Mayor on an island
Can Steve Ly move Elk Grove forward after his entire council turned against him?
At the recent swearing-in ceremony decked in tinsel and lined with cakes, Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly and City Council members Stephanie Nguyen and Pat Hume briefly posed for a photograph together.
Just months before, Nguyen and Hume had raised their voices at Ly on the dais, openly challenging his leadership in the heat of a bitter election in which all three fought for their political lives. As the trio stopped for the grip-and-grin in City Hall, one man was obviously missing from the picture: Elk Grove Vice Mayor Darren Suen, the exciting young policy wiz who tried to unseat Ly and seize the mayoral crown.
It didn’t work. The crown stayed where it was. As smiling residents packed the council chambers on December 12 to snap photos and selfies, Suen lingered on the edges with little to celebrate.
Elk Grove political observers agree on two things: The council is still fractured by anger and resentment—and Steve Ly knows how to win elections.
Indeed, the mutiny that Suen, Hume and Nguyen led against Ly in 2018 seemed like an overwhelming one, attracting councilman Steve Detrick, the school board president, a planning commissioner, the chamber of commerce and the police and firefighters unions. Even soccer clubs and swimming teams backed Suen. So did a lot of corporate and development cash. Kevin Johnson never faced such a wide-scale revolt during his worst moments as Sacramento’s mayor.
But on November 6, fighting back with small-dollar donations, an ambitious campaign platform and an inspiring back story, Ly scored an election victory that seriously questioned whether political endorsements have any value in Elk Grove.
“The election is over,” Ly reminded the crowd at his swearing-in ceremony, Suen sitting silently at his side. The mayor then offered some words about working together for the people.
Yet Ly is unapologetically promising to support any public ballot initiative that would circumvent his own council and bring district elections to Elk Grove—and maybe even additional council seats.
Ly says he’s confident that elected officials have enough “common sense” issues on the horizon to unite them. Five days before Christmas, Ly tested that theory in a major way, announcing that one of his biggest campaign promises looks like it’s coming to fruition—the creation of Elk Grove’s first hospital and emergency room.
As news reached government officials and media agencies across the region, questions remained: Will Suen, Hume, Nguyen and Detrick work with Ly on supporting the project? Or will Elk Grove’s five council members keep acting out an episode of South Sacramento County’s version of House of Cards?
A year to remember
Steve Ly stepped under a disco ball spinning luminous flakes over pearl tablecloths. Behind him, jazz instruments glowed in gem lights. To his front, men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns drifted by the gala decorations. Businessmen chatted over wine glasses, while doctors and pharmacists hovered by the cheese trays. The city’s nonprofit leaders strolled under black and white balloons
The mayor’s inaugural ball on Dec. 4 was a triumph in turnout, but four faces were noticeably missing: Ly’s fellow council members.
That didn’t seem to bother the people lining up to shake Ly’s hand. His political rise has inspired many. His father was a veteran of the Hmong “secret army” that fought alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. Like many of America’s allies, Ly’s parents were forced to flee a deadly communist vendetta that swept across Laos after 1975. Ly was born in a Thai refugee camp and arrived in the United States. when he was only four. He moved to the region for college, then got involved in community organizing and civil rights activism as a volunteer for Sacramento Area Congregations Together.
Ly says the lessons from those days—learning to listen, fighting through obstacles—were the groundwork for his later success at the polls. He was elected to the board of trustees for the Elk Grove Unified School District in 2012 and then the City Council in 2014.
In 2016, Ly made history by becoming the first Hmong-American mayor in the United States. And it’s not just that achievement that galvanizes his supporters. Ly openly uses his own refugee tale as a platform for speaking out on issues including scapegoating of immigrants to flare-ups of racism in Elk Grove.
Ly says he’s a strong believer in common values that residents of his city can rally behind. He told SN&R that’s why he conceived of the mayor’s ball as a nonpartisan way of supporting Elk Grove’s nonprofits. While there wasn’t anything controversial about the organizations that benefited—Elk Grove Community Council, TOFA Inc. and the Elk Grove Western Festival—it was scheduled just six days after the election.
When asked to address the crowd, Norm DeYoung, chairman of the Elk Grove Western Festival, stumbled on the tail of the elephant in the room.
“Some nonprofits aren’t here tonight because they’re worried this is a political event,” DeYoung said. “Help us get the word out,” he added with a hard, staccato emphasis. “This, is, not, a, political event.”
Though big, the crowd size couldn’t hide the fact that Suen, Nguyen, Hume and Detrick were no-shows. Suen told SN&R that he had to work out of town that night. Nguyen and Hume couldn’t be reached for comment.
Asked about the council ghosting him, Ly just shrugged.
“It’s a positive thing that’s going to benefit the community.” he said. “It would be great if you came with me, but you don’t, I’m OK with that as well. I’ve always operated that way.”
But some observers weren’t surprised that the other council members didn’t show. When Suen announced his campaign for mayor in April, it came with the revelation that nearly every political hard-hitter in the city was backing him. During a council meeting the following week, while Ly was discussing the possibility of switching to district elections, Hume blew up at him.
“There isn’t that interest, though!” Hume huffed. “What part of the people we’re speaking to, who say they don’t want it, are you not hearing?”
Tensions only grew from there. Ly was soon at odds with the council members over their determination to oust longtime, highly praised City Manager Laura Gill. Ly publicly blasted Gill’s firing as an illogical decision and a waste of a $300,000 payout.
Then, during a Suen campaign event in August, Detrick—the sole council member not up for reelection—called Ly “a show horse” obsessed with photo ops and his public image. Meanwhile, Nguyen published an op-ed in the Elk Grove Citizen accusing Ly of being a fountain of “inflationary and self-promoting statements.”
Two weeks later, Ly was discussing a potential workforce development agreement modeled on a Sacramento program, when he took incoming fire from every angle of the dais.
“We’re Elk Grove, we’re not Sacramento,” Nguyen challenged. “We need to do our due diligence and make sure we flesh this out fully before we start discussing things like this.”
Remaining calm, Ly noted he wanted to get a road map to Sacramento’s model done quickly.
The vice mayor turned to Ly. “You think it’s a road map, but I don’t even think you’ve read the document,” Suen said.
“That kind of statement is out of line,” Ly replied.
Ly and Suen started talking over each other until a woman in the audience shouted, “Keep the politicking for the campaign!”
Yeah, that made YouTube.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Ly told SN&R of the flare-ups. “Sometimes politicians will do things to grandstand or make a point.”
That’s a double-edged sentiment in City Hall. “My colleagues encouraged me to run because they’d all had similar experiences with the current mayor and we’re feeling the same frustrations,” Suen told SN&R. “For me, it wasn’t personal, it was more like, ‘You like the title, Mr. Mayor, but you don’t like the work.'”
Ly stood near the entrance of California Northstate University, surrounded by television cameras and physicians in white coats. The mayor was about to announce that one of his biggest campaign promises—bringing a hospital and emergency room to Elk Grove—was on track to become a reality.
Though Elk Grove is the second most populous city in Sacramento County with 172,000 residents, first responders have to rush patients miles away to emergency rooms at UC Davis Medical Center in Oak Park or Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento. Ly’s team managed to leverage a good relationship with Northstate, a small private medical school in the city, to unveil a 250-bed teaching hospital with a Level 2 trauma center.
“It will provide comprehensive medical services and reduce emergency room response time, which can mean the difference between life and death,” Ly told the crowd on December 20. With Suen, Nguyen, Detrick and Hume standing by his side, Ly added with a smile, “By the way, I see we have a quorum, so if you want business done today, we can get business done right away.”
After the laughs died down, Suen approached the microphone. The civil engineer with a professional background in major infrastructure projects struck a balanced note. Alluding to the extensive permitting, environmental review and neighborhood input that still needs to happen, Suen told the gathering, “I realize there is much to consider, but conceptually, I’m excited for what this project offers.”
It was a study in contrasts between Ly, the fast-moving figurehead who likes to quickly deliver results, and Suen, the business-minded planner who understands the difficulties in navigating bureaucratic waters.
Now, the question is: Can the two merge their strengths together after everything that’s happened?
“I reached out to the mayor a couple of days after the election and asked if he wanted to bury the hatchet,” Suen told SN&R. “The signs were that he wanted to, but I haven’t heard anything since. When he’s ready to sit down, I’m ready to.”
For Dan Gougherty, founder and head writer of ElkGroveNews.net, a true reconciliation between Ly and Suen—or between Ly and any of the council members—would have to include some realigning of personal agendas. Given how hostile the exchanges have been, he’s skeptical that will happen.
“The council members need to realize most constituents could care less about their personal animosities when their house is vandalized or there are unrepaired potholes on their street,” Gougherty said. “Until there is that recognition, the dynamics are not going to change.”
There is some evidence Ly can set aside personal feelings.
Between 2007 and 2010, he was engaged in an ugly wrongful termination suit against his former employer, Asian Resources Inc., a nonprofit refugee assistance program. It claimed it fired Ly as executive director for mismanagement. Ly countered that he was fired for taking action against harassment on the job site, which involved him terminating a board member’s friend. Ly also said that he faced retaliation from the board for refusing to endorse Jimmie Yee’s campaign for county supervisor.
The judge didn’t find enough evidence to sustain Ly’s allegations, but one thing’s for certain: When the smoke cleared, Stephanie Nguyen ended up with Ly’s job.
Ironically, when Ly was elected mayor in 2016, the person the rest of the council wanted to appoint to his former seat was —again—Nguyen. At first, Ly advocated for holding a special election. After the cost involved with an unplanned vote was revealed, Ly decided to support Nguyen.
“I felt that she could do the job,” Ly said.
Amar Shergill, an executive board member of the California Democratic Party, says he knows from first-hand experience that Ly is open-minded and able to view political clashes as water under the bridge. Two years ago, Shergill and Ly had a very public dispute about who should serve as Elk Grove’s delegates to the state Democratic party.
“Some tough words were spoken on both sides,” Shergill recalled. “We started talking again after that election, and I think what is important about Steve Ly is that he’s able to realize his mistakes, express regrets and figure out a way to move forward. That’s why I ended up endorsing him.”
For his part, Ly says that while he and the council will almost certainly remain deadlocked on moving to district elections, they will likely see eye to eye on the completion of a new aquatics center, a new senior center and the possibility of the new hospital.
Suen cautiously agrees. While he stresses he doesn’t think that he or Ly should be taking much credit for projects such as the aquatics center and senior center that were years in the making, he says they can work together to get those amenities over the finish line.
“Everything takes time to heal,” Suen said. “I’m going to try to be hopeful. But at the end of the day, politics is about a business of people and relationships, and, right now, he and I just don’t have a relationship.”