On his first full day as Sacramento’s mayor, Darrell Steinberg surveyed the room of Oak Park Community Center, concluded it was set up for too many people, and took charge by arranging chairs in circle.
“This is what you call a strong mayor,” he quipped, hoisting the plastic furniture, well aware that Sacramento voters have rejected charter amendments giving the city’s top elected official more clout.
People went around the circle introducing themselves. One of the men, an elementary school principal, discussed the difficulties of resolving conflicts among fourth-graders at Bret Harte Elementary. A young man raised the issue of mentoring. A woman wondered how to make crossing Broadway at 36th Street safer.
A few years ago, Steinberg was the state Senate leader who negotiated $160 billion budgets. Now, he turned to the city’s traffic engineer and asked about one intersection in the city over which he will preside for the next four years, and heard about the comparative virtues of a crosswalk vs. a flashing warning light vs. a traffic signal. Steinberg encouraged his aides to figure out a solution.
Running a little late, he walked from the Oak Park center and stepped into the front passenger seat of a waiting car – not a limo, not an SUV, but a gray Ford Fusion, without tinted windows – and headed across the Sacramento River to West Sacramento City Hall.
There, West Sac Mayor Christopher Cabaldon was hosting a first-of-its-kind gathering of mayors of the region’s cities. Over enchiladas, tamales, beans and rice, the mayors discussed their collective concerns: education, job training and homelessness.
Perhaps, Steinberg said, the mayors should band together to make regional applications for money to build much-needed permanent housing. A regional approach ought to appeal to government officials and private donors who could help finance housing projects.
Cabaldon talked about one of his city’s innovations, a plan to use a fraction of the money generated from West Sacramento’s recently adopted sales tax hike to put $50 into college savings plans for any kid upon entering kindergarten who has gone through a West Sacramento preschool.
The cost would be relatively small, perhaps $40,000, but Cabaldon hopes whatever bank signs up as West Sacramento’s partner would match the sum. It’s a practical way to return tax money to people who could use it, while helping carry out the worthy social goal of showing parents and children that there is a path to college.
“I love it,” Steinberg said afterward by email, promising to look for ways to turn Sacramento into a “city for and about youth.”
Later, he would meet with people in Del Paso Heights and with Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who ran against him in June, and her constituents to discuss the future of Sleep Train Arena, which is in her district.
On the first day of the Steinberg administration, the new mayor was carrying out the basic promise of his campaign by focusing on the needs of the people who make up this city, listening to residents’ concerns, collaborating with the region’s mayors, and reaching out to a former rival.
None of it was life-altering. But it demonstrated that he understands what only long experience can teach a politician about governing a city – that it’s not just the big things, but also the little things, like finding a safe way to cross a busy street, or helping young parents save $50 for college, that matter. It was a smart way to start to the next four years, but it’s also a sign that Steinberg could be the strongest mayor Sacramento has had in a long time, with or without a charter change.