Joshua Wood is the smiling assassin

The Sacramento activist slays anti-arena forces and fights for more Walmarts. He's polarizing, even feared, but also admired and successful. Who is this kid?

Joshua Wood’s preferred nickname is “The Smiling Assassin.” It fits—he united city leaders behind big-box stores and suburban sprawl. In many cases, he also slayed his opposition.

Joshua Wood’s preferred nickname is “The Smiling Assassin.” It fits—he united city leaders behind big-box stores and suburban sprawl. In many cases, he also slayed his opposition.

Photo By Steven Chea

Joshua Wood hardly looks like the most feared man in Sacramento.

In fact, at the moment, the young political operator with the Jekyll and Hyde reputation can’t even scare up a seat at a downtown coffeehouse.

It’s an unseasonably tolerable August afternoon, and Wood wants to escape the metallic whine of coffee beans being milled to dust. A towheaded boy scooting a plastic car nearly trundles over Wood’s heels as the 31-year-old looms in the entryway, calculating his options. The tight-jeans crowd sitting outside doesn’t look up, but there’s a whole region that’s taking notice of Wood.

Over the past year, he’s championed suburban sprawl near Rancho Cordova, lobbied for Walmarts in Sacramento and applied Breitbartian tactics to the Sacramento Kings arena battle. Rumors swirl that he’s eyeing a scrum to enhance Kevin Johnson’s mayoral powers, even as he’s persona non grata in West Sacramento.

“We’ve gotten a little bit of prominence,” Wood deadpanned.

And in a relatively short amount of time. Three years ago, while heading the area’s biggest construction association, Wood fashioned Region Builders Inc. to be its political arm. After splintering off from the Sacramento Builders Exchange Inc. in 2012, that arm sprouted a fist. Now, as Region Builders wades into sprawl politics and arena battles, Wood’s profile is sparking like phosphorous. Which is appropriate, given that his critics accuse him of scorching the earth with every campaign.

Those wanting a vote on publicly funding a downtown arena learned that lesson when Wood and his partners dogged petition gatherers with video cameras and forced their secret-in-Seattle benefactor out of the shadows.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, who tussled with Wood over sustainable-growth policies, likened his approach to a “fatal death match.”

Others disagree. “I like that we’re bringing up things that make people think,” said Region Builders board member Cathy Skeen. “Sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. Why? Because they want sheeple.”

Wood isn’t sheeple. But he is polarizing. Quick to laugh, difficult to pin down, the self-described “smiling assassin” has got labels for days: political wunderkind or overeager young gun, jobs cheerleader or liability, opportunist or puppet—Wood ignores the establishment whispers and takes his seat at the table.

“Just remember,” Wood joked in a later email, “no one has ever blamed us for being ineffective. :)”

Hustle and grow

The sun stretches its Sunday morning legs as Wood pulls a white Crown Downtown T-shirt over his 5-foot-11-inch frame and heads for a bustling farmers market shaded beneath a freeway overpass in downtown Sacramento. But the married father of four isn’t shopping for farm-to-fork produce. He’s plucking the fruits of labor.

Not too long ago, it seemed imminent that a fuzzy alliance would ride a familiar wave of taxpayer anxiety to the ballot for a potentially crippling arena referendum. But because of Wood’s relentless full-court press, thousands of petition-signers now know Seattle investor Chris Hansen, a spurned Kings poacher, bankrolled anti-subsidy forces. As a result, a caucus of business and labor interests operating as has racked up 1,700 petition-withdrawal signatures and counting at events like these.

“We’re killing it,” he enthused.

The question of whether to publicly fund a multimillion-dollar sports and entertainment complex anchored by the Sacramento Kings is almost as old as Arco (sorry, Power Balance Pavilion; sorry, Sleep Train) Arena itself.

Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork says voters should decide whether to chip in some $250 million in public funds, and recently claimed it had more than half the 22,000 signatures needed by mid-December to force a ballot showdown.

Predictably, things got big nasty.

Last week, the California Fair Political Practices Commission exposed Hansen as the source of an unreported $100,000 donation benefiting the signature-gathering campaigns of STOP and the Orange County-based Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods. The donation, which Hansen made through an O.C. political action committee, funneled through a Los Angeles law firm that counts former Kings-owners the Maloofs as clients, The Sacramento Bee reported. Hansen lost his bid in May to scoop the Kings out of Sacramento. While he apologized in a statement for getting “caught up in the heat of battle,” Hansen made his donation on June 21, weeks after NBA owners turned down his bid.

Wood filed the FPPC complaint that led to these revelations. Aided by his gotcha recordings and 56,000 robocalls, the pro-arena coalition shifted the spotlight from the message to the messengers.

Even veteran shit-stirrers like R.E. Graswich took note. “I was cynical & figured FPPC would not push too hard,” he tweeted August 16. “Josh Wood & Region Builders went for jugular. Incredible.”

“I can only marvel at Josh’s talent for distracting people from the real issue,” chuckled Craig Powell, president of Eye on Sacramento, a political watchdog group pushing for an arena vote. “I guess you could call that a backhanded compliment.”

It’s also a big win for Wood, an early graduate of the school of hard knocks. Raised in a foster home until the age of 6, with nearly a dozen other kids, the half-black, half-Jewish son of a longtime smoker first chased grassroots action as a high-schooler volunteering with the American Lung Association. At Sacramento State University, where he studied music before majoring in graphic design, Wood ran for student-body president, winning a title that also kick-started the political careers of Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis and Woodland City Councilman Art Pimentel, among others.

Toward the end of his formal education, Wood ground out a hectic internship at a public employee labor union, which he credits for teaching him how to build alliances and flat-out work. He then filled a one-year fellowship with former Republican state Assemblyman Tim Leslie of Roseville.

“From a labor union to a conservative,” Wood laughed.

That philosophical dexterity has served him well.

“Part of it was learning myself who I was politically,” explained Wood, who describes himself as both pro-business and green friendly. “But a lot of people look at everything as a battle. And sometimes, you’re going to disagree, but [it’s important] to move on. ’OK, we’re not on the same side of this issue. Wanna grab a beer?’”

Joshua Wood earned kudos this past weekend for leading the charge that exposed Seattle billionaire Chris Hansen as the bankroller of the anti-Kings arena signature-gathering effort.

Photo By Steven Chea

Powell would. He called Wood a “talented, smart, high-energy individual.”

He and others credit Wood with a multiyear effort to streamline the city’s building permits and zoning codes and lower development fees. Wood’s chipped away at similar regulations in Elk Grove and Rancho Cordova. Along with a successful effort to stop council call-ups—a policy that allowed individual council members to pull projects for review after they already won planning approval—Wood called the policy streamlining his group’s “crowning achievement.”

“It seems like such a small deal, but it was a huge issue in attracting development to Sacramento,” Wood said.

Region Builders accomplished most of this work under the radar. But then, Wood hitched his organization’s wagon to the 8,000-home beast known as Cordova Hills, and the low profile vanished.

SACOG cows

In mid-March, what was expected to be another dull meeting of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments devolved into confused dickering. Wood set it off with a typed letter.

SACOG is a partnership of some of the region’s top political leaders. The association applies a macro view to development projects—it can’t tell a city or county what project to approve or dump, but can decide how state and federal transportation dollars are spent.

So when SACOG CEO Mike McKeever told Sacramento County supervisors in January that a sprawling subdivision on the county’s eastern edge could possibly overwhelm emissions-reduction targets and endanger future transportation income, Wood charged the respected group with meddling in local land-use decisions and asked the SACOG board to check itself.

“You would think we desecrated something,” Wood recalled months later. “I had no idea how big of a crapstorm that would make.”

Wood’s notorious letter, received 10 minutes before the March meeting, provoked a debate that divided council members, like Folsom’s Steve Miklos and Jeff Starsky, who helped pen competing op-eds about whether SACOG was protecting the region or sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong.

But the “crapstorm” didn’t hit categoric levels until May, when West Sacramento’s Cabaldon ended his state of the city address at a local chamber of commerce with a fiery rebuke for Region Builders.

“If you are a member of Region Builders, you are threatening the safety of West Sacramento citizens,” he warned, “and I know I’m going to be fighting to ensure that not one penny of our community’s construction dollars, not one penny of the hundreds of millions of dollars we are launching right now, not one penny’s going to go to companies that use those proceeds to destroy this city. Not a single penny.”

It was the equivalent of a veteran gunslinger challenging the new kid in the corral. Wood got his group a big-name Republican Party lawyer, and Cabaldon eventually walked back what many took for an outright blacklist.

“They’re not cowed by political fear,” Powell complimented. “They didn’t back down when Mayor Cabaldon made his bullyish statements.”

But the SACOG board also reasserted its support of McKeever with an official resolution, leaving the two sides knotted in a draw.

McKeever declined to comment on the matter, and other board members downplayed the dispute.

“I think some people probably said some things they wish they could retract,” offered Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn, a SACOG board member. “The whole controversy was blown out of proportion.”

Be that as it may, a few months later, in the same coffeehouse that Wood uses as his base of operations, the outspoken Cabaldon explained why the fight still matters.

Bad old days

Ten years ago, environmental groups and development interests were pitted against each other, state and federal officials scrutinized every project, and growth—especially within urban boundaries—squealed to a record-scratching halt.

A breakthrough arrived in 2008 through a document dubbed the “Blueprint for the Future.” Co-authored by then-SACOG chairman Cabaldon, it got developers, politicians and environmentalists mostly on board with how to steer regional growth responsibly. Sacramento was lionized as a smart-growth leader, and dozens of state and federal agencies backed off. The lawsuits stopped. Shovels hit dirt. Relative peace ensued.

Cabaldon described it as “a Galapagos problem”:

“Over the years, because of the blueprint, there have been no predators,” he said. “So when Region Builders set foot on the island and started to attack violently, everyone froze. Folks did not know how to respond anymore.”

Wood doesn’t dispute the importance of the blueprint, but rejects the premise that Region Builders pounced on it.

“A lot of people think this is about the blueprint. Our thing has nothing to do with the blueprint,” Wood said. “What we said was, ’Staff shouldn’t oppose projects unless there’s some kind of controls.’ … That was it.”

McKeever didn’t so much oppose the Cordova Hills project as explain how math works.

On January 29, McKeever appeared at the invitation of Supervisor Phil Serna to answer questions about how a 2,700-acre home and retail explosion could comply with California’s tightening emissions standards for the region.

His answer was simple: It probably couldn’t.

“I’m here because you also live within a region,” he told supervisors. “And people don’t just travel within political jurisdictions, and air emissions don’t occur within a political jurisdiction. … And so all I’m asking is that you seriously consider what those potential impacts would be on the region.”

Photo By Steven Chea

Supervisors approved the project by a 4-1 vote, with Serna dissenting.

Cabaldon described that as “phase one.”

“This is not over,” he promised.

Cordova Hills still needs SACOG’s blessing if it wants to tap into state or federal transportation funds. After a long-promised university tenant dropped out of the project in 2011, that tough sell became tougher. Developers are meeting with a “panoply of education consultants around the country” to find a replacement, said spokesman Doug Elmets, but there are no candidates yet.

“We’re going to take every opportunity to explain the benefits of the project,” Elmets added.

In the meantime, Wood has other irons in the fire.

Friends and known associates

A member of both Mayor Johnson’s Think Big Sacramento and Here We Build committees, Wood stood beside K.J. during a July 2011 press conference on what to do with then-Power Balance Pavilion once a new arena was built, while his group hosted Think Big’s March kickoff campaign on why the Kings should stay.

Two years later, Wood carries this torch on his own.

Wood said K.J. “has nothing to do” with the new effort, though Johnson and his wife appeared at the August 11 signature-withdrawal gathering on their way back from the farmers market.

Nor is Johnson directly involved in the latest strong-mayor push, from a group calling itself Sacramento Tomorrow.

While Region Builders played a role in past executive-mayor campaigns, Wood said they’re not part of this one just yet. Region Builders does support the concept, and Wood counts himself a K.J. admirer. “The mayor has this incredible ability to bring together people,” he said. “I mean, he’s a star.”

And stars are plenty busy.

Contacted to discuss Wood, a Johnson representative didn’t reply by deadline.

While Johnson is insulated from the lobbying efforts to expand his powers or block what could be an area referendum, the Cordova Hills issue has a Kevin Bacon feel—every player is a mere six degrees away, if that.

Asked for people to speak on his behalf, one of the individuals Wood offered was Dennis Rogers.

Rogers went to work for Roger Niello at the Sacramento Metro Chamber after he left the North State Building Industry Association, a powerful organization that lobbied heavily for Cordova Hills under his tenure, back when a university was still attached.

In a phone interview, Rogers seemed reluctant to say much about the man who suggested him as a character witness.

Beyond saying there are “conversations,” Rogers won’t describe the current alliance between Sac Metro, Region Builders and other business groups to repeal Sacramento’s big-box ordinance, for fear of revealing tactical secrets heading into a crucial council hearing (scheduled for this past Tuesday, August 20, which was after SN&R’s deadline).

Asked to describe a past partnership with Wood, Rogers can’t name one. “I don’t know,” he said. “There have been so many issues. I would have to go back [and look].”

Asked if Wood ever called him to discuss Cordova Hills, Rogers paused.

“Hmm, yeah, you have conversations with people, but I have those same conversations with numerous people,” he said. “It’s that old saying: Politics make strange bedfellows.”

And sometimes familiar ones.

Political consultant Tab Berg ran Niello’s successful campaign for county supervisor, as well as Roberta MacGlashan’s. MacGlashan voted for Cordova Hills, a project supported by the BIA under Rogers. Wood took up that cause after Rogers left the BIA.

Until recently, Berg represented STOP. He left following the donation scandal. Berg didn’t return a request for comment. Wood said they have a “friendly relationship.”

“Tab and Josh are like this,” Cabaldon said, twisting his fingers. “I’m just highly skeptical when two best friends stand to gain this much publicity and fundraising capacity from each other playing this off.

“To me, it feels like a World Wrestling match.”

For his part, Wood said he’s not into “fake wrestling.” But he’s a “big MMA fan.”

Behind the curtain

One of the criticisms Wood fields on the regular is that his group lacks transparency when it comes to whose interests Region Builders represents. Speculation runs rampant that it’s a Chinese democracy run by Wood and a few wealthy developers rather than middle-class builders who make up the bulk of its membership.

“The feeling I got is there’s one or two major financers that use the shell of Region Builders,” Cabaldon said. “And probably Cordova Hills is connected, but I don’t know.”

(“It seems like the tail is wagging the dog,” is how one elected official who spoke on background put it.)

To diffuse some of this chatter, Wood recently published a list of Region’s board members on the group’s website.

“I heard that criticism, so I put it up there,” he smiled.

But thus far, he’s rebuffed attempts to obtain a full roster of members.

Asked why, Wood shrugged. “We’ve never done it,” he said. “Do other organizations?”

Actually, they do. Wood belonged to at least two of them—Think Big and Here We Build.

There are those who say Wood shouldn’t have to show all his cards.

Rogers said Region Builders has a “constitutionally protected” right to set agendas without prying eyes, referring to Region Builders’ 501(c)(6) tax-exempt status, which limits what they have to reveal following the Citizens United ruling.

“That’s their internal business,” Rogers added. “I assume if the board was unhappy, they’d let him know.”

Skeen and fellow board member Randy Hudson, both of whom run insurance companies, don’t know how many total members Region Builders has.

“I’ve personally never seen a full roster of members,” Hudson said. “[But] the information is there if you want it.”

Wood told SN&R he doesn’t know, either.

What is public are the names of the 13 different trade associations that pay dues, mostly representing midsized contractors and architects. Most pay $250 to join and $500 a year, Wood said, but there are secret members who fork over $1,000.

And then there’s onetime parent association SBX, which provides “a quarter” of Region Builders’ funding, according to Wood. “They’re huge. They’re the sugar daddy,” he laughed.

Or at least used to be.

Region Builders split from SBX more than a year ago, though the two associations remain entangled, sharing members, money and even office space. Wood still has a modest desk inside SBX headquarters, but mostly takes meetings at downtown coffeehouses.

“It was an awkward relationship, and eventually, it proved too weird of a structure to work,” Wood said. “I mean, we work together closely. I’m in their building.”

SBX is giving less money than in years past and has yet to renew its latest funding contract with Region Builders. In July, Region Builders laid off its only other full-time staff person besides Wood, according to an internal email.

SBX executive vice president Peter Tateishi described “a strong working relationship” between the two groups.

“Having said that, there are also times where we do disagree or choose not to engage on the issues and priorities Region Builders presents and tackles,” he continued. “We take things issue by issue.”

And the affable Wood takes them in stride.

Back in the coffeehouse, Wood peeks at his cellphone to check the time. The 16-hour days haven’t dimmed his hazel eyes, but he is wary of his growing profile. The self-described problem solver says he prefers discussing efforts that don’t rate headlines, like lowering kitchen-remodel fees and dismantling permitting obstacles for mom-and-pop businesses.

But now Wood is on the main stage and taking all the heat that comes from the klieg lights. Development sprawl, big-box booms, big-money arena campaigns—Wood paddles in billion-dollar waters and carries the hopes of an embattled industry. And if he’s made some missteps, well, even his detractors say they’re the errors of a hungry up-and-comer.

But Wood won’t take the bait when asked about future ambitions.

“Honestly, I just hope we keep doing what we’re doing,” he demurred.

Then, rising from his chair, he pockets his bleeping cell and remarks, “Let’s grab a beer next time.”

Next time.