Darrell Steinberg became Sacramento’s mayor with high expectations. He has met them and more in his first year in office, putting his stamp on the city and pointing it in the right direction.
After being sworn in last Dec. 13, he set the right tone by backing more openness and stronger ethics for the City Council and by setting up the first joint meetings in decades between the council and county Board of Supervisors.
Since then, Steinberg has led significant progress on a broad range of priorities that will boost Sacramento’s future.
Steinberg says his greatest immediate impact was to break the logjam on homelessness, and it’s difficult to disagree. He cajoled and convinced county supervisors to do the right thing, while proving that government can be compassionate and make real progress on what can seem like an intractable social ill.
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He also waded into the middle of bitter dispute between the teachers’ union and administration at the Sacramento City Unified School District and helped avert a strike that would have been bad for everyone.
He took ownership of the Sacramento Convention Center expansion, successfully pushing for a plan that takes care of the most pressing needs while leaving millions available for other tourist attractions.
Steinberg has focused on economic development, including the city’s long-shot bid to land Amazon’s second headquarters and the more likely deal to lure the western U.S. base of Centene, which manages health insurance for more than 12 million members.
Significantly, he found ways to capitalize on private money – $44 million from the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement that the city plans to use to expand electric vehicles and attract high-tech jobs, plus a deal with Verizon to make Sacramento the first city with citywide 5G wireless internet service and to bring an estimated $100 million investment.
On Wednesday, he was in New York, trying to help Sacramento Republic FC secure a Major League Soccer expansion franchise. A decision is expected this month and Sacramento is competing against three other cities, but it was the only one with its mayor in the room making the pitch. The team plans a privately financed, 20,000-seat stadium that would be a crucial catalyst to spark development in the downtown railyard.
To become a great city, pro sports isn’t enough, so he has enthusiastically embraced efforts to boost and diversify arts in the city, an important way to draw young people. This came with a perk: He did get to share the red carpet with Greta Gerwig for the local premiere of the award-winning “Lady Bird.”
Inside City Hall, he has helped hire strong leaders, including City Manager Howard Chan, who has been a steady hand, and Police Chief Daniel Hahn, who has made the department more transparent. Steinberg has tried to give Hahn every chance for success by supporting a bonus and a new contract with the police union that includes generous raises.
While Steinberg benefited from good timing – becoming mayor while the regional economy prospers – that also raised the bar for success. He reached it.
It should be noted he did it all without “strong mayor” powers, but instead with political skills he developed as a leader in the Legislature, strong knowledge of policy and his deep connections in the community. And his year as mayor has been without drama or scandal, which is not to be taken for granted these days.
Despite his rather impressive list of accomplishments, Steinberg acknowledges that next year will be even more important.
He says his main job is to grow a modern economy, and that means bringing in more good jobs and more Fortune 500 firms like Centene. The mayor is right to insist that everyone share in economic growth, including struggling neighborhoods and disadvantaged young people. He hopes to expand his Thousand Strong internship program and career technical education for students who aren’t going to college.
Steinberg says another key priority is to find the resources so the city can tackle more than one big initiative at a time. While he won’t say what tax or revenue source he’s considering, he must be careful not to pile on too much to the burden of working families already hit by recent city rate hikes.
The city expects increased tax revenue as recreational marijuana becomes legal in California on Jan. 1. That’s one reason why it moved more swiftly than many other cities to pass regulations for retail pot. But that also means the city, and Steinberg, are on the hook if things go wrong
Steinberg hopes to get help from UC Davis and its new chancellor, Gary May. In 2018, the mayor wants to launch a Sacramento version of Technology Square in Atlanta, which May helped establish while at Georgia Tech and which they toured earlier this year. Steinberg also says he will push for more frequent transit, probably shuttle buses, to strengthen links between downtown Sacramento and Davis.
On the mayor’s to-do list is to make substantial progress on the future of Sleep Train Arena, the shuttered former home of the Kings in Natomas. It has taken too long.
Steinberg also vows to make headway on redeveloping the riverfront. It’s also past time for Sacramento to catch up to its neighbor, West Sacramento.
With this ambitious agenda, he faces huge challenges on city finances, particularly with rising pension costs.
While he won’t be on the ballot in 2018, Steinberg will be spending his political capital – and his campaign war chest – to persuade voters to renew the city’s Measure U half-cent sales tax for public safety and other basic services. But he says the timing may not be right in 2018 for another attempt at a regional sales tax hike for roads and transit.
He also says that a local housing bond issue may not happen next year, though the city clearly needs more affordable housing. He’s also weighing some kind of rent control. As the mayor notes, reaching his goal of getting 2,000 homeless people off the streets in three years wouldn’t mean much if they’re replaced by new homeless families.
Being mayor of a major city means there’s always another problem to fix. You only have one official vote on the big decisions, but you get most of the credit, or the blame.
Steinberg is fine with that. He has proven he’s more than up to the task and says he still hasn’t hit his stride. That’s good, because he has plenty more to do.