Candidate Ali Cooper could make Jay Schenirer's re-election a real contest

The labor activist is going up against the Sacramento City Council incumbent

For a while, it looked like Jay Schenirer would get a free ride to re-election in Sacramento’s 5th city council district. But labor activist Ali Cooper can make it real contest.

And if we’re lucky, Cooper can even start a discussion about how much power the wealthy and well-connected should have in City Hall, and how much power will be left for the rest of us.

“I see my role as a cheerleader for civic engagement. There’s no shortcut for building neighborhood power,” Cooper told Bites last week. He’s a union organizer and lobbyist by trade; his day job is state political director for the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents state workers. To some people, that makes him the worst kind kind of special interest: a union boss.

But others in District 5—which includes progressive enclaves like Curtis Park (where he and his wife and two children live), Oak Park, City Farms, Hollywood Park—will probably be receptive to his bottom-up message. “I’m ready to organize the hell out of this district,” he said.

Lots of politicians have adversity stories. Cooper’s is a tough one, but it fits the guy he turned out the be.

His dad was African-American, his mom Vietnamese. They met in Vietnam, where his dad was working after having served there in the war, and Cooper was born in Vietnam.

Soon after, they moved to Southern California, where his father went into business running a convenience store. When Cooper was 5, his father was gunned down in a robbery at the store. He was gravely injured, and spent the next 10 years in a slow decline. He died when Cooper was just 15.

Cooper says that experience—of also taking care of someone, of being really poor, of surviving—shaped his adulthood, his attitudes about politics, and even unions. “Had it not been for social workers and teachers, I would not be where I am today.”

He went on to San Diego State, then got a job working for a San Diego City Council member, working with constituents to solve problems. He got into the labor movement, was political director for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees before taking his current gig. With his experience and connections, he can mount a real campaign. He’s got a well-known political consultant waiting in the wings, and says he can raise the money he needs.

He offers a distinct contrast with Schenirer. Cooper worked to pass a “Close the Walmart Loophole” bill in the Capitol, which would require big companies like Wal-Mart to pay for health care for their employees. Schenirer was raking in $50,000 from Wal-Mart to fund special projects and his own political “brand” while leading the charge to gut the city’s big-box ordinance.

Cooper is adamantly opposed to the strong-mayor plan that Schenirer approved for the ballot. He says it will dilute the power of average citizens and favor special interests. “Strong mayor is about improving government for a small number of insiders. I’m a strong proponent for people at the neighborhood level having a direct voice in City Hall.”

Schenirer said he was against spending public money on a new Kings arena—before he voted for it. Cooper says the deal was rushed, and needs to be rethought. “I’m not opposed to a redevelopment project that brings in an arena. My problem is the financing plan.”

“Sacramento’s greatness has less to do with the Kings, and more to do with the people. What makes us a major-league city is great parks and great schools, and strong infrastructure.”

And basic services, like public safety. Just before Thanksgiving, a family friend was visiting the Cooper home and decided to go on a walk with Cooper’s 7-year-old daughter. The pair were attacked at 3 in the afternoon by two young men. Cooper’s friend had her purse stolen, she was punched and kicked and called vile names while Cooper’s daughter watched. The friend was bruised up; she’s recovering. His daughter is OK, though Cooper knows the shock of something like that can linger.

Several passersby by saw the incident, called 911 and offered help. But it took police 20 minutes to arrive. “It just underscores for me that we’ve got to get back to providing core services. We’ve got to support the police and get them staffed up.”

No one would argue with that. Schenirer wouldn’t, certainly. But there are strong policy differences between the candidates, about where resources should go, and who should decide.

And that’s good. It is refreshing to hear a candidate for city council talk clearly about progressive values and about citizens taking more power in City Hall. It’s especially refreshing to hear it from a candidate who could win.