New kid on the block
Midtown dwellers, downtown artists, gays, young entrepreneurs, hipsters—many harbor big hopes for newly minted Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen. Can he deliver?
It's just after 6 p.m. on a damp Tuesday in December, and nearly a dozen people are packed into the ground floor of Steve Hansen's two-story Alkali Flat home. A “Steve Hansen for City Council” placard hangs on the front door, a welcoming sign for the steady stream of visitors who, over the course of the next half-hour, continue to arrive and enter without knocking.
As the loud disco beats of the Scissor Sisters float downstairs from the second floor, friends, campaign volunteers and neighborhood activists swarm, snapping victory photos and casting anxious glances toward the staircase.
“Where’s Steve?” someone asks.
“Getting ready,” another answers.
Eventually, Hansen makes his way down the staircase, greeted by a hearty round of applause, cheers and wolf whistles. Dressed in a dark suit, he sports a bemused expression as he makes his way outside to the front porch.
Finally, it’s time to leave. “I’ve never done this before,” he says, and then, entourage in tow, sets off on the three-block journey to his swearing-in ceremony at City Hall.
Hansen—a relative political newcomer who ran on a platform promising change, fresh ideas and accountability—won because he inspired a rising demographic of urban dwellers, artists, gays and young entrepreneurs. But now Hansen is joining the jaded politicos inside City Hall. Can he stay true, can he deliver?
On this night, Hansen’s walk represents just one of many firsts: He’s the city’s first openly gay council member, the first to represent the newly redefined District 4, the first to live on the Midtown-downtown grid in three decades and the first ever to represent the entire central city as one. The road here was, by all accounts, grueling, with a lengthy campaign that pitted him against an established City Hall veteran in a race so tight, the victory was decided by less than 150 votes.
It represented a first, too, for the 33-year-old, who for more than a year juggled his boots-on-the-ground drive with a full-time job at a California-based biotech company.
Along the way, Hansen drew in scores of enthusiastic supporters, earned important endorsements from—among other organizations—the local firefighters’ union, and raised impressive campaign dollars, much of it through deep-pocket donations but, too, a considerable chunk via social networking.
The pitch: He’d take District 4—an area encompassing Midtown and downtown, Land Park and parts of Natomas—and, in his own words, “rebuild Sacramento’s morale” by making it easier to create innovative, tech-friendly and green jobs. He vowed to bolster the city’s arts and entertainment scene and explore solutions to crime and homelessness.
Hansen, who plans to continue working his day job, also pledged to donate his $60,000 city council salary to seed a districtwide innovation fund.
Big ideas from a guy who says he’d only recently contemplated life as a politician.
“I always thought I’d just be a behind-the-scenes person,” Hansen says. “[But] there were a lot of things I thought Sacramento should be talking about.”
Even as he earned supporters, however, Hansen also attracted criticism that he was politically naive and thin-skinned—the type to bristle at or shy away from the harder questions.
So, who exactly is the real Steve Hansen?Football, the military and other brutal, life-changing moments
Former California Assemblyman Dennis Mangers, now a special adviser to California Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, says Hansen’s the kind of guy who can handle the job—the spotlight, and the accompanying criticism and jabs.
Mangers first met Hansen a decade ago when the younger man sought out the gay politician and businessman as a mentor. Then head of the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, Mangers soon gave Hansen a job at his company.
“It quickly became clear he was one of the brightest people I’d met in a long time,” Mangers says. “I found him inordinately mature for his age, and smart and articulate. I also found that there was also a spiritual undertow and a philosophical demeanor.”
Hansen hasn’t had much time to get philosophical lately.
“It’s been such a whirlwind,” he says a few days after the swearing-in ceremony, as he relaxes on an overstuffed couch in his living room. A nearby Christmas tree stands undecorated, and the house, strewn with clothes, books and stray Clif Bars, exhibits a vibe that’s at once cozy and bachelor-on-the-go.
Now, he’s alone, save his tiny black-and-white papillon dog, Oreo, and a reporter. And with the crowds and noise gone, Hansen, a self-described introvert, says he’s ready to take a deep breath and figure things out—simple items like procuring staff parking and getting computers, and bigger issues like hiring a chief of staff and prioritizing meetings and phone calls.
“The last two weeks have been a really fast-spinning merry-go-round,” he says. “Really great, really exciting—but when you get off, you feel a little woozy.”
There wasn’t much in Hansen’s early life to prepare him for the whirlwind of politics. His parents divorced when he was 3, and for years the St. Paul, Minn., native lived with his older autistic brother and his mother, a nurse’s aid who had difficulty keeping things together.
“She has a big heart,” he says now. “But [then], she didn’t quite know how to connect the responsibility part.”
His father paid child support, but the family still spent time on public assistance, in and out of shelters and soup kitchens. Hansen also watched his mother go through one bad boyfriend after another—relationships fraught with yelling and violence.
Hansen eventually moved in with his grandmother and, later, his father. The elder Hansen was a paper-mill worker who, although able to provide financial stability, Hansen says, couldn’t really manage interpersonal relationships.
“There was lots of instability, and I couldn’t take very much for granted, which meant that I had to rely on myself more, and that made me very independent,” he says.
Certainly, Hansen seemed to foster an almost preternatural sense of can-do and self-reliance early on, joining his high-school football team as a freshman—even though he’d never played a real game before.
Finding that he lacked the “aggressive, kill ’em” personality that football required, Hansen eventually switched to tennis because, well, why not?
“I wasn’t very good at either … [but] I like to try new things.”
Add the military to that list.
He attended basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and says he found the experience brutal. Brutal and life-changing.
“It was traumatizing but also empowering—I lost weight, people looked at me differently, I had self-confidence,” he says.
It also brought the 17-year-old a key realization: “It gave me the courage to realize that I was gay, and that if I survived [basic training], I could come out and start that process.”
Hansen’s uncle, John Breon, still remembers that period.
“He was very matter-of-fact about it, very comfortable with it,” says Breon, himself a former St. Paul city council member, who credits his nephew’s Catholic school upbringing for his pragmatic approach to life.
After high school, Hansen moved west to Washington and attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, where he initially studied political science and French on a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship. Along the way, however, he dropped out of the ROTC.
“I just realized that the path I was on wasn’t true to me,” he says.
Hansen switched his major to international studies and in 2002, moved to Sacramento after he was accepted into an executive fellowship program at the Capitol. Since, his lengthy résumé includes a stint working for Gov. Gray Davis as part of the California State and Consumer Services Agency, employment as a legislative director for Equality California and his current job at Genentech, where he’s worked since 2006. He also served on the board of directors for the local chapter of the Stonewall Democrats, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, and the Center for AIDS Research, Education and Services; completed Sacramento’s Planning and City Management academies; and, in 2011, received a law degree from the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law.
That same year, he was also appointed as one of 15 city residents to serve on the Sacramento Redistricting Citizens Advisory Committee. It was the events that took place within that organization that proved pivotal.
“That was the point at which I lost my innocence,” Hansen says now.
It’s also the point at which he decided to enter politics.The road to politics
By now, the controversy over the Sacramento Redistricting Citizens Advisory Committee is well-documented. In 2011, Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer appointed Hansen to a panel comprising local citizens tasked with redrawing city council district boundaries.
The group researched and then submitted four maps for consideration. The trouble started when city council members learned that Hansen had created and submitted one of those four maps—anonymously. Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy blasted the move. Sacramento labor union leader Bill Camp, whom Sheedy had appointed to the panel, called it a “scam,” and others saw Hansen’s presence on the panel as a calculated move, given that Schenirer had received campaign donations from Genentech.
Ultimately, the city council adopted its own map, one submitted by Councilman Steve Cohn. But the incident left many questioning, at best, Hansen’s good judgment and political acumen and, at worst, his ethics. While there were no rules stating that a member of the committee could submit a map, anonymously or otherwise, it remains unclear why Hansen chose this route.
For his own part, Hansen claimed he meant no harm.
“If I had to do it again, I would do it differently,” he says. “But nothing precluded an anonymous map submission. I don’t to want cast aspersions on others, but the process wasn’t meant to produce a community-driven map, and that was the frustration that led to that submission. [My] intention was good. … Citizens who engage in the process should look at that and understand that they still made a difference.”
So, what was it—political naiveté or a shrewd, calculated move?
Either way, critics found the move—and Hansen’s reasoning behind it—unsatisfactory.
Sheedy declined to comment on the record for this story, and Camp, currently out of the country, didn’t return phone calls or emails.
Others, however, defend Hansen’s intentions. Maya Wallace, who worked on the panel with Hansen and later as a campaign volunteer, says that they had “honestly and thoughtfully considered all issues.”
“We both thought that the city would take all of us at our word that we thought the maps we presented were the best option,” Wallace says.
For his part, Schenirer blasts the idea that anybody tried anything fishy.
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. There’s absolutely no substance to it,” Schenirer says. “[Hansen] wanted the map to be about the map—and not the person who submitted it.”
Still, even some of Hansen’s staunchest supporters saw the method as less than ideal.
“I think [Hansen] was being a bit naive and, being a law student at the time, he was perhaps thinking that the fine points of the law—he didn’t do anything against the rules—would protect him. He didn’t yet understand, I think, that appearances and perceptions are everything in politics,” says David Watts Barton, former Sacramento Press editor-in-chief and a one-time Hansen roommate.
“I imagine he learned quite a bit from that experience and wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.”
More importantly, Barton adds, Hansen is “very serious about his responsibilities, smart as can be, and really caring and compassionate about other people who are struggling.”
“He knows the names of a number of the homeless people who are his neighbors—and there are quite a few down there—and I’ve seen him bring people food and say hi to them on the street when most people are ignoring them.”
Mangers echoes this sentiment and says Hansen is “nobody’s person but the electorate’s person.”
“Steve has a strong moral compass; he has a strong sense of what’s ethical and a strong sense of what’s right and wrong.”Carpe council
It was the early hours of October 12, 2011, and, as usual, Hansen was still up, reading the local news online, when he came across an article reporting that Sacramento City Councilman Rob Fong had decided not to run for re-election.
Before the sun came up, Hansen, who insists that he’d held no prior political ambitions, had written up a call list and agenda.
“Carpe council,” he says now, wryly. “If I’d truly understood what I was getting into then.”
What he was getting into, of course, was pure politics.
The move, he says, was rooted in the events of the redistricting committee.
“I think it’s trite to say that the city is broken, but a lot of the relationships and the way people handled things—people didn’t treat each other with much dignity, and I just didn’t think that was right,” Hansen says. “[I thought] if I could bend the curve on that, it would be worthwhile, [so] I took a leap of faith.”
Hansen’s bid pitted him against Joe Yee, a longtime Land Park resident whose political résumé includes a 2000 appointment to city council to fill a seat vacated by Jimmie Yee after he was sworn in as mayor following Joe Serna Jr.’s death.
In short, the race turned into a battle between the new kid on the block and the guy who’d been around the block several times already.
To that end, Hansen waged a campaign of change, promising among other things to make it easier for would-be entrepreneurs to launch businesses in Midtown and downtown.
Liz Studebaker, executive director of the Midtown Business Association, liked what she heard during Hansen’s campaign.
“From the beginning, I was excited about the energy and intellectual curiosity that Steve brings,” she says.
Parking, more street lighting and streamlining the new business-permit process—all are key Hansen-agenda items, Studebaker says.
“I’m very confident in what he’ll do,” she says.
Hansen’s accessibility is also crucial, she adds.
“He spends a lot of time [in Midtown and downtown] on a day-to-day basis. He walks the district, he knows a lot of the business owners, he has a direct relationship with the community.”
He didn’t just focus the campaign on the grid, however. His first door-to-door canvassing trip, for example, landed him squarely in Natomas during the primary race.
“I didn’t want it to be overlooked, so it was the first place I started walking in January ,” he says.
Controversy continued to dog Hansen throughout the campaign, however.
A flier featuring an image of President Barack Obama seemed to suggest a political endorsement that wasn’t really there. Questions arose regarding the ethics of campaign funding and his ongoing role as a lobbyist for Genentech, particularly in light of donations that the company made to his campaign.
Hansen defends Genentech’s donations as politics as usual—“I can look at Joe Yee or anybody else who runs for office—they all have friends and alliances [who donate money]. There’s no there there.”
Perhaps, but given Hansen’s pledge to rise above politics, to wage an open, transparent campaign, it rings more than a little false.
Craig Powell, president of the local taxpayer watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, says he’s not too concerned about Hansen’s campaign financing, however.
“The rap on Steve—that he used his position at … Genentech to tap into [donors] for his campaign—given the fact that he had had broad-based support, I’m not really concerned about that,” Powell says.
“In politics, you’re in business, you’re making phone calls, you’re asking for money, you’re asking for support from people who you deal with. That’s the financial way,” Powell says. “As long as his bosses [at Genentech] were aware of the scope of his fundraising, we’re not in any position to complain about it.”
It wasn’t just big money that put Hansen in office. He also raised a considerable chunk of change through small, individual donations.
In an article detailing the impact of crowd funding on campaign finance, news site Mashable noted that Hansen’s Web-savvy strategy was “widely successful because he has a great ’underdog’ story that people are more apt to like, link and share.”
That “underdog story” netted Hansen more than $80,000 in donations through his personal fundraising page on the Rally website.
Hansen says he earned those campaign dollars by getting out and meeting people. “When you have 26,000 people voting in the general election, you … need to get out and meet people one on one, make phone calls and knock on doors.”
Thomas Dodson first really got to know Hansen late last spring during a nonprofit fundraiser for a women’s shelter. The two, donating their time in leather pants as backup dancers for a Lady Gaga impersonator (no, really), found themselves discussing the future of Sacramento.
“He really stressed the importance of arts and diversity in the local economy,” says Dodson, a local social-media producer. “It became clear to me that we shared the same vision.”
Dodson signed on as Hansen’s social-media and communications director and found himself impressed with the candidate’s focus.
“The guy was always the calmest one in the room,” Dodson says. The mood and the tenor of the campaign was always one of positivity and about the improvements we could see for Sacramento.”Voice of the grid
Hansen’s swearing-in was monumental—friends, family members and curious onlookers jammed into City Hall to see Hansen take his oath. Without tickets, most were relegated to watch on closed-circuit sets in the lobby as he was sworn in by a group that included Mangers and West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon.
The Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus sang “Go Light Your World.” Parie Wood, a local 17-year-old folk singer-songwriter, played guitar and sang the national anthem. Afterward, Hansen hosted an inaugural party at the nearby Tsakopoulos Library Galleria. Rabbi Mona Alfi delivered an invocation. Mayor Kevin Johnson made an appearance, beer and wine flowed, and a band played well into the night.
But now it’s time to put aside the pomp and circumstance and get down to the business of politics.
These days, certainly, everyone seems to want something from Hansen. One recent Saturday afternoon in January, the new councilman, dressed in a suit even for the weekend, finds himself stopped several times en route from the sidewalk to the counter at a local coffee shop. There’s the woman clutching a tiny dog who works in the business office for a local restaurant and several voters offering well-wishes. An old friend just wants to say hello.
Cabaldon calls Hansen the “voice of the grid”—and the impetus for action.
“His campaign inspired and emboldened an entirely new range of citizens who are now taking action both inside and outside of city government,” Cabaldon says.
“[These are] people who don’t care much about the arena; who don’t care about symbolic battles between the labor, council and the Metro Chamber; who couldn’t care less about the petty politics of individual personalities. They care about creating positive change and action.”
For now, Hansen says it will take at least six months to get acclimated—to get a full staff in place and figure out how the city functions. His four-year goals reflect his campaign platform: a venture fund for new entrepreneurs, jobs, sustainable development; paving the way for more arts and entertainment; making the city more walkable—to-do list items that, he notes, don’t seem particularly glamorous.
“Everybody wants something, everyone has an agenda, everybody wants this pursuit of something ideological—but there’s nothing ideological about a stop sign.”
Hansen believes it was his practical ideas for change that led to his win.
“There was a shift in power and, for the first time, Midtown had more of a voice than it did before,” he says. “I think people just wanted something with more energy.”
Are there plans for political life beyond the council? Asked the question, Hansen lets out a sigh.
“No, and I’d question the sanity of that having done this,” he says.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice involved in [public office], and I’m enjoying the chance to make the city better. … That’s what you do when you love something—you sacrifice,” he says.
Shrewd politics? Or an unwavering and truthful commitment to the here and now? Who exactly is the real Steve Hansen?
He insists the answer is found in the latter.
“Too many people use [the council] as a means to run for the Assembly or something else. But right now, this is my calling, to take the city’s untapped potential and make it what it can be.”