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How Angelique Ashby got big chamber backing

Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby is applauded after announcing her candidacy for mayor last October. One of her most important endorsements so far is from the Sacramento Metro Chamber.
Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby is applauded after announcing her candidacy for mayor last October. One of her most important endorsements so far is from the Sacramento Metro Chamber. Sacramento Bee file

The endorsements in Sacramento’s mayoral race – which is getting a little testy heading into the first televised debate Wednesday night on KCRA – line up pretty much as expected.

City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby continues to be backed by the local fire and police unions, often the best-funded players in city elections. Former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg has the support of other powerful labor groups, including the Sacramento Central Labor Council and SEIU Local 1000.

So for me the most intriguing was the Sacramento Metro Chamber going for Ashby, the underdog. Her campaign bragged it was a “game-changing endorsement” – and that was before it led to a big check on Friday.

Then again, given the chamber’s recent direction, maybe its choice isn’t that surprising after all. Not too long ago, the chamber was a notably progressive outpost in the business community. Under CEO Matt Mahood, it championed “smart growth” and the state’s efforts to address climate change.

Since Mahood left in mid-2011 for Silicon Valley, the chamber has become more Republican and developer-friendly. For instance, in 2013 it supported Cordova Hills, the sprawling proposed project in eastern Sacramento County that is the opposite of smart growth.

Roger Niello, a former Republican assemblyman, replaced Mahood as chamber CEO and served until last year. Now, he’s among the biggest names backing Ashby, urging voters to join a bipartisan coalition to elect her.

The current chamber CEO, Peter Tateishi, also is a Republican. He moved over last year from Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange, which is also backing Ashby.

Both she and Steinberg are Democrats in a city where 52 percent of registered voters also are Democrats. So Ashby needs to pull support from the 20 percent of Republican voters, especially if Donald Trump brings more of them out on June 7.

Both Ashby and Steinberg also badly want the mantle of best pro-business candidate, so they coveted the chamber endorsement. It sent them a questionnaire, held forums in November and January, and studied their responses to a list of principles put together by a group of business leaders. That checklist included using private contractors to save money, asking city workers to pay their fair share of retirement benefits and appointing business leaders to a council of economic advisers.

Developer Mark Friedman, who helped lead that group and supports Steinberg, says he’s disappointed, but not surprised, by the chamber endorsement. Friedman argues that while some business leaders view Steinberg as too pro-labor from his legislative days (in 2012, Steinberg even walked a picket line for the union striking against Raley’s), he will be more pragmatic and less ideological as mayor.

Both candidates generally signed off on the pro-business agenda. That convinced attorney Stan Van Vleck, who led the group with Friedman, to personally endorse both. He argues that by doing so, he can hold them both accountable for following through.

“Both have a lot of good qualities,” Van Vleck said. “They just come at it in different ways.”

Van Vleck is also on the chamber PAC board. While the deliberations are private and the vote was done by secret ballot, an endorsement required at least 11 of 14 votes, so Ashby was a clear choice.

The chamber has 1,700 members and is an influential voice in the business community. “We believe it has some pull,” said Tateishi. While not publicly endorsing Ashby, Tateishi worked closely with her on the Natomas levees when he was in GOP Congressman Dan Lungren’s office, and he won her support when he ran for the state Assembly in 2012.

Ashby told me the chamber’s support is “huge” because of its widespread membership and because of the “gauntlet” she had to go through to get it.

On Friday, it became even bigger when the PAC board gave her campaign the maximum $11,000. It may donate more through an independent expenditure committee, but there’s no decision on that yet.

Ashby also is collecting endorsements and campaign money from development interests, including $11,000 from the North State Building Industry Association, another $11,000 from the Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association and $4,000 from the California Apartment Association.

That money is crucial for Ashby to stay competitive in the campaign cash battle. By the end of last week, she had raised nearly $235,000, compared to Steinberg’s $319,000. He also wants to dip into the $1.4 million in his statewide campaign war chest, though Ashby’s campaign is urging the city to limit Steinberg’s transfer to $165,000, saying that any more would be illegal.

The chamber’s blessing is a big get for Ashby because Steinberg boasts endorsements from many more elected officials, including six of her City Council colleagues. (Outgoing Mayor Kevin Johnson isn’t planning to endorse at this point.) A host of regional and statewide officeholders also back Steinberg, including Congresswoman Doris Matsui, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Steinberg, who was in elected office from 1992 to 2014, is much more part of the Democratic establishment. Ashby, though she has been on the council since 2010, is not that well-known outside Natomas and hopes to ride the outsider wave to the mayor’s office.

So it’s a little ironic that one of her biggest endorsements is from the local chamber. That’s about as establishment as you can get.

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