A man apart
District 2 incumbent says he’s stood his ground against special interests and political agendas—and might run for mayor if he fends off school board trustee Ramona Landeros
Sitting near a wall of windows that looked out onto his district, City Councilman Allen Warren considered his relationship with Mayor Darrell Steinberg. With a shrug, a grin and almost a wink, he half-whispered, “We smile at each other.”
The last time the enigmatic Warren was up for reelection, he was fending off accusations that he'd blurred the lines between his office and his north Sacramento development empire. But that was before a number of unhoused people died in startlingly public ways in the winter of 2016-17—and Warren suddenly became the council's most vocal advocate for those living on the streets.
While the newly elected mayor spoke of bold initiatives to combat homelessness, Warren challenged fellow council members to take more immediate action—and make harder political decisions—before more tragedy arrived.
Warren and his staff unveiled plans for an elaborate “safe ground” in District 2 to provide protection, sanitation and better outreach strategies than the city previously deployed. Steinberg balked at what some called Warren's “tent city” and it stalled.
But that hasn't stopped Warren from challenging the mayor on some of his biggest plans, including the city's overall homeless strategy, the Measure U tax increase and putting a rent control and tenant protection measure to a public vote.
Now, as Twin Rivers Unified School District trustee Ramona Landeros looks to unseat Warren, the New Faze Development founder is turning 2016's political narrative on its head.
Warren insists his business entanglements across Del Paso Heights aren't a liability but a strength, because they've given him the financial wherewithal to ignore the special interest groups trying to exert influence on the council. He says those lobbying forces can give money to him if they want, but they'll never match the cash flow from the main special interest funding him—himself.
“I'm always my own biggest contributor,” he pointed out.
In a recent interview, Warren spoke about the standoffs in City Hall spurred by his independent streak. He also revealed that, if reelected, he'll consider a mayoral run in 2024—or sooner if Steinberg steps aside. For Warren, the confidence comes from a sense that eight years have taught him how to navigate and survive Sacramento's political scene.
“What I've learned,” he said, leaning forward, “is that it's a nasty, nasty, nasty world—if you live in it.”
Warren wasn’t about to let conversation die the way the people had.
It was July 2017. A trio of homeless deaths during the winter—two on City Hall's property—was now months behind the council. Warren brought up another one: A janitor at Grant High School died while sleeping in his car. Warren used it as another opportunity to question his fellow leaders' sense of urgency, the third time in so many months he issued the challenge. In January, Warren asked the city manager to explore lifting the ban on urban camping. Steinberg called that “a very provocative idea” and didn't support it. The effort went nowhere.
Then in March, Warren and his staff unveiled a detailed proposal for what they called “the outdoor solution.” The plan involved a temporary safe ground for 200 homeless people, with bathrooms, showers, a triage center and a way for people to hold onto their pets. Driven by a public-private partnership, it would require minimal tax dollars. But that plan ground to a halt, too.
“Angelique Ashby supported it, and Larry Car would support it, but where the fourth and fifth vote would come from, I wasn't sure,” Warren recalled. “The mayor said, ‘I don't want to do it. I don't want people outside.' I said, ‘People are outside now, the only difference is they're laying all over our streets and at City Hall, and we don't have a way to effectively use our resources to deal with it.'”
Warren is contemplating a similar approach for his district, though his challenger told SN&R that she is more of the mayor's mind.
“I find it very insulting that we would propose tents for our community,” said Landeros, who's about to finish her first term on the Twin Rivers Unified school board. “I think there's already enough people in tents.”
Landeros favors “a tiny houses” strategy for District 2. She was also skeptical of the temporary winter shelter that Warren and Steinberg jointly supported on Railroad Avenue in the winter of 2018 because it wasn't a permanent solution.
For his part, Warren says he also supports permanent solutions, though he argues that temporary shelters are critical during extreme weather. He claims the city's recent temporary shelters strategy is one he suggested when Steinberg first came into office.
“People were dying and I was at my wit's end,” Warren said. “Probably a week into [Steinberg's] tenure, I said, ‘You need to ask each council member to identify 200 units for homeless people in their district right now.' Here we are, three years later, and he's done it.”
Warren added, “What I've learned is that the issue, sometimes, is not as important as the messenger—because the messenger in this case was me. If it had been the mayor at that time, I think we would have gotten a lot more traction. And I think it was some politics, and some ego, and I think that took priority over the real issue that people were losing their lives. I mean, what other rationale is there for us not doing what we need to do back then?”
Landeros has been living in north Sacramento since 1979.
She says she was involved with the United Farm Workers from an early age, is the co-founder of Sacramento State University's Multicultural Center and is now working with the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District on asthma issues, in addition to her school board duties.
Landeros says she's running because District 2 is a food desert with too many cannabis dispensaries, liquor stores and massage parlors. She wants to lead the charge in developing more walkable, livable neighborhoods with cleaner parks and waterways.
“I would like for the community to see north Sacramento as, ‘Wow, I want to live there,' as opposed to, ‘Stay away from there,'” Landeros said. “We're tired of being seen as that place with all the dispensaries and homeless issues.”
Those levels of disinvestment have been a concern for many in District 2. So has Warren's complicated back story.
Once seen as a top-tier developer, the financial collapse brought a raft of lawsuits and bankruptcy challenges down on his business. A 2016 investigation by SN&R found that, at that time, Warren and his companies owed nearly $500,000 in overdue property taxes, unpaid state business fees and delinquent code enforcement fines. He's since been trailed by critics worried he's more focused on rebuilding his wealth than fixing his hometown neighborhood.
But Warren says Landeros doesn't have what it takes to do a better job. He points out that the Twin Rivers Unified School District currently face a $3.8 million budget deficit as the board of trustees prepares to vote on potential school closures.
“I haven't seen the leadership from her,” Warren said. “She's basically silent.”
Landeros told SN&R she doesn't favor closing schools.
Warren also accused Landeros of spreading rumors he wasn't running for another term. “That's the kind of bullshit I frankly don't think is responsible,” Warren said. “I don't think that's the kind of person we would have [be] in a very important seat, at a very important time.”
Without directly addressing Warren's accusation, Landeros said that Warren sent her mixed signals on whether he was running again during conversations in 2018.
Warren says the most important quality for District 2's representative is independence. The two-term politician foresees more critical battles ahead, as well as some public disappointment over how Measure U dollars are ultimately spent. Warren didn't support Measure U, which was vigorously championed by the mayor, because its funds weren't earmarked for specific programs.
“I knew that the fight was going to be with special interest groups for the money, and they're used to winning when there's money to get,” Warren observed. “It's in the general fund, it's going to be the will of the council. If the people who helped get them elected are the people who want the money, that's where it's going to go.”
Warren says that's why he's mainly self-funded. Records show he loaned his campaign some $64,200 in 2016 and then donated $118,000 to it last year. No single contributor for Warren came close to that.
The next largest contributions came from development and construction interests, which pitched in $9,200 through this month.
Looking ahead, Warren doesn't believe Steinberg will run for an unprecedented third term. He's not convinced the mayor will even stick around until 2024. Warren said if voters give him another term in District 2, he'll likely run for mayor.
“It would only be to hit these issues on the head the way I see it,” Warren said. “If I was really chasing the political thing, I would be standing on a soapbox, beating my chest, because that's the right issue.”
Tapping his fingers hard on the table, his voice picked up. “This homeless issue is the right issue.”