Exit interview

On hiatus from politics, Darrell Steinberg contemplates the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat

Shock and aw shucks: The nicest guy in politics contemplates past, present and future.

Shock and aw shucks: The nicest guy in politics contemplates past, present and future.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Darrell Steinberg occupies two worlds right now. He left his old job earlier this month, termed out after six years as state assemblyman in the 9th District. Although he is technically “on sabbatical” from politics as a private attorney, his mind is already on his campaign for state senator in 2006.

A prolific legislator, Steinberg rose to one of the most powerful positions in the state Legislature— chairman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee. And although he tackled problems as varied as smog, sweatshops and after-school programs, two issues seemed to dominate his career in the Assembly and to characterize his passion for reforming broken systems.

The first was the issue of mental health, trying to undo the damage that began 30 years ago when California closed its state mental hospitals and later abandoned its promise to fund community-based mental-health treatment. On this front, Steinberg has been a successful reformer thus far, culminating in the victory of Proposition 63 in last November’s election. The new law will funnel billions of dollars into overhauling the state’s mental-health system.

The other was Steinberg’s effort to reform the way sales taxes are distributed in the state of California. It’s an obscure issue for many people, but the competition between local governments for sales-tax dollars has a tremendous influence over how communities grow and develop. And critics like Steinberg blame the current system for a host of social ills, including suburban sprawl, poor air quality and a severe shortage of affordable housing.

But while Steinberg made great progress as an advocate for mental-health programs, his efforts at changing the sales-tax system were mostly thwarted. It turned out that those local governments that are reaping huge sales-tax windfalls from their shopping malls and auto dealerships—particularly in the Republican-leaning suburbs—had little interest in reform.

SN&R talked with Steinberg about the victories and the frustrations, and what it means to be Sacramento’s representative in Sacramento.

SN&R: What are you going to miss about being in the Assembly?

Steinberg: For now, I’ll miss being in the center of things. But I kind of get the best of both worlds right now. I feel good because I know that I wrung everything out of the experience that I could and did my very best to try and make a difference. And a two-year sabbatical, which is what this is, is a great thing. I get to sort of recharge the batteries. I get to really spend a little more time at home, which is something I really haven’t done. But that’s all with the hopeful prospect of being able to resume my public service. I feel very good and especially good because of that [points to a clipping proclaiming the passage of Proposition 63].

If we had lost, I might feel very different right now. I feel like I went out on a complete high, achieved what I wanted to achieve. I’m very proud of Prop. 63, because I don’t think we even begin to know the magnitude of change this is going to bring for people and families and communities in California. A billion dollars plus a year, to transform the state’s mental-health system? It’s without question the most important thing I’ve ever worked on in my life.

Proposition 63, though, was an extension of the work you’ve done on mental health for years, even when you were on the Sacramento City Council.

True. When I got onto the council, homelessness was a major issue. That was really the impetus for my mental-health work. Cities all over the place were trying to grapple with it and frankly doing not much more than putting a Band-Aid on it. I decided when I ran for the Assembly that I would make this issue of mental-health treatment and a mental-health system my top priority. I realized that it wasn’t just about the homeless people themselves. Certainly, that’s the most visible and troubling part of the problem. But this is a quality-of-life issue for our entire community and communities throughout California. It’s a business issue. I don’t know that anybody sees it that way, but it is.

How is it a business issue?

Why hasn’t the K Street Mall had a complete successful redevelopment over 30 years? In large part, in my opinion, it’s that there’s this perception of the social condition there. It makes is less desirous for people to come downtown.

We’ve ignored mental health as a public-policy issue for far too long. It affects more people, more families and more communities. It crosses every sector of life. And yet, because of stigma, it has not been the priority that it should be.

So, you are right. [Proposition 63] was the culmination of a six-year project. I started out as a totally green Assembly member. In 1998, I introduced the AB 34 bill, [asking for] $350 million to build the system. In the end, I declared victory when we were able to get $10 million and fund three pilot projects. It succeeded, and we went to $55 million, and it succeeded, to the point where we reached a fork in the road. We were treating 5,000 people a year in over 30 counties. We started showing dramatic decreases in hospitalization, jail time, decreases in days of homelessness. And increased employment. But we had to ask the question “Is there any reasonable chance that any governor or legislature will make mental health, not just for the homeless but for those at risk and for kids, a public-health and budget priority in the foreseeable future?” And I concluded “no.” So, we launched Prop. 63. No one thought we had much of a chance. But it was drafted well, and we campaigned like there was no tomorrow. We raised over $4.5 million, and we won.

You were pretty successful in the area of mental health. But Assembly Bill 680 and sales-tax reform went very differently.

Sometimes you decide to take on an issue, you know, a wisp of inspiration. I think that was the case with AB 680. It seemed like a common-sense idea to me. It still does. But it turned into a major battle. My biggest disappointment is that at the end of six years, I was not able to achieve a tangible result in that whole area of regional governance. And yet, I still consider it a success. It provoked an absolutely necessary debate in this region and across the state, in ways that have already planted seeds for the future.

The reaction to AB 680 seemed to range from hostility to incomprehension.

The sales-tax issue is sort of a wonky issue. But it really does speak fundamentally to so many of the things that will define our future here in this region. It’s about equity. It’s about making sure that some parts of the region don’t prosper on their own while others do not. It’s about the environment and air quality and conservation of the land. It is about the imperative that cities and counties work together, as opposed to fighting each other over turf. It’s about the right of every hardworking person to achieve the dream of home ownership. I think that’s why it touched such a chord. I would do it again, though I might do a few things differently.

What would you do differently?

You know, I think when I did this, I was just beginning to know and understand the different players in the region. That was before I became a wanted poster in the Roseville post office [laughing]. I think I should have spent more time developing those relationships with elected officials and doing more groundwork before coming out with a proposal. I tried to assure people of my trustworthiness, you know, but only after …

Scaring the hell out of them?

After scaring the heck out of them [laughing], yes. I should have done more of that beforehand.

Why, as a politician, even take on such an arcane and intractable problem?

My view is that you are in these seats for a very short period of time. There are many people who can come on in and press the green and red buttons as well as I can. But these are positions of power. I know we’re all sort of uncomfortable with the use of that term “power.” But it’s true. So, the question for anybody who has the privilege and opportunity to hold one of these seats is “What are you going to do with that power?”

If you look at Deborah Ortiz, Phil Isenberg, Lloyd Connelly, myself and Dave Jones, I think there’s a thread that runs through Sacramento’s representation in the Assembly over the past decade plus. This is the capital city. There is a well-informed electorate here; it has high expectations. I have no scientific survey to point to, but I know that they expect the member in this seat to take some risks and step out there and take on big issues.

Phil Isenberg gave me great advice. He said the key to success in a term-limited legislature is to pick a couple of issues that really matter but that aren’t being attended to, that aren’t high on the political radar screen. I always remember that in my first year, the big issue was HMO reform. An important issue—don’t get me wrong. But everybody wanted to co-author the bill. I remembered Phil’s advice and decided I didn’t really care whether I co-authored the bill. Instead, I would search for some areas that were really important but that weren’t getting the attention they needed. To me, that’s what’s satisfying, that you can take on an issue and drive it and make a huge difference.

Did you ever have doubts about whether you could do that? Any great crisis of confidence?

Sure I did. You should go back and talk to some of my staff. In my first six months on the job, I told them, “I’m not sure this is for me.” I didn’t quite get the pace of it. I didn’t know what was around the corner. I felt much less connection with the neighborhoods—that was such a big part being on the city council. And you know, it’s a pretty rough-and-tumble place. That feeling didn’t really pass until I got a number of tough bills negotiated and signed into law. You know, you taste a little bit of success, and you start to feel better.