The mayor-elect of Sacramento settled into a booth at his favorite restaurant in the Pocket on Wednesday, a slice of apple pie on the table in front of him. He joked about his poor shaving job that morning and hammed it up with the wait staff.
But don’t let Darrell Steinberg’s unassuming appearance fool you. This is a man who says he intends to be a strong mayor.
“When you earn some political capital, you can’t be afraid to use it,” Steinberg said during a two-hour interview at Shari’s, a popular chain restaurant near his home in Greenhaven. “And I will not be afraid to use it; I will not be afraid to use power in the right way.”
The former state Senate leader cruised to victory the night before, outperforming his own campaign’s most optimistic projections. He had secured 59 percent of the vote as of Wednesday, more than 32 percentage points ahead of his closest competitor, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.
It was a dominating performance. Steinberg won roughly 85 percent of the city’s 193 precincts, including nearly every precinct outside Ashby’s North Natomas council district. In some areas of the city – including parts of Land Park and Curtis Park – he received more than 70 percent of the vote.
“It was a broad-reaching and deep victory,” Councilman Steve Hansen said. “I do believe he laid out a vision and an agenda for Sacramento – and he now has the chance to advance it.”
Hansen is one of seven City Council members who endorsed Steinberg’s campaign, meaning the new mayor will take office in December with a solid coalition. In conceding defeat Wednesday, Ashby expressed her “commitment to partner” with Steinberg.
“As a member of (the City Council), I will do everything I can to help make his time as Mayor as successful as possible,” Ashby wrote in an email to supporters. “I am proud of our city and honored to be part of the team that will write Sacramento’s next chapter.”
In addition to his political coalition and the knowledge that he won in nearly every corner of the city, Steinberg will enter City Hall with a campaign bank account that at last count carried a balance of $1.2 million. It’s unclear how Steinberg intends to spend the money, but he suggested Wednesday that he could use his war chest to fund ballot measures and causes.
“No one or two interests should dominate city politics,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to go hat-in-hand to the same one or two interests and then get leveraged just to get help for some community benefit that’s in the best interest of the city.”
Some of the city’s power elite that typically back candidates and ballot measures opposed Steinberg in the race, including the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the firefighters union. The chamber helped fund a series of campaign attack mailers targeting Steinberg.
Those mailers were part of what became the most expensive campaign in city history. The candidates and special interest groups combined to spend $1.8 million, most of it by Steinberg.
Steinberg has dismissed Ashby’s suggestion that money drove his success. Steinberg said his campaign had more than 1,000 volunteers and that he personally knocked on more than 3,000 doors. He held “meet and greets” at more than 60 homes, and his lawn signs far outnumbered his opponents’.
“It was the best ground campaign in city history,” he said.
The evidence, Steinberg said, came during a conversation he had on Sunday.
Steinberg was at Hillary Clinton’s rally at Sacramento City College when he had a brief conversation with the expected Democratic presidential nominee. He said Clinton shook his hand and said, “I’ve seen your lawn signs.”
Steinberg began his first day as mayor-elect Wednesday with a series of television interviews shortly after 6 a.m., followed by a midmorning breakfast with his parents and brother. His phone steadily buzzed with congratulatory emails, phone calls and text messages, and his campaign was compiling a list of 1,000 people for him to call with messages of gratitude.
Steinberg won’t replace Mayor Kevin Johnson until December. But in the weeks and months ahead, Steinberg said he will develop a “very specific agenda” for his new job.
He said he will focus on attracting high-wage private-sector jobs to Sacramento as he continues the city’s long-term push to shed its reliance on government jobs. He will seek to strengthen the city’s relationship with UC Davis, explore ways to develop parts of the city’s riverfront and push to expand the Sacramento Convention Center. And he said he would spend time in the Capitol advocating on the city’s behalf for a piece of an expected $2 billion state fund to provide housing for homeless people with mental illness.
An important decision will also be made before Steinberg takes office: City Manager John Shirey is stepping down in November and the council has begun the process of finding his replacement. Steinberg said it “is just common sense” that he play a role in deciding who the city’s next chief executive will be.
Steinberg said he plans to phase out of his full-time role at Sacramento law firm Greenberg Traurig, saying he would work at the firm “very part-time, if anything” after taking office. He said he would divulge his clients if he continues working with the firm.
He will not renew a contract with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California when that agreement expires at the end of this month. Steinberg was criticized by Ashby after The Sacramento Bee revealed a week before the election that he was working for the water agency, which pumps water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south state and is a lead proponent of the controversial Delta tunnels project. Steinberg’s work with the agency was not directly related to the tunnels.
Sacramento political consultant Brian Brokaw said, “The fact Steinberg was able to win outright in June, as opposed to having to wage what would have likely been a nasty runoff in November, gives the mayor-elect the breathing room he will need to build his team, lay the groundwork for his agenda, and build coalitions throughout Sacramento in advance of assuming office.”
“And for those who opposed him,” Brokaw added, “they’d be wise to use this time to mend fences and find ways to collaborate moving forward.”
For his part, Steinberg will transition into office with confidence.
“It was a strong victory,” he said, “and it didn’t leave a lot of questions about the city’s direction.”
Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.