Dan Walters

Two large inland cities have new mayors, seek new paths

Darrell Steinberg was sworn in as Sacramento’s latest mayor on Tuesday and in Fresno, 170 miles down Highway 99, Lee Brand will join the mayoral ranks in a few weeks.

As inland California’s two largest cities undergo executive changes, both seek redefinition and respect in a state dominated, politically and economically, by coastal megalopolises whose leaders tend to look down on those not blessed with saltwater vistas.

However, as the elections of Steinberg and Brand also demonstrate, they are pursuing very different political paths.

Steinberg, the former president pro tem of the state Senate, is the latest in a very long string of Democratic mayors, not surprising in a city where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by a more than 2-1 ratio.

The internal politics of California’s political capital are strongly influenced, even dominated, by public employees and their unions, with which Steinberg has a careerlong relationship.

However, Sacramento is also surrounded – and outnumbered – by suburban communities, some of them quite large, that often are more politically conservative, so one of liberal Steinberg’s chores will be to persuade them to join his drive to make the Sacramento region more unified, more economically diverse, less dependent on government payrolls and free from the Bay Area’s shadow.

A potential impediment is that Sacramento’s mayor is, in the parlance of municipal government, “weak” – that is, lacking the kind of executive authority that governors and big-city mayors usually must have to be the kind of political and economic dealmaker that Steinberg strives to be. His predecessor, former basketball star Kevin Johnson, tried to acquire those powers, but he was too polarizing a figure to succeed.

Brand, the latest in a string of Republican Fresno mayors, doesn’t have that problem. Several administrations ago, Fresno mayors acquired “strong mayor” authority, which, of course, also carries the burden of accountability for what happens during one’s reign.

Brand had a tougher election than Steinberg, who won his office in June. Brand finished second in the primary but defeated Henry Perea, a Democratic county supervisor, in the Nov. 8 runoff, despite Fresno’s having an 11-point Democratic voter registration advantage.

Brand, who was born into dirt-poor circumstances and had a troubled childhood, nevertheless became a wealthy businessman and is a bit more conservative than the GOP mayor he succeeds, Ashley Swearengin.

Fresno is the capital of California’s huge agricultural industry, but its seasonal nature has negative side effects, such as one of the state’s deepest levels of poverty, especially among Latinos, who are nearly half of Fresno’s 502,000 residents.

Perea, a former farmworker who later became a reserve policeman before entering politics, represented the hopes of the Latino community for a long-overdue presence in the mayor’s office. One of Brand’s challenges, therefore, will be to respond to Latinos as he and other Fresno leaders continue their decades-long quest for economic diversification to alleviate its poverty.

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