Steinberg on the Scene


Darrell Steinberg is playing tourist. He walks along the wooden sidewalks of Old Sacramento, stops near the gangplanks that carry guests to the Delta King steamboat hotel and listens to a tour guide’s chatter. He hears about the epic history that unfolded along the riverfront, about dreamers, immigrants, thieves, murderers and merchants who created the Gold Rush and built the Transcontinental Railroad.

The story is old and familiar to everyone, even visitors from Barcelona or Tokyo. But Steinberg concentrates on the narrator and nods at the right moments, as if he’s hearing this fundamental piece of California history for the first time. Moving on, Steinberg leaves the dusty past behind and addresses the real point of his journey to the city’s most touristy intersection. “We do have festivals here and stuff, but not 24 hours,” he says. He believes a waterfront lively and robust around the clock would be something grand.

Steinberg, who was elected last June as Sacramento’s 56th mayor and took office in December, is concerned about tomorrow, not yesterday. It’s ironic that he has chosen to homestead his political legacy along the riverfront where the city began, in a heavily commercialized place many local residents avoid, where creative ambitions and strategic public investments have failed to compete with demands for T-shirts, trinkets and candy.

With his coat slung over his shoulder and patterned necktie knotted snugly around his collar, the mayor doesn’t look like a tourist as he wanders Old Sacramento’s boardwalks. And he doesn’t look like a politician. He’s not hurried, not seizing photo opportunities, not speaking in sound bites and rattling off talking points. He’s engaged and absorbed. He knows that despite the kitschy facades and weary narratives, Old Sacramento can help determine the success or failure of his time in the mayor’s office.

“He’s looking at Old Sacramento with new-mayor eyes,” says Angelique Ashby, a Sacramento city councilmember who ran against Steinberg last year, when the mayor’s chair was vacated after eight years by Kevin Johnson. “Getting it right is really a big deal for him.”

A couple of weeks later, when told video accounts of his riverfront tour make Steinberg look as if he’s never been to Old Sacramento before, the mayor laughs and says he’s been there many times. But he admits the mayor’s job has pointed him toward new perspectives. This is surprising, considering that no mayor in Sacramento’s history arrived at City Hall with deeper political experience and a more polished resume.

His public service includes terms on the Sacramento City Council, the state Assembly and state Senate, where he was president pro tem. As a Sacramento lawyer, he tried to negotiate arena deals and mediate labor disputes. He has contemplated candidacies for lieutenant governor and state attorney general, and he may still run for the U.S. Senate. He romped to his mayoral victory over Ashby and a former boxing champ turned bail bondsman, Tony “The Tiger” Lopez, despite being opposed by a rare alliance of labor associations and businesses.

Mayor Steinberg

The joke among Sacramento’s legion of political professionals is that Steinberg is too qualified for a provincial mayor’s job. After negotiating $120 billion budgets with governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown and trying to corral 39 state senators accustomed to answering to no one, City Hall and its fifth-floor middle office seem prosaic. Mired in concerns about water pipes and trash pickup, missing the Capitol’s political intrigue and big-money deals, Steinberg will be instantly bored on I Street, some of his friends thought. But it hasn’t turned out that way.

“I’m having fun, but it’s very different from what I’m used to,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be as intense as it is. The calendar works in a different way than I’m used to. In the state Senate, success is measured by a big, important bill you introduce or help push through. Or it’s measured by the completion of a difficult budget. Here, it’s measured with programs.”

There are several programs that define Steinberg’s mayoral ambitions: homeless, youth, economic growth. He focuses on goals he embraced in the campaign, projects that truly matter to him. And he tries to digest an improbable event that stunned the world: the election of President Donald Trump.

“There’s always been oppositional politics, and we’ve had to learn to work with the other side,” says Steinberg, 57, a lifelong liberal Democrat. “But with Trump, this is beyond anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s about civility and respect and deliberately striking fear in people. I can’t accept being silent. I can’t do it.”

Steinberg understands power. And he understands legacy. He knows that while his climb to the Senate pro tem’s office was remarkable for a homegrown Sacramento politician, it didn’t resonate with people whose universe exists beyond Capitol Park.

To create a legacy that endures, Steinberg would have to use his power to make tangible impressions with something other than social legislation and balanced budgets. Kevin Johnson helped shepherd in Golden 1 Center. That’s a tough act to follow, especially when the city’s bonding capacity was nearly swallowed by the $223 million in municipal funds poured into the arena.

So Steinberg zeroes in on the waterfront. He sees Old Sacramento and the acreage running along the river south to Broadway and north to Discovery Park as his canvas. He says, “I’ve made the riverfront my focus because it’s an area with so much potential. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to open the riverfront and create opportunities for people to take advantage of the natural resources the river provides.”

The mayor is looking at relatively simple improvements, such as better connectivity between the city and its namesake river, pathways that can be enhanced with easier access, staircases and ramps. To find the money to make improvements, he convinced his City Council colleagues to reconsider their momentum on a $170 million expansion of the Sacramento Convention Center, a spending spree that was encouraged by the hotel and tourist industry.

Using persuasive powers perfected in the Capitol, Steinberg encouraged the City Council to remove about $60 million from the convention center expansion and save the money for the waterfront. If the city were to fund the entire convention center makeover, the debt load would wipe out Sacramento’s capacity to borrow large amounts of money for anything else.

“I want to explore what’s next for Sacramento,” Steinberg says. “Let’s make the riverfront a destination. It’s our identity. The state owns a lot of property there, and we can work with them to open up Old Sacramento to the Powerhouse Science Center and Matsui Park. The possibilities are endless.”

The shift of dollars away from the convention center to the riverfront hasn’t drawn much attention beyond City Hall, but it demonstrates Steinberg’s special talent for backroom arm-twisting and negotiations. For years, the City Council failed to address modernization issues at the convention center. Worse, the city stalled on court-mandated accessibility improvements at the Community Center Theater.

Last fall, the council set a new course with a 9–0 preliminary vote to approve the massive project. That was two months before Steinberg took office. Working behind the scenes, he convinced councilmembers to slow down and remember the waterfront.

Mayor Steinberg

While Steinberg sees Old Sacramento and the riverfront as his potential legacy, his economic development plans don’t stop at the levee. He works with the business community to promote Sacramento and recruit industries for the city. He tries to lure Bay Area tech firms with promises of cheaper land and well-educated, motivated workers.

“I spend a lot of time in the Bay Area talking about what a great place Sacramento is to move your business,” he says.

The mayor didn’t need a lot of time to hammer another key program into shape. Three days after being sworn in, he announced a partnership of the city, state, school districts and businesses to provide career-path internships for around 1,000 students at Sacramento high schools.

When Steinberg talks about pathways for young people, he speaks from parental experience. Steinberg and his wife, Julie, have two children, Jordana and Ari. Both kids are college students. Jordana, whose battle with a mental illness known as disruptive mood dysregulation has been extensively reported, attends school in Los Angeles. Ari studies at Sacramento City College, with plans to transfer to UC Berkeley or Davis.

“I’m really proud of both my kids,” Steinberg says. “They’re both doing great. I believe every young person in Sacramento deserves the opportunity to get a good education and be on path to a fulfilling career.”

On the homeless front, Steinberg returned to relationships formed during his Capitol days. He coaxed $5 million from the state for homeless services, matched by $5 million he secured from the city’s budget. And he aligned with Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna to provide 1,755 vouchers for housing units over the next three years.

Homelessness is a perpetual problem for the city. One challenge is that homeless services are not the city’s job. While neighborhoods in downtown, midtown and North Sacramento endure severe impacts from growing numbers of homeless people, bureaucratic remedies reside with county authorities, who oversee health and human service budgets.

Despite budgetary and jurisdictional barriers, Steinberg pushes ahead, making homeless solutions his top priority, despite long odds against success. Like Steinberg, Mayor Johnson poured considerable time and energy into finding housing solutions for the city’s destitute. But the number of people without shelter grew from 2,358 to 2,659 during Johnson’s second term as mayor.

“There are no miracles and no easy fixes,” Steinberg says. “But hopefully, there will be a few miracles.”

Steinberg dismisses comparisons to Johnson (they are fundamentally different people), but mayoral interest in homelessness, youth services and economic development is consistent. Steinberg has one big political advantage: His arrival was applauded by the City Council majority. Johnson spent his first term fighting with councilmembers who saw him as a self-styled dictator. 

“The expectations for Darrell were sky high from day one,” Ashby says. “But he hasn’t come in assuming he knows how everything’s been working in the 18 years since he was on the City Council. He knows government. He has a good baseline and a good staff. He’s trying to find a better way, and that’s admirable.”

The ability to work with City Hall colleagues is essential in Sacramento, where the city charter divides voting authority equally among eight councilmembers and the mayor. Steinberg managed far more complex relationships in the state Senate. He repainted Johnson’s office and moved the desk away from the center of the room, softening the imagery. He points out the desk belonged to the late Mayor Joe Serna, whose memory is respected by councilmembers, though none served with him.

As Senate leader, Steinberg learned to balance his own progressive political philosophies against more conservative viewpoints, especially when dealing with the business community. As mayor, he plays in a much smaller sandbox, but the conflicts can be more intense, neighbor versus neighbor.

“He’s had to understand how consuming local politics can be. It can be overwhelming,” says Michael Ault, executive director of Downtown Sacramento Partnership, which represents business owners. “But he’s a real leader and he’s passionate about the community. He’s willing to sit down and have people challenge him, as opposed to coming in and saying, ‘This is my agenda.’”

Business leaders and public safety unions endorsed Ashby over Steinberg, but there are no reports of recriminations or bitterness from either side. Ashby says, “It could have gone that way, but it didn’t. Both of us want to put the city first.”

Timothy Davis, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association, agrees. He says, “He calls me and I call him. We have an open relationship. We don’t always agree, but he’s always willing to listen.”

The council and community’s willingness to work with Steinberg was tested early—over the question of noncity work by the mayor.

Soon after being sworn in, Steinberg announced he would take on a few clients as a consultant and attorney. This can be interpreted as contrary to the City Charter, which states the mayor “shall serve full time” and “devote his or her full time and attention” to the job.

Steinberg checked with the city attorney, who said outside consulting work is permitted. For Steinberg, the motive is somewhat embarrassing: He needs the money. The mayor’s job pays $120,218 per year, significantly below his law practice earnings.

“It was financial,” Steinberg says. “I have two kids in college. I left a law practice with a large firm. I knew what would happen when I ran for mayor, but I was making a lot of money. Money doesn’t mean anything to me, except for the goal of not having to worry about it.”

The election of Trump required Steinberg to expand his campaign agenda and address immigration and Sacramento’s status as a sanctuary city. Being a sanctuary means Sacramento police and city officials won’t assist federal immigration agents without a court order. Trump’s actions to restrict Muslim immigration and increase deportations have deeply impacted Steinberg.

“The importance of being mayor has been dramatically enhanced by Trump,” he says. “People are looking to us as tools of hope. As a Jew, I can’t be silent. Being silent would be like turning my back on my people’s own history. I’m not really religious, but I’m not going to be compliant and stay silent when my values are to protect people.”

Steinberg may try to elevate his opposition to Trump by running for the U.S. Senate next year, if Sen. Dianne Feinstein retires. He smiles at the idea and says, “I can’t predict what will happen. I just don’t know. I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.”

This means the new mayor, a political pro with a resume more impressive than anyone who ever held the job, is keeping his options open.