Political outsider Russell Rawlings brings new issues to mayor's race

He’s the third candidate in the race to lead City Hall

Community activist Russell Rawlings might be best known to SN&R readers as the man in a wheelchair who police arrested on the first night of Occupy Sacramento protests in 2011. But even more around town know him for his work as a disability-rights advocate, or for his community-building efforts in Oak Park.

And now, Rawlings will be recognized as the third candidate in next year’s race to lead City Hall—and the first nonestablishment entry into the mayoral fray that already includes former state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.

“I’ve got a big fat goose egg as far as money goes,” Rawlings admitted of his campaign coffers. But he intends to do the grassroots and crowdfunding thing. And he’s serious about highlighting issues that might otherwise get lost in this year’s debate and discussion.

For instance, the 38-year-old stands out as the only candidate who opposed the public subsidy to build the downtown Kings arena.

“I’ve been really unhappy with the development community here in Sacramento,” he told SN&R in a phone interview this week. “The narrative has been out of the hands of Sacramentans.”

Rawlings says he wants to see smarter growth of the city’s housing stock, especially affordable-living options, and less rubber-stamping of projects.

“My peers are getting priced out,” he said. “There’s been a lot of focus on making Sacramento a quote-unquote world class city … but there’s a lot that we can do to make ourselves more friendly to those who already live here.”

When Rawlings announced his candidacy on November 14, he shared a compelling narrative on Facebook about his life in Texas, before he moved to Sacramento. Rawlings has cerebral palsy, and relies on an electric wheelchair to get around. “In my native Texas, as an adult, I found myself with few options—fenced in due to a lack of transportation access,” he wrote.

Sacramento’s been a world improved, he says, but making public transit better will be a keystone of his campaign.

“I’d like to see real solid, logical investments in public transportation,” he said, explaining that he would lead the region to focus on underserved neighborhoods, such as along the Power Inn Road corridor, and restoring transportation services cut during the recession.

Following through with reforms and improving ethics, accountability and transparency at City Hall is a third major issue.

“Things that really give us a black eye in the public,” he says of sexual harassment and email scandals this year. “If we’re going to be a world-class city, we need to behave like one.”

The Sacramento State graduate is known as an advocate for low-income people, and also wants to fight for a $15 minimum wage and repealing what he calls laws that discriminate against homeless people.

In the end, however, money will dictate whether Rawlings is heard. And, without a city program for the public financing of campaigns, he will have to rely on neighbors and friends and family—and in a race that likely will be the most spendy in City Hall history.

“It’s scary, it’s really frightening,” he says of the cost of entry into Sacramento politics in 2015. “The [amount] that city council members already spend on their campaigns is terrifying. And what’s happening now is this new precedent will be the new bar.

“It allows money to speak louder than actual voices.”