doors. He has amassed the largest campaign bank account in city history, but insists he won’t spend all that cash and that his army of more than 1,000 volunteers is more critical to winning the June primary.

As Steinberg, 56, debated whether to run last year, the former state Senate president said he contemplated potential pitfalls he might encounter. Among his top worries: voters – and his opponents – would criticize him for acting like the race was his to lose.

“Whatever the outcome, I’m giving it my absolute all,” he said.

Steinberg’s focus on shaking hands and knocking on doors reflects his personal style, aides say. To many Sacramento residents and political power brokers alike, he is known simply as “Darrell,” an unthreatening figure who makes jokes about his own athletic ability and schmoozes with neighbors nearly every day at his neighborhood Nugget supermarket in Greenhaven.

Steinberg suggests that his nice guy persona should not be confused with weakness. He notes that he is a survivor of the City Council, state Assembly and a tumultuous era at the Capitol as head of the Senate. During the mayoral campaign, he’s had no problem attacking his main rival, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.

He criticized her for misstating crime statistics in March. At a KFBK radio forum Wednesday night, he simply told Ashby, “I’ve outworked you.”

Steinberg wants to replace Sacramento’s first celebrity mayor, former NBA star Kevin Johnson, a man whose eight years at City Hall have drawn national attention, both positive and negative. Steinberg’s supporters argue he can play on that same big stage; as Senate president he brokered some of the most difficult budget deals in state history, going head-to-head with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California’s most powerful interest groups.

But Johnson and Steinberg are a contrast in styles. A few weeks before he left his Senate post in 2014, Steinberg attended a rally for Johnson’s campaign for a strong-mayor ballot measure. Johnson arrived at the event with an entourage of aides in the black sport-utility vehicle that escorts him around town. Steinberg, who was at the time the second-most powerful politician in California, pulled into a parking lot across the street in his Honda Accord, alone.

The differences also stretch into governing. Steinberg emphasized that he’s an expert at drilling into policy issues that have nothing to do with arenas or new theaters. He said he built his political career promoting “issues that aren’t on the political pop chart,” including mental health and urban planning.

“There are things that Kevin (Johnson) has done that have been very good for the city, but if you think about who could follow him, I think Darrell is in a perfect position,” said Councilman Jay Schenirer, a close friend of Steinberg’s for 20 years. “We have a lot of big things happening and now it’s going to be about the little things and hard issues in a lot of ways – tackling homelessness, neighborhood blight, issues around young people. I think that’s where Darrell has made his mark.”

As the temperature approached 90 degrees on Thursday, Steinberg and a campaign staffer walked the streets of Land Park to speak with voters about those issues. They were methodical in their work; pro-Steinberg lawn signs already dominated, but the candidate was back in the politically active neighborhood to reach voters who were either not home the last time he was there or indicated they hadn’t made up their mind about the race.

Most of the residents Steinberg spoke with indicated they planned to vote for him, although a handful remained undecided. Many people asked Steinberg what he planned to do about homelessness, saying they had noticed an increase in homeless people in Land Park, and others expressed concern with the amount of traffic that will be generated by downtown’s Golden 1 Center. Ashby campaign signs were planted in the lawns of two houses next to one another on Eighth Avenue; Steinberg knocked on both doors, seeking to win some votes, but neither homeowner was home.

On Seventh Avenue, Steinberg knocked on the door of Joe Munso, a former undersecretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency. While their politics differ – Munso is a Republican and Steinberg a Democrat – that didn’t seem to bother Munso. He said he was impressed with Steinberg’s work on mental health issues at the Capitol and agreed to take a lawn sign.

“You want to work with people who want to get things done,” Munso said.

‘A confidence builder’

Steinberg grew up in Millbrae, near San Francisco International Airport, and was an all-league tennis player at Capuchino High School (although he describes himself as “short, but slow,” his friends say he is still good at the game). His father, Bud, was an accountant and at the age of 82 still teaches beginning accounting at Skyline Community College. Steinberg’s mother, Arlene, a homemaker who held administrative assistant jobs, is retired.

Steinberg ran for student body office and suffered his last election defeat when he finished second in the race for junior class president behind a student named Mark Swanson – a name still seared into Steinberg’s memory. After graduation, Steinberg headed to UC Berkeley and transferred to UCLA for his junior and senior years, saying he wanted to experience life in Southern California.

While at Berkeley, he became friends with physically disabled students living in his dorm. Later, while in his third year of law school at UC Davis, Steinberg tutored two disabled students, an experience that would spark his first head-to-head battle with a powerful leader.

These were the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act, and portions of the law school were not accessible to disabled students. Most notably, the school courtroom where students practiced their trial technique was cut off to students in wheelchairs, so Steinberg’s friends had to train in a classroom.

“I decided to make this a cause,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said he asked the law school leadership to pay for a lift into the courtroom. Then he asked again. And again. Finally, he said, he went to the university administration and was told law school leaders had rejected money for an access lift because “they didn’t want to ruin the aesthetic look of the school.”

The young law student asked for written proof of the law school’s position. A few days later, that letter ended up on the front page of the school newspaper. The lift was constructed within four months.

“That’s when I knew I could do this,” Steinberg said. “It was a confidence builder.”

Steinberg landed a job with a small law firm in Sacramento after graduating from Davis, but quickly left to represent state workers in disciplinary cases as an attorney with the California State Employees Association. He slowly got involved in local civic organizations, including the Jewish Community Relations Council, and bought a home in Tahoe Park in 1989. He was mentored by city political stalwarts like former councilman and congressman Robert Matsui; former mayor and assemblyman Phil Isenberg; and Lloyd Connelly, a former councilman and current judge.

That same year, Steinberg’s mother set him up on a date with the daughter of one of her friends. Julie Bearman’s father was also one of Steinberg’s childhood pediatricians. The couple had their first dinner date at a Russian restaurant on Berkeley’s College Avenue. They’ll celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary next month.

Julie Steinberg, who worked as a social worker for about six years, is now the cantor at Sacramento’s Congregation B’nai Israel, the largest reform synagogue in the region. The couple have two children: Jordana, 22, and Ari, 19.

Three months before Steinberg left the Senate in 2014, his daughter went public in a Sacramento Bee report about her battle with a severe childhood mood disorder. Jordana is now finishing classes at Sierra College and plans to attend American Jewish University near Los Angeles in the fall.

Steinberg prioritized mental health issues long before he knew his own daughter had her own struggles. But he said her story and her willingness to speak out have inspired him.

“Parallel universes came together at some point,” Steinberg said. “Since that story published, three to five people text me, stop me on the street or call me every week to talk about their own families and experiences. I’m so proud of her because she chose to talk about it.”

Soon after Steinberg moved to Tahoe Park, the area’s city councilwoman, current federal Judge Kim Mueller, asked him to start a neighborhood association. The idea was to create a counterforce to increased gang activity in the community park. That neighborhood post would serve as a springboard into politics. In 1992, Steinberg won Mueller’s seat on the City Council when she decided to leave for law school.

His first defining moment in politics, he said, came in 1995, when Steinberg was the architect for the after-school program called START, which serves 4,000 elementary school students largely from low-income households.

There was no clear funding source for the program, but Steinberg discovered surplus money in the reserves of the Sacramento Metropolitan Cable Television Commission that was being made available to local governments. He persuaded his colleagues to dedicate $500,000 from that pot to launch 20 after-school programs. START is still in operation today, funded mostly by state and federal grants.

‘At the table’

After six years at City Hall, Steinberg made the jump to the Capitol, easily winning a seat in the Assembly in 1998. He served three terms, the maximum at the time. As he contemplated a bid for state Senate, Steinberg knew he would make a play to run the Legislature’s more powerful branch. He had chaired the Assembly’s powerful Appropriations Committee and wanted to take another step up the ladder.

“I wanted to be the principal at the table,” he said. “I thought I could do it and negotiate budgets and lead an institution.”

He was elected to the Senate in 2006 and two years later became the first president of that body from Sacramento in 125 years. It could not have come at a more turbulent time, as the state faced a $42 billion deficit in the depths of the recession.

Despite a reputation in the Capitol for being nice – maybe too nice – Steinberg said he never lost a high-profile vote as Senate president and was able to fight tough during the budget negotiations of 2009 and 2010. During one tense budget deal, he said he told his colleagues: “We can either sit in session for the next two hours or the next two days, I frankly don’t give a s--- because we’re getting this done.”

“That’s not a power you can evoke too often,” he said.

Steinberg touts his successes at the Capitol: an initiative that taxes the state’s highest earners to generate millions for mental health programs; a bill, SB 375, that aimed to tackle greenhouse gas emission by promoting new development near mass transit; 2013 legislation that streamlined the environmental review process for Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center arena; and a $7.5 billion water bond approved by voters in 2014.

On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown gave his blessing to a proposal by Steinberg and current Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León to use money from the “millionaires’ tax” to fund housing for the homeless and mentally ill.

But his run as Senate leader also included scandals.

Three senators in Steinberg’s Democratic caucus faced criminal charges while he was Senate president. He has said the Senate acted appropriately by suspending all three with pay when the charges were revealed. Steinberg was never connected to the cases.

Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, attempted to call for a Senate vote to expel the three senators – Ron Calderon, Leland Yee and Rod Wright – but Steinberg blocked the attempt. Anderson said it is fair to judge that period at the Capitol as voters contemplate what kind of mayor Steinberg would be.

“I will say this about Darrell: He’s a good guy, I’ve always found him to be a good guy,” Anderson said. “But he’s not always right. When it came to a culture of corruption, he fell on the side of protecting corrupt politicians.”

Steinberg said he is “proud of the way I dealt with a very difficult set of situations.” He said he did not expel the three senators because doing so without a hearing would have deprived them of due process.

“We suspended them, we removed them from the Democratic majority and they did not vote (on Senate matters),” he said. “I never shied from the situation and I handled it appropriately.”

Wright was convicted of perjury and voter fraud, Yee pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and Calderon is awaiting trial after being indicted on corruption charges. As he finished his Senate term in 2014, Steinberg told The Sacramento Bee, “I made very clear to all the members what my expectations were in terms of their behavior and their ethics. But, you know, you can’t baby-sit people. You can’t watch people every minute.”

Steinberg also was Senate leader when an administrative scandal rocked the upper house. In 2014, The Bee reported that Senate sergeant-at-arms Gerardo Lopez was found with cocaine and marijuana in his system during a 2012 shootout at his Greenhaven home that left one man dead. Steinberg fired Lopez and soon after accepted the resignation of longtime chief sergeant-at-arms Tony Beard Jr., who had known for weeks that Lopez had drugs in his system.

The Lopez incident led to further allegations of nepotism because Lopez’s mother, Dina Hidalgo, was a high-level human resources administrator in the Senate. Hidalgo stepped down later that year as The Bee reported that at least five members of her family worked in the Capitol and at least three of her softball teammates got Senate jobs after playing on her team. The Senate hired an investigator to conduct a review, but did not release the findings.

Steinberg has said he took “immediate action” on those matters, but added he inherited the problem rather than caused it.

“That was another difficult chapter, but we fought through all of it,” he said. “We accomplished a lot for the state that year and I believe that if I had not handled the situations in the way I did, I think a lot of the progress would have been stymied.”

Ashby has only occasionally criticized Steinberg for the Senate controversies during debates, reserving much of her political fire for Steinberg’s transfer of $1.4 million from a lieutenant governor campaign account into his mayoral coffers in April. Sacramento City Attorney James Sanchez has said the practice was legal under city laws, but Ashby believes Steinberg has violated several campaign regulations.

On Friday, Ashby sued Steinberg, alleging $220,000 of the lieutenant governor campaign money was illegally transferred to the mayoral account. The suit charges that Steinberg should have refunded $192,000 of that cash to donors to his statewide account because he did not run in the general election for the lieutenant governor’s seat. Another $28,000 in cash reported in the mayoral account originated with non-monetary donations to the lieutenant governor campaign and also should not be used, according to the suit.

Ashby’s campaign strategist, Josh Pulliam, said, “Someone needed to step up to do the right thing and prevent Steinberg from flooding Sacramento with an avalanche of the dirtiest money in politics.”

Steinberg’s spokesman, Jason Kinney, responded that it was a political stunt “born of desperation.” He said that a Fair Political Practices Commission attorney determined in 2010 that Jerry Brown could use similar funds from his attorney general account for his 2012 gubernatorial run.

By transferring the money, Steinberg said, he is demonstrating he is “all in” for the mayor’s race and is setting his statewide ambitions aside, at least for now.

His platform has focused on many issues. He wants to restructure the City Hall bureaucracy to focus more heavily on neighborhood services; promote the city’s growing arts culture as an economic driver; forge a stronger connection between City Hall and the public schools; develop the riverfront; and use his connections at the Capitol to drive investment into housing for the homeless.

Steinberg’s penchant for policy issues is evident even when the conversation is focused on something else.

Shortly after 8 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, Steinberg walked into midtown’s Urban Hive, a co-working office where small tech firms and startups rent space and exchange ideas. About a dozen of the city’s better-known young entrepreneurs were waiting, ready to give him feedback on how the city can attract and incubate more tech firms.

Steinberg sat down, his dress shirt unbuttoned at the top, and told the entrepreneurs what would drive him.

“I feel an obligation to do all I can to make sure the kids of Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, south Sacramento and all the other forgotten neighborhoods of this city have an opportunity to work in a place like this,” he said. One of his campaign promises is to connect the city’s high schools and colleges to employers.

Steinberg delayed an appearance he had scheduled after the hourlong Urban Hive event to spend more time with the tech group. He pushed them to get more organized with their ideas.

“What you need to do if I’m elected mayor is you need to tee me up to be your champion,” he said.

Steinberg has spoken of his desire for Sacramento to cultivate a vibrant, young workforce and for the city to shed its reputation as a government-only town. Ash Roughani, a freelance Web developer focused on government innovation projects, expressed some frustration to Steinberg with how city officials respond to ideas from outside forces, especially from the tech world.

“There is a culture of risk aversion at the city to seek outside help for certain problems,” he told Steinberg. “We’re looking for a champion at City Hall.”

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

Darrell Steinberg

Age: 56

Experience: Attorney, 2014 to present; state senator, 2006-2014; Senate president pro tem, 2008-2014; Assemblyman, 1998-2004; Sacramento city councilman, 1992-1998; founder, Tahoe Park Neighborhood Association.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, economics, UCLA, 1981; law degree, UC Davis, 1984.

Key endorsements: Six members of the Sacramento City Council; Sacramento Central Labor Council; Region Business; Democratic Party of Sacramento; Gov. Jerry Brown; Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento; Sacramento City Teachers Association.