Is Darrell Steinberg a lock to become the next mayor?

Respect, money, vision, likeability—does the former pro tem really want to be top boss of weak-mayor Sacramento?

photos by darin smith

Darrell Steinberg darts across a quiet Tahoe Park street toward a woman standing in her doorway. “You’ve got my vote, Darrell, I just wanted to say hi,” she yells from her porch. “Can I get a lawn sign, too?” he asks, deferentially, like a kid wanting a cookie. She obliges. “Count it!” he shouts to his canvassing sidekick, a law student from his alma mater, UC Davis. It’s an overcast weekend morning in January before noon—and some six months until Sacramento’s primary election. Yet here’s Steinberg, the antithesis of Jeb Bush energy, already hustling for votes. A man in his late 40s thanks Steinberg for stopping by, for his time. “I know you’re famous,” the man says.

“I don’t know about that,” Steinberg replies. “I call it minicelebrity—with an emphasis on mini.”

Clearly Steinberg isn’t taking the mayor’s race for granted. When he’s not banging on doors each weekend, he’s meeting neighbors at coffeehouses or holding court at the farmers market. He seems to genuinely want to lead Sacramento. And experts say the mayor gig is Steinberg’s for the taking.

“It’s his to lose,” said local political strategist Steven Maviglio, who guided Mayor Kevin Johnson’s 2008 campaign. “He’s got money, he’s got message and he’s got name ID. Those are the three ingredients to success.”

He said the 56-year-old former state Senate leader is known around town as Mr. Nice Guy. “Darrell Steinberg doesn’t make enemies. That’s the key to his strength.”

But what’s that saying about nice guys finishing last? Local consultant Matt Rexroad attended the recent debate between Councilwoman Angelique Ashby and Steinberg earlier this month at the Crocker Art Museum. Afterward, Rexroad said he’s “not convinced that the average voter would have said [Steinberg] was the frontrunner.” He described Ashby as folksy and real, and says in contrast Steinberg came across as political royalty.

Esteem, money, vision—is Steinberg simply too qualified to be top boss of weak-mayor Sacramento?

The politician

Steinberg sits at a high table in the back of an East Sacramento coffeehouse. It's a few days before Christmas, a suit-but-not-tie day, and he's sipping a cappuccino. He refers to his accomplishment at the Capitol affectionately, like one might about one’s children—his “work,” as he calls bills passed and initiatives championed. It’s true that his was not the quotidian, boilerplate, here-you-go-constituents legislation. Frankly, many were landmark.

His tenure at the state included six years as president pro tem of the Senate. In the majority party, that makes someone arguably the second-most-powerful politician in the state. After nearly 25 years in public office, including a stint on city council in the 1990s, Steinberg’s accomplishments and respectability are unequaled for a homegrown pol. The Wall Street Journal even christened him one of the 13 leaders to watch in the entire country a few years ago.

So it’s difficult to see Steinberg, what with his Cal Ripken likeability and elite Rolodex, wanting to spend Tuesday nights at City Hall, perched behind the dais, banging a gavel, listening to Mac Worthy. Is mayor really his preferred career move? And about being too qualified for the job …

“It’s funny. My wife and I watched a couple council meetings, and she’s asked me the same question,” Steinberg said. He doesn’t think people intend to be negative with the question—and they’ve definitely have asked it, a lot, since he jumped into the race in October. “But I think it’s a diss on Sacramento. Because what it says is that Sacramento is not big enough for me, because of my experience, and what I did at the state level. And that’s not true. I don’t buy it.

Steinberg gives the pitch to prospective volunteers on recent Saturday morning.

Photo by Darin Smith

“This is a great city.”

Steinberg isn’t Schwarzenegger, or even K.J.-level famous. But he’s become a name in this city since he arrived in 1989. Tahoe Park was actually where he purchased his first home, near Eighth Avenue and 64th Street. Two years later, he founded the community’s first neighborhood group. And, in 1992, he was elected to City Council for the district, which he represented for six years.

Steinberg remembers a different mindset in Sacramento some 25 years ago. He recalled a meeting with developers just after he was elected to council. They showed him renderings of shopping centers and housing complexes, but the question in the room wasn’t how to kickstart a thriving downtown. “The debate was whether or not there could be a housing market downtown,” he said. “We’ve come a long way.”

During his years under the Capitol dome, his foremost accomplishment was Proposition 63, or the Mental Health Services Act, which he co-authored as an Assembly member. That law taxes millionaires, the state’s wealthiest 0.1 percent, and the revenue is spent on mental-health programs. Voters approved it in November 2004, and today it generates nearly $2 billion each year. It will likely be Steinberg’s legacy. “Mental health is the unattended issue of our time” is a kind of mantra.

His other flagship achievement was Senate Bill 375, which passed in 2008 and that “changed the planning paradigm,” as he says, when it comes to suburban sprawl. SB 375 empowers the state to set emissions-reduction goals and incentivizes cities and counties to build housing and developments in the urban core or along transit corridors, with the goal of reducing vehicle-miles traveled.

He’s also passed significant legislation in the areas of education, foster care, gun control, worker safety and the environment. Steinberg described his work as “eclectic,” which he says “used to frustrate [the governor’s office], because they thought that I had too many priorities.” It made it difficult to cut a deal with him during negotiations, he said.

He says his most significant moment was the state’s darkest hour: February 2009, California’s $42 billion deficit. He remembers marathon meetings in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office—they jokingly called it Gitmo. Republicans wanted to raise taxes. If not, there would be bone-deep cuts to social services. “Each of us four leaders stormed out at least once. There were a lot of F-bombs,” Steinberg said.

The GOP leader at the time, Assemblyman Mike Villines, did not get along with Steinberg. “We were both competitive … like oil and water,” he said. But he helped to forge a budget deal, avoiding the fiscal cliff, and the two became close.

Pretty much everyone this writer spoke with for this story said that Steinberg doesn’t have enemies. But that doesn’t mean his working relationships were always Regis and Kathie Lee. By many accounts, his rapport with the Assembly, under Speaker John Perez, was often contentious. But Perez doesn’t describe it that way. “We had momentary disagreements,” the speaker emeritus told SN&R last week. “But we always figured out a way.” He described Steinberg as thorough, thoughtful, engaged, always prepared and very focused—with his biggest strength being his analytic approach.

Does Mr. Nice Guy have any flaws? “He doesn’t have a sense of style, at all,” Perez joked. “We tried to step up his style game. But all things considered, that’s not a huge deficiency for the mayor of Sacramento.”

Last year, Steinberg said he sought the advice on his future from Gov. Jerry Brown. “When I talked to him about my political choices, he said to me, ’You oughta want to be a big city mayor. It’s a great job.’”

Brown, of course, was mayor of Oakland before returning to statewide office and the governor’s mansion. And Steinberg speaks fondly of that career path, that third act. “I suppose, you know, there are other political jobs that are great, too. But this city deserves great leadership. All the things that I’ve done, all the things that I’ve learned, to apply them to the city that I love, what could be better?”

The person

Steinberg knocks on doors in Tahoe Park.

photo by nick miller

A Camry pulls to the curb on 14th Avenue and out pops Steinberg, wearing a long coat and toting a coffee. Oh, and a small brown bag containing a hoagie roll and square of butter. This is breakfast. His power breakfast, which he snagged at The Nugget after an hour workout at the gym—elliptical plus weights, which he says he does seven days a week. Here he is, a high-powered attorney with offices at K and 12th streets, spending his Sunday morning eating bread and butter on the trunk of his car, readying to canvass his old neighborhood. In fact, he was out in this neighborhood the day before, too, knocking on doors with Councilman Eric Guerra.

“He’s still got that down-to-the-neighborhood feeling,” Guerra told SN&R of their time meeting with residents in Avondale and Tahoe Park. “He still has that connection from back when he was a neighborhood president.”

Steinberg says he’ll personally knock on thousands of doors over the coming months. “Some people say, ’I hope he doesn’t take this for granted.’ Some expect that I would rest on my laurels,” he said. “But I’ve got to run like I’m 10 points behind.” He says being out here, you get the pulse of the neighborhoods. You get to relearn the geography. He says it will make him a stronger mayor. (Not that kind of strong mayor.)

“This could be the margin of victory in a close race,” he says while approaching the first door of the day.

That’s pretty humble talk, especially considering that Ashby wants voters to believe that he’s out of touch with street-level Sacramento issues. That he’s a blast from the establishment past at a time when Sacramento needs to move forward. During a recent debate, when Ashby stated “or we can go backward,” she actually pointed at Steinberg.

But his supporters are quick to shoot down her talking points. They say his true character, who he is when you peel away the politician, belies entitlement.

“It’s pretty disingenuous to try and make him out to be a legislator from some ivory tower somewhere,” said County Supervisor Phil Serna. “He’s very steeped in the profession of policy-making, that’s part of who he is. But he doesn’t take himself too seriously.”

Serna said that, if he had to pick just one character trait representative of Steinberg the person, not just the candidate, it’s humility. “Not to get to weepy about it, but I think it’s a pretty rare breed of politician that understands and embraces the need to continually humble yourself.”

Yet still, who is Steinberg when the gears cease churning—if in fact they ever do? Does he let his guard down?

“He does. With his close friends, and I’d like to think I’m one of them,” Serna said. “He really enjoys a good joke. But I will tell you, even if we’re doing something as simple as trying to get through nine holes at [William Land] Golf Course,” where they play on occasion, “it doesn’t take probably to the middle of the second hole to take the conversation back to the ’what ifs’ of policy.”

So, how’s his golf game?

“His tennis game is great,” Serna quipped, then laughed. “That’s all I’m saying about that.”

Steinberg speaks at a Legislature event with former colleagues.

photo by Nick Miller

Apparently Steinberg’s golf skills are notorious. “Who says that Darrell knows how to golf?” former colleague Perez joked after an inquiry about his game.

Sports were a crucial part of Steinberg’s upbringing. “I grew up in a middle class neighborhood in Millbrae, graduated high school the year before Prop. 13,” he remembered. “My childhood was rich, not financially rich, but rich in terms of community. There were sports, there was football, basketball, baseball.” The left-hander says he was too small by the time he got to high school, however, for anything but tennis. So, he became a championship player. And then he quit for 30 years, he says, but started playing again after he left the Senate.

The point of his story, however, is that he’d like to see Sacramento reinvest in recreation programs for kids. “That was a public commitment to making sure that kids had what they needed, and a lot of that has frayed over the course of the last number of decades.” He says Sacramento has actually increased park acreage, but has not kept up with youth programming, so one of his top-three priorities as mayor will be to turn the tide.

Steinberg says he likes to read while on the elliptical every morning. Lately, he’s into The Wrong War, about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he just started a book about a Jewish teenager who shot a Nazi officer. And he’s reading the Robert Caro book on Robert Moses.

He’s an iPhone guy. He and his wife, Julie, have a poodle. His kids are off at school.

And, of course, he’s following the presidential race, but doesn’t subscribe to the idea that Democrats should want Donald Trump to win the nomination. (“It’s just too scary.”) So, who gets it? “I don’t know. I can’t predict it.”

His wife works at Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue, as the cantor. “He cares about everybody,” her rabbi, Mona Alfi, says of Darrell. “My kids adore him because he talks to them like they are people, not just kids.”

Alfi met Darrell and Julie years ago, before they had kids, when they first began attending her synagogue. She actually taught Sunday school with Darrell’s brother, who is a rabbi. Julie, as cantor, leads the congregation in singing and prayer.

Can Darrell sing? “Oh no, oh God no. He enjoys singing, but he’s not somebody I would put a microphone in front of,” Alfi said. “He’d be better at stand-up than he would be at singing.”

The Alfis and the Steinbergs are close. They do dinner together; Julie is a “wonderful cook,” she praised. “And if he’s over at our house for dinner, that’s the same Darrell that you’re going to see behind the dais,” she said. “He’s not pretentious. He’s who he appears to be. There’s no difference.

“With Darrell, who you see is who you get.”

What quality is memorable when Steinberg eases out of politician mode? “Humor,” Alfi shared. “He is a goofy, silly guy who loves humor. He and my husband will quote Woody Allen and Mel Brooks movies ad infinitum.

Steinberg talks to Councilwoman Angelique Ashby after their debate alongside his wife, Julie (right).

photo by Nick Miller

“And nobody giggles harder at Darrell’s jokes than Darrell.”

The candidate

Guests trickle into an auditorium inside the Crocker Art Museum. The occasion is the first mayoral debate of the year. Two candidates—Russell Rawlings and Tony “the Tiger” Lopez—weren't invited by the host, the Metro Chamber of Commerce. Ashby is backstage, but Steinberg is out in the seats, introducing himself to people and shaking hands. Mr. Nice Guy, indeed.

Working a room is Steinberg’s wheelhouse. At a recent press conference inside a downtown affordable-housing complex, the room brimmed with some of California’s most influential lawmakers. But everyone wanted face time with the guy who no longer holds political office: Steinberg. He doled out high-fives and gave hugs. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed before embracing one woman. “Hey Darrell!” a man hollered across the room. The vibe that January evening felt like a family reunion, with mayoral candidate Steinberg as favorite son.

But Steinberg came across as less in his element during the debate. And, as local consultant Rexroad said after, Ashby impressed. “She had some really good responses,” he said. “I think that he got more than he was ready for a couple times. His review should be ’I shouldn’t tangle with her unless I need to.’”

Rexroad also felt that Steinberg needed to be more mindful of Ashby’s credentials. “I felt several times Steinberg was up next to the line of becoming very arrogant and dismissing her.”

Local strategist Maviglio also praised Ashby. “Let’s be honest, they’re both good candidates and have a lot of strengths,” he said. “But against Darrell Steinberg, Angelique just starts in a bad place. She has to introduce herself and go negative, and that’s a tough path.” He said that, save for an unexpected storm of voter apathy toward established, name-brand candidates, Steinberg should win it all in June.

Steinberg’s No. 1 campaign issue is homelessness. Back at that press conference with the powerful legislators, he said that Sacramento’s homelessness problem is “worse than ever.” But what can he do as Sacramento mayor? It’s the county, not the city, that controls the purse strings to deal with homelessness issues.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Homelessness is a city issue, it’s a regional issue and it’s a state issue. And the mayor of Sacramento must make this issue a priority.”

His plan, which he and current state Senate Pro Tem Kevin De León announced at the event, is called the No Place Like Home initiative. The plan is for local governments to give 7 percent of Prop. 63 revenue back to the state. The state will bond against it and create a $2 billion capital fund for permanent supportive housing for homeless people.

And Steinberg’s not talking about segregating low-income housing in one area. He envisions building developments with workforce, special needs, market rate and affordable housing all together, “so that you can’t tell one unit from the other.”

“I think it would be the greatest single investment we have ever made to try to create a systemic solution to homelessness,” he said. It still has to pass the Legislature and earn the governor’s ink, let alone survive any legal challenges, but the plan also exemplifies what his “significant reach” would be as a mayor.

Other mayoral priorities are myriad. He supports a $15 minimum wage, but also is serious about a high-wage employment base, which he says is critical for Sacramento if we want new housing and a sustainable tax base.

Steinberg readies to debate Ashby.

photo by Nick Miller

Another goal will be to extinguish power struggles and drama at City Hall. “I don’t think it’s any secret, but I sense a significant dysfunction between the entities” at City Hall, he said. “And I’m not casting aspersion or blame. I’m not there. But if I’m fortunate enough to be elected, I’m not going to have it. Because it impedes progress.”

Could be a challenge: Johnson and an ad hoc task force are working to hire a new city manager before the next mayor and council take office.

Or it could be easy. Councilman Guerra says that, with Steinberg’s experience uniting legislators as pro tem, working with council should be breezy. “And I also think it’s overblown, how much tension there is on the council,” he added.

More big issues: Steinberg says the council will need to “revisit” the extension of Measure U’s sales tax. And he wants to “focus like a laser” on developing the waterfront. He calls the arena a good catalyst, “but it’s the beginning, not the end.”

Recently, the candidate has increasingly discussed public transit. In December, he told SN&R that Regional Transit “has not nearly reached its potential.” But in January, at the debate, he gave transit a “needs dramatic improvement” grade and dinged light rail for being unsafe, dirty, inefficient and poorly operated.

“It needs an infusion of energy, and it needs to see itself differently.”

There is, of course, talk of Steinberg’s negatives. He boasts a significant fundraising lead, having raked in more than $1.4 million in an account to run for lieutenant governor. Most of this can be transferred to the mayoral race, even though many of these donations come from out-of-towners: Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, AT&T, Disney, Facebook, Time Warner, Verizon, Visa, Clorox, DirecTV, insurance companies, labor unions and so many more. Steinberg could raise more than any mayoral candidate in Sacramento history.

Is all this money good for local politics? What do these donors expect in return from the mayor of little ol’ Sacramento?

In the Senate, he passed a bill that was crucial to keeping the Kings in Sacramento: The law prevented environmental lawsuits from halting construction of the arena, a huge selling point to the NBA owners. But critics dinged Steinberg for passing it in the 11th hour, a special-interest gift that only benefited the Kings and its owners, something he’s done in the past for proposed NFL stadiums in Los Angeles, too.

And some voters might remember 2006, when Steinberg sided with the Maloof brothers and backed their push for a tax to pay for a Kings arena in the railyards. Measures Q and R tanked at the ballot box.

Steinberg also has deep ties to the developer community. He supported the arena and McKinley Village in East Sacramento, which Ashby voted against—and this might lose him votes in that neighborhood, as the “McVillage” remains unforgivably unpopular.

Measure L, or strong mayor, wasn’t hot with voters, either. Steinberg endorsed it last year—and hasn’t ruled out pursuing the executive mayor model despite his predecessor’s shortcomings. “I believe in it. Essentially, it’s the same separation of powers that we see at the state level,” Steinberg said. “But the voters spoke. It’s not something that I’m going to seek to do, at least anytime soon.”

Maviglio said he would “bet the farmhouse” that if Steinberg proposes a strong-mayor initiative, it will pass. (The implication here is that the Measure L vote is about the person, not the policy.)

And about K.J.: The two have been allies—again, the man apparently has no enemies. Both Ashby and Steinberg try to distance themselves from Johnson, but Maviglio pointed out how their policies align. “He’s been on same side as the mayor. Look at the key issues: arena, strong mayor, development. Steinberg and Johnson line up pretty evenly.”

But Supervisor Serna insisted that Steinberg will be a vastly different leader than Johnson. For one, he’s looking forward to a mayor who will reach out to the county. “Boy, that would be something, that would be refreshing,” Serna said. He’s had great working relationships with council members. “I just haven’t had it with the current mayor.” He said Steinberg would represent “a new day” for how the city and county collaborate.

“I’m not a borders or boundaries guy,” Steinberg said. “I’m at the state in my life where the petty does not matter to me. So I’m very excited, actually, about being a regional mayor.”

But his pitch this spring will be to the city. “Sacramento deserves great leadership. It deserves it. It’s a city that is already—I hate to say it’s on the cusp, because that’s become a cliché. It’s already achieving great things.

“And it deserves its next mayor to be somebody who has that reach, who has that experience. And who has that record of always delivering to lead it to its next chapter.”