Candidates for Sacramento’s District 3 City Council seat have a lot in common—except money

Jeff Harris and Cyril Shah often agree in gloves-on battle to succeed Councilman Steve Cohn

Jeff Harris (left) and Cyril Shah debate at a recent McKinley Park forum. There’s little the candidates disagree on.

Jeff Harris (left) and Cyril Shah debate at a recent McKinley Park forum. There’s little the candidates disagree on.


The meeting room on the second floor of McKinley Park’s community center is packed with chairs, at least two-thirds of which are filled with attentive bodies. City Council candidate Jeff Harris stands in front, his black-collared shirt unbuttoned at the top, his tie off. His opponent, Cyril Shah, remains seated at the debate table for now. “It’s Harris versus Shah!” Harris says, impersonating an announcer at a WrestleMania event. The crowd, five-dozen strong, laughs. Harris then warns the voters not to “expect bloodsport” this evening: The debate will be civil, as both he and adversary Shah say they genuinely like each other.

So goes the District 3 City Council race: They’re gentlemen, and they generally agree.

Strong mayor? Both Harris and Shah are against it.

McKinley Village, the contentious housing development that council approved earlier this year? Harris and Shah both would’ve voted no.

Public financing of city campaigns? You bet, they agree on this, too.

East Sac denizens—along with residents in south Natomas and the River District, all of which make up District 3’s curiously aligned topography—will have to choose either Harris or Shah to succeed Councilman Steve Cohn this Election Day. The occasion marks the first time in 20 years that East Sac will not have the outgoing Cohn, who’s running for state Assembly, seated on its behalf at the council dais.

Harris, 61, hails from River Park, which he’s called home for the past 25 years. He’s spent the last 35 as a construction project manager and says he’s qualified for the council gig because of his experience as a River Park Neighborhood Association president, his lead role in rebuilding the burnt-down McKinley Park playground, and his effort to secure more parks-and-rec funding by helping conceptualize and pass 2012’s Measure U sales tax bump.

Shah, 39, boasts a comparable resume of neighborhood-group street cred and board-member residencies. The UC Berkeley grad lives in East Sac, going on a dozen years, and has worked as a financial adviser for the past 17. He chaired the Housing and Redevelopment Commission and has sat as a trustee on flood-control boards and as a commissioner on the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.

The two are linked up in the LinkedIn world. And good luck trying to differentiate between them when it comes to the issues.

Public safety? Both say they’ll fight for the district’s share of law-enforcement attention to preserve quality of life. Jobs? They want them—obviously—and both even talk about how farm-to-fork and the region’s agriculture could become an even bigger economic conduit in the future.

Voters have yet to take a decisive stance on the two candidates, as well. Harris bested Shah in the District 3 primary this past June by a scant 230 votes.

So, going into the November 4 election, what actually sets these two guys apart?

The most obvious distinction? Money.

During the tenure of the campaign, Shah’s out-raised Harris by more than six-to-one. His nearly $250,000 in campaign coffers aren’t unusual for council races; Council members Steve Hansen and Jay Schenirer have raised comparable sums. But Harris, who’s only raked in a bit over $40,000, says when that kind of money enters local races, it increases the possibility of pay-to-play politics and corruption.

“If somebody does throw down a lot of money, they probably are thinking of it as an investment,” Harris said of Shah’s donors.

In his defense, Shah points out that people give him money because he and Harris have done interviews, and that he’s earned support from groups like police, fire and labor unions.

“It’s not that they’re just throwing money at a candidate,” he says. “Each group, they do their own due diligence.”

Their differences in support extend beyond dollars. In the world of endorsements, Shah is backed by seven sitting council members, the mayor (even though Shah opposes Measure L), and also Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. He’s also collected nearly all labor, chamber of commerce and developer interests in his corner as well.

Despite all this institutional support, The Sacramento Bee opted to endorse Harris, along with the Sacramento County Democratic Party, the Sierra Club and other Dem notables such as former mayors Heather Fargo and Anne Rudin, and state Senator Deborah Ortiz.

District 3 is a sprawling area that covers south Natomas, with its flood concerns, and downtown’s River District, with its homelessness problems. Yet this council race’s top issue is McKinley Village, the tract home-style development that doesn’t yet exist.

City council voted to move forward with McKinley Village this past summer even though every single neighborhood group opposed it, calling it “McVillage.” Little surprise, both Harris and Shah are against—but their debate has devolved into who was against it first, and who can make it less awful. Harris calls McKinley an “OK project” that he would’ve voted no on because the development, locked in a wedge of land with access only at 28th and 45th streets, needs a third car access point at Alhambra Boulevard.

He accuses Shah of taking a “soft, vague stance” on McKinley, criticizing him of not coming out with an opinion until late in the game this spring.

Shah objects, saying he’s “consistently been opposed to McKinley Village” and arguing that he’s the guy who can make the vehicle-tunnel at Alhambra a reality, what with his self-described big-leagues experience working with state and federal funds. But Harris also says that building the tunnel would be a tip-top priority.

Both candidates are newbies to the world of electioneering, and to that end hold their cards close when it comes to pet issues and personal ambitions. Harris says that, if elected, he’d like to hang his hat on being a public official who saves the city’s parks. “We’re maintaining our beautiful parks system with volunteer labor. It’s not sustainable,” he says.

Shah says he’ll work hard to bring more jobs to town, focusing on life sciences in the health sector, food and ag, and finance and research jobs in the world of CalSTRS and CalPERS.

Who’s going to win? There’s no polling for public consumption, and both candidates agree they’re running as the underdog.

It’s shouldn’t surprise then that even outgoing Councilman Cohn told SN&R he’s not going to endorse in the race.

He agrees that “both are good candidates.”