Darrell Steinberg, with his back to the window, hunched over a latte at Café a Côte on K Street, is tearing a yellow sweetener packet into tiny squares. His fingers move lazily, without obvious intent. Maybe he’s bored. Maybe he’s nervous. Bored is the best guess, because Steinberg is talking about something that should be very familiar to him. He’s talking about himself, about why he wants to become the next mayor of Sacramento, about why people should vote for him.
Darrell Steinberg hits the campaign trail
“It’s my reach,” he says. “I can connect the dots across a very wide spectrum, statewide, to benefit the city.”
Five blocks away on the fifth floor at City Hall on I Street, Angelique Ashby is preparing for another city council meeting. She studies the agenda and perhaps wonders how she can top her performance from a previous week, when she publicly tore apart a superficially righteous proposal by fellow council member Jay Schenirer—a proposal to let voters fund children’s services by taxing medical marijuana cultivators and manufacturers. With skepticism giving way to sarcasm, Ashby described why the cannabis tax would be a bad deal for children, bad for parents, homeless people, police, taxpayers and the city. One point she didn’t mention is that she, like Steinberg, wants to become Sacramento’s next mayor.
“I fear this will be misconstrued at the ballot box,” she says of the cultivation tax. “It’s pretty easy to say, ‘Do you want to tax marijuana and help kids?’ The answer is easy. It’s simple. ‘Yes.’ But there are a lot of layers to this dialogue that are not being considered, including what else can we use that money for? And who is going to use that money?” She calls the tax “disingenuous.”
Steinberg and Ashby are two professional politicians with histories of public service in Sacramento. But it would be difficult to imagine two more different people in pursuit of the city’s highest office. Sacramento has become accustomed to starkly unique choices for mayor. Eight years ago, Kevin Johnson ran as an outsider. He was a former basketball star who enjoyed celebrity status. And he had a business-friendly background as a real estate investor and charter school organizer. In a runoff election, he trounced Heather Fargo, a two-term incumbent who worked her way up through local Democratic Party ranks as a neighborhood activist.
This year, there is no incumbent. But there are immense distinctions between the two leading candidates. Start with their ages. Steinberg is 56, Ashby 41. Consider their experience. Steinberg held Ashby’s current job as a city council member 24 years ago. He won his first city council election in 1992, when Ashby was a student at Sacramento High School. And consider their personalities, the ethos that will deliver new leadership or squander the opportunities that await Sacramento’s 56th mayor.
Steinberg, endorsed by seven city council members, promises to work in unison with his fellow elected officials. He is patient and methodical and relies on relationships built across three decades of public life. His best moves are played among insiders. Ashby, endorsed by the Metro Chamber of Commerce, firefighters and police unions, Teamsters and no city council members, promises to expand the city’s economic growth and improve public safety. She will use the mayor’s office as a bully pulpit. Her best moves are the public eruptions of an outsider.
Darrell Steinberg followed the classic road of upward political mobility. As a young attorney with an economics degree from UCLA and a law degree from UC Davis, he represented state worker employment rights. He advanced from City Hall to the State Assembly in 1998 and reached the State Senate in 2006. In the Senate, his ambitions grew to full blossom. Positioning himself as a pragmatic and clever nice guy who could overlook petty disputes and work for the greater good, Steinberg was elected by fellow Democrats as president and leader of the Senate, a job he held for six years. During those years, he worked with Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown. They tried to balance budgets whose deficits were trailed by nine zeroes—tens of billions of dollars had to be cut. And maybe Steinberg was too nice, too willing to let harmony reign over the messy details and loose accountabilities that fly with elected office.
Steinberg was the Senate’s leader when law enforcement authorities showed up over a period of several months and indicted four of his 39 members on various criminal charges. Leland Yee was arrested for racketeering, Ron Calderon for corruption. Rod Wright was charged with residency fraud. Ben Hueso was jailed for drunk driving. Steinberg himself was not implicated in any malfeasance, but he was in charge when bad things happened, which could be chalked up to bad luck or weak leadership or both. Steinberg termed out of the Senate in October 2014. He resumed his law practice and strategized over his next political move.
Nearly two years later, Steinberg remains popular in Sacramento, with high name recognition and solid approval numbers—so solid that he didn’t expect a tough race when he decided to run for mayor. His races have always been relative cakewalks, with Steinberg waiting on deck while a senior politician moved on or termed out. Stress-free Election Days are his trademark. He followed Deborah Ortiz into the State Legislature, winning party support and taking her place when term limits moved her out. For his first city council race, he replaced Kim Mueller, who quit City Hall to attend law school (and is now a federal judge). Steinberg won his rookie contest with 57 percent of the vote. His closest competitor managed a distant 19 percent. A 1992 report in The Sacramento Bee described that race as “a decidedly milder, more friendly campaign.”
Steinberg is understandably defensive when asked about his capacity for tough, hard-nosed campaigning. While he’s never had to fight for himself, he battled as the Senate’s leader and chief surrogate to help colleagues win contested seats. “We won some tough elections when I was in the Senate,” he says. “Remember, we even held a supermajority for a while, which wasn’t easy. I’m running hard. I’m out walking every day, knocking on doors and talking to people. I know I have to earn this.”
Earning success is carved into Angelique Ashby’s personality. Almost nothing has been easy for her. She seems to like it that way, climbing to the moral high ground that underdogs often claim. A bubbly teenager who wanted to be a professional dancer, she found her life upended by her parents’ divorce. By 19, she was pregnant and single and largely alone. Relying on public support for rent and food, she did not have mayoral ambitions. She modeled for photographers. She taught dance classes. Determined to improve her situation, she took courses at American River College and entered UC Davis as a transfer student. After Davis, she enrolled in McGeorge School of Law and graduated three years later. Along the way, she fell in love with a nursing student. The couple married and moved to Natomas to start their new life.
Angelique Ashby has represented District 1 of the Sacramento City Council since 2010
Natomas was a frontier in the early 2000s, an instant community built on a flood plain with patchworks of planning and infrastructure. Parks and fire stations had been promised but not built. The community, whose original master plan was essentially invented by the original Kings’ ownership as leverage to bring the basketball team to Sacramento, was a suburban mash-up by 2008. “City Hall was deaf to the problems in Natomas,” Ashby says.
Frustrated with what she felt was nonresponsive leadership at City Hall, Ashby decided to run against Natomas councilman Ray Tretheway in 2010. The downtown political establishment regarded her as a nuisance. Ashby walked every street in Natomas, told her story, brought her children—she had two by then—and made sure voters knew they had a choice. The city council rallied behind Tretheway, with the exception of Kevin Johnson. The recently elected mayor endorsed Ashby but gave her little support. He believed she was naive and pushy. But Ashby landed two key endorsements from people who did help: the firefighters and police unions, which were arguing with City Hall over budget cuts. The safety unions gave Ashby money and manpower to knock on doors and tell her story.
Two months before the June primary, Tretheway’s campaign made a monumental blunder. Ashby and Tretheway were both scheduled to appear at a groundbreaking for a new firehouse at El Centro Road and Arena Boulevard. Shortly before the ceremony, Corin Choppin, campaign director for Tretheway, and Dan Roth, the councilman’s chief assistant, spotted six campaign signs reading “Firefighters for Ashby.” Choppin pulled the signs from the ground and tossed them behind bushes. Roth watched. An Ashby supporter, Keith Sharward, saw this and shot video. His 38-second film was posted on YouTube. With that, the underdog had graphic evidence to show voters: Here’s why we need a new voice at City Hall. She told reporters, “I just want things to be fair so people can make up their minds about who to vote for.” Fifty-one percent voted for Ashby.
Ashby and Steinberg are both ambitious politicians with eyes focused on careers beyond City Hall. Ashby has been encouraged to run for Congress. Steinberg has looked at lieutenant governor and attorney general. But history says they are taking the wrong road. Since Sacramento’s founding in 1849, the mayor’s office has been a dead-end job. Many council members have advanced to higher offices, but among mayors, only Phil Isenberg has migrated upward. Isenberg served 14 years in the Assembly after leaving City Hall in 1982. From the city’s roster of 55 mayors, you have to time-travel back to the Civil War era to find Sacramento mayors—Henry Nichols, Ben Redding and James English—who later won statewide offices of treasurer and secretary of state. Even Kevin Johnson, who flirted with running for governor in 2018, is politically dead, thanks to national media interest in a scandal involving a 16-year-old girl during his NBA career.
Candidates for upcoming elections never discuss their ultimate job targets. They focus on the present: how they can win and make the city a better place. Steinberg has made homelessness a campaign tent pole. He talks about the need for more temporary and permanent housing for the city’s indigent, along with improved mental health services. “You can’t have one without the other,” he says. And Steinberg talks about better schools. He invokes the memory of the late Mayor Joe Serna, who elbowed his way into Sacramento City Unified School District politics and organized a reform slate of school board candidates.
Ashby keeps her promises basic. She sticks to economic development, public safety and cultural services. “We’re headed in the right direction, and we’ve got to keep our momentum going by looking to the future, not the past,” she says, a reference to Steinberg.
The biggest differences between the two candidates are scope and reach. Steinberg has embraced issues that fall outside the city council’s core responsibilities. Schools, mental health and homelessness are regional concerns. They require multijurisdictional solutions and cooperation among local counties, neighboring cities and school boards. Ashby prefers to keep the portfolio focused on issues in the city’s domain, like downtown and neighborhood economic development, fire and police services, parks and recreation.
No matter who wins, the new mayor will face the same city charter that created Johnson’s political Waterloo: his frustrated quest to transform Sacramento into a strong-mayor city. Steinberg and Ashby both supported Johnson in his 2014 ballot initiative to rewrite the city charter. The goal was to transfer power from the appointed city manager to the elected mayor. Steinberg and Ashby know what happened next: Voters rejected that idea by 57 percent.
“The voters have spoken on that issue,” Steinberg says, and Ashby echoes those words.
Which means despite the rhetoric and strategies, despite the money and energy spent to win, the next mayor will control just one of nine votes on the city council, and his or her formal power will be limited. In other words, being mayor of Sacramento is in many ways a figurehead position—a job that requires at least four supportive city council votes to push change, and a job that 167 years of history suggest will lead nowhere else. But the race is on.