Dan Walters

Ex-Senate leader Steinberg shifts to new role as Sacramento mayor

Darrell Steinberg and his wife, Julie, thank their supporters on election night after he was elected mayor of Sacramento in a landslide.
Darrell Steinberg and his wife, Julie, thank their supporters on election night after he was elected mayor of Sacramento in a landslide. rpench@sacbee.com

One of the state’s more interesting political contests this year was for the mayoralty of Sacramento because the winner is one of its more interesting politicians who faces a particularly interesting governance situation.

Darrell Steinberg, who scored a landslide win Tuesday, has been one of the Sacramento region’s most accomplished politicians, rising from City Council member to assemblyman, senator and finally the Senate’s top leader before running for mayor.

Transitioning from a legislative environment to an executive position is often difficult because the skills that work in the former don’t necessarily transfer to the latter.

A prime example is Lyndon Johnson, who was widely admired for his ability to persuade, cajole and sometimes bulldoze as Senate majority leader – but who, as president, came across as crude and autocratic and had to retire.

As a legislator, Steinberg prided himself on mediating conflicting interests, including the state budget, and producing significant policy products. But he also displayed an end-justifies-the-means, too-clever-by-half attitude that occasionally backfired.

In 2009 for instance, as he was negotiating a $10 billion water bond issue, he quietly inserted language to spend “not less than $10 million” of bond money for the California Unity Center, a pet Steinberg project that would have absolutely nothing to do with water.

After The Sacramento Bee reported the maneuver, Steinberg removed the language but said, “Frankly, if I have the opportunity to use the power I have to further civil rights and to further California history in any way, I’m going to do that.”

Just days before Tuesday’s election, The Bee reported that Steinberg was receiving, through his law firm, payments from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to iron out some habitat restoration issues in Yolo County.

The Met, as it’s known, is the prime sponsor of twin water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that are very unpopular in Northern California. Steinberg said he specifically insisted that he wouldn’t help the Met with the tunnel project, but it came cross as hair-splitting.

It’s a warning that as a mayor, optics matter; there’s no hiding in the crowd, and you take credit or blame for whatever happens.

At the same time, however, Steinberg’s ability to actually affect what happens may be limited by a lack of real authority – the sort of power he enjoyed in the Capitol.

One by one, California’s larger cities have transitioned to strong mayor systems, but Sacramento’s outgoing mayor, Kevin Johnson, failed to persuade voters to give the office true managerial authority, which remains vested in a city manager.

Sacramento’s council will be choosing a new city manager later this year, and Steinberg, understandably, wants to play a role in the process as mayor-elect.

Nevertheless, if Sacramento is to make its long-sought transition into a major American city, a key factor would be having a mayor with real executive power to shape budgets, make development deals, and hire and fire key city executives.