North by northeast

Rob Kerth

Rob Kerth

The two most competitive races for Sacramento City Council this year are in two very different parts of the city.

District 4 has it all: downtown, Midtown, Land Park, wealth and power. (We’ll tackle this race in an upcoming story.) District 2—which includes north Sacramento, Del Paso Heights, Ben Ali, Norwood, Hagginwood and Strawberry Manor—has high crime rates, high poverty and a decades-long history of neglect. If there’s one thing all six candidates for the District 2 seat agree on, it’s that the north area hasn’t gotten its due. Each has their own ideas about how to fix that. And most bring some baggage to the race, either their own or somebody else’s.

Jason Sample

The pastor

When he was 10 years old, Jason Sample’s family moved from Texas to Sacramento’s Strawberry Manor neighborhood. A year later, Sample’s house was underwater, literally, due to the flood of 1986.

“The water was up to the roof line. We lost everything,” Sample told SN&R. After that, the family was homeless and lived for a while with fellow church members. They stood in line at the Robertson Community Center in Del Paso Heights to receive their “block of Reagan cheese.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Sample—now Pastor Sample—grew up concerned about the poor and working-class residents of Sacramento’s north side, and why those folks figure prominently into his campaign for the District 2 council seat.

Sample’s résumé includes several years with the Mutual Assistance Network of Del Paso Heights, where he ran drop-out-prevention programs, then later set up financial and money management for area residents.

That’s when he started to think about the “economic infrastructure” of the community. “In this community, you’ve got two banks, but 11 check-cashing places,” Sample explained. Compare that to East Sacramento.

In 2000 to 2004, Sample served on the Grant Joint Union High School District Board. Sample also served on the Sacramento County First 5 Commission, which helps divvy up money for child health and education programs. That’s where he learned that the north Sacramento ZIP codes have some of the highest child-death rates in the city.

Three years ago, Sample took over as pastor of the True Life Ministries when Sample’s father, who had been pastor, passed away.

As he’s campaigned, he says the large majority of people he’s talked to oppose public money being used for a new Sacramento Kings arena. “The arena is not going to be in District 2. So what are you going to do for the people who can’t afford those $118 tickets? What are you going to do for the working men and women in this area?”

Sample’s got the endorsement local public employees unions, like Stationary Engineers Local 39 and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 146. He also won the support of the current District 2 Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy, who decided not to run for re-election.

He said Sheedy’s endorsement is “a blessing and a curse,” because some people assume that he’ll pick up Sheedy’s long running feud with Mayor Kevin Johnson. But Sample he said he has “no preconception” about the mayor.

If he does win, he says he’ll set up his office in north Sacramento, not downtown at City Hall. If he doesn’t win, he’s got plenty to do in the district, anyway.

“Win or lose, on June 6, I’m going to sit back down at this desk and try to figure out how to move this area forward.”

Allen Warren

The developer

Allen Warren also grew up on Sacramento’s north side. “When I was growing up, we had grocery stores and bowling alleys—resources in the district. You didn’t have to drive out of the area to get what you needed.” Today, he notes, north Sacramento “doesn’t even have a mainstream grocery store.”

He faults Sheedy, the current councilwoman, for that and said as the owner of New Faze Development, “I’m the only candidate who’s really run a business and who has created jobs,” says Warren.

Perhaps the biggest success was the Del Paso Nuevo redevelopment project, which early on won recognition for revitalizing the depressed neighborhood.

Later phases of the project bogged down in the real-estate downturn, and litigation, including a lawsuit the city of Sacramento brought last year, complaining that Warren’s company failed to make $3 million worth of improvements, like power lines and streetlights, in the project area.

The city dropped its complaint against Warren’s company, Nuevo Partners LLC, because it went bankrupt. But the city is still suing the insurance company backing the project. Warren said the suit was politically motivated. “It was all politics. It was an attempt to get me not to run. That was before Sheedy decided not to run.”

But Warren’s business woes have had other consequences. He’s fallen far behind on the property taxes on several properties he owns in District 2.

He owes more than $100,000 in back taxes on his New Faze Development property at 1825 Del Paso Boulevard, he’s $40,000 behind on the Carol’s Books building at 1913 Del Paso Boulevard.

Warren said the delinquent taxes are due to losses in the real-estate downturn. “Those properties all hit rock bottom.” Still, the vast majority of property owners—96 percent, according to county officials—manage to pay their property taxes every year, despite the economic downturn.

“That’s your choice,” argues Warren, adding his taxes, “will be sorted out in time.”

Warren received the endorsement of Mayor Johnson, as well as that of The Sacramento Bee, and half the endorsement of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce (they also endorsed Kim Mack).

The engineer

Rob Kerth is a Stanford University-educated engineer, also with long ties to the area. His family owns the Iceland skating rink, which burned down in March of 2010, but reopened as a nonprofit in January of 2011, thanks in part to volunteer help from the community. (Sheedy, the current District 2 representative, initially didn’t want the structure to reopen without a roof—the latest in series of clashes between the Kerths and Sheedy over the years.) Volunteerism is one of the main themes of the Kerth campaign. “Volunteerism is how were going to solve our problems from the inside out,” he says.

Kerth was the city councilman for the area from 1992 to 2000. Ask him what he got done during that time and he might whip out a nine-page, 10-point-type list: beefed up flood control for Strawberry Manor, major expansions of light rail during his tenure on the Sacramento Regional Transit Board, construction the Arden-Garden Connector. He even claims some of the credit for Warren’s Del Paso Nuevo, which was approved during Kerth’s tenure on the council.

Kerth ran against Heather Fargo for mayor in 2000, but lost in a runoff. He backslid into politics in 2008, winning a seat on the board of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

He said he’s learned a lot. “SMUD is famous for letting staff do their jobs,” Kerth said, and the utility consistently wins awards for customer satisfaction. By contrast, he thinks the Sacramento City Council spends too much time micro-managing, and not enough time leading. He said he would import some of the ideas of “performance based government” to the city council. Kerth says he’ll introduce one-year and five-year plans for each of the neighborhoods of District 2, and focus on getting north Sacramento its fair share of city services. “North Sacramento is where all the streetlights are out,” he said.

Kerth’s critics say he’s running because he needs a job. Kerth’s abrupt departure as director of the Midtown Business Association set off rumors that he’d been fired. (Actually, the rumors started before he left.) Kerth says that he told the MBA board more than a year ago that he was planning to run for city council.

He does enjoy the endorsements of a long list of local elected officials and Sacramento County Democratic Party, the Sacramento Central Labor Council, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 522, the North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce and the Sacramento Rainbow Chamber of Commerce.

Kerth said he found the last arena deal “baffling” given the city’s deep and immediate problems. Asked his thoughts on the strong-mayor system of government pushed by the mayor, he replied, “I’m agnostic.”

“It’s the wrong question, really. The public wants a responsive government. You can have that with either form.”

As for his potential relationship with the mayor? “I’m the guy Kevin needs on the council. Not the guy he wants.” Needs him because, “I figure things out, and I get stuff done.” Doesn’t want him because, “I don’t do what I’m told. Ever.”

Sondra Betancourt

The neighborhood activist

Actually, Sondra Betancourt hates being called a “neighborhood activist,” probably because it’s a huge oversimplification. But so is “engineer” or “developer.”

Betancourt grew up thinking her part of town was called “Norsac.” That’s how her older Norwegian relatives pronounced it. Her family came to the area in 1906, and were among the founding families of the Bethel Lutheran Church.

Betancourt a now-retired Caltrans personnel manager, has lived in the Ben Ali neighborhood for 38 years. She got involved in local policy, and eventually became president of the Ben Ali Community Association, after she learned that her neighborhood was going to be rezoned—she says without meaningful input from the residents there.

When the city’s budget crisis hit, she went to bat for police and fire departments, becoming a spokesperson for the Protect Sacramento campaign.

Police and fire didn’t take the same damage as other departments. Still, Sheedy supported very unpopular cuts to public safety. “I was approached by people in the police and fire departments,” said Betancourt. “They said, ‘You need to get that woman out.’”

Despite her dedication, she lost the Sacramento Police Officers Association endorsement to Kim Mack. Betancourt said she was told explicitly during the endorsement process that she would have to support Mayor Johnson’s strong-mayor initiative in order to win support of the police union. She refused.

Misty Yaj

She’s not bitter now. “Do I bear a grudge? Absolutely not. I will back them no matter what.”

Betancourt has scored the endorsements of the Sacramento County Republican Party, and the Sacramento County Taxpayer’s League, but hasn’t raised the money some other candidates like Kerth, Mack and Allen.

“I have got faith in people’s ability to make a decision based on the facts, regardless of how much heavyweight glossy paper comes to their doorstep.”

The auditor

Misty Yaj is running perhaps the lowest profile campaign of the six council candidates. Yaj—an auditor with Bank of America who also co-owns a small grocery store—had just a little more than $1,200 in the bank according to her last campaign report.

But she is counting on the support of District 2’s large Hmong community and its small-business owners. “I want to bring more businesses into the district. And I want to limit or reduce the code requirements that make is very hard for businesses to get up and running,” Yaj told SN&R. She also said she would work with banks and lending institutions to invest more in north Sac, and suggested a program of mentors for small-business owners.

Yaj said the arena had been a big issue in the campaign. “I don’t hear from a lot of people who are all that interested in the Maloofs or the arena. Mostly, people are more interested in getting this area revitalized.”

Kim Mack

The organizer

On the other hand, Swanston Estates resident Kim Mack said the citizens of District 2 are “angry to the point of action” about the dysfunction in city hall. “I think there are votes happening on the basis of personality, rather than what’s best for the city.” It’s clear that Mack is referring to the friction between Mayor Johnson and departing District 2 rep Sheedy, as well as some other members of the council. And it’s clear Mack sides with the mayor.

Asked for an example, Mack mentioned the recent flap on the city council over redistricting, specifically the scrum over UC Davis Medical Center, between Mayor Johnson and his council ally Jay Schenirer going against Elmhurst Councilman Kevin McCarty.

It had little to do with District 2, but Mack said, “people were very angry about redistricting, that they weren’t being listened to.”

Mack said District 2 voters are also angry that they didn’t get to vote on Mayor Johnson’s strong-mayor plan, an issue that you might have thought was settled.

“For whatever reasons, it’s something the mayor is really focused on. Once you see a new council seated, it’s going to come back,” Mack said, adding that she would likely support such a plan.

Despite being simpatico with the mayor on redistricting, and strong mayor, as well as generally supporting the last arena deal, Mack didn’t get the mayor’s endorsement, losing out to developer Allen Warren. (Warren also supports strong mayor.)

She has however won the endorsement of the Sacramento Police Officers Association and said she would fight to bring public safety back to pre-layoff levels. “There is no greater priority for local government than public safety,” Mack says.

Mack ran the local campaign for Barack Obama in 2008, and has worked for other Democractic candidates like Ami Bera and Richard Pan. She’s running her own council campaign for the time being, and said she’s knocked on more than 3,000 doors during this campaign. If she wins, she promises to keep organizing. “I’m going to continue to knock on doors after I’m elected.”