Politics get heated as a former Oakland Raider and fire chief face off in Sacramento’s District 7 city council race

Julius Cherry, Rick Jennings and Abe Snobar battle to represent the overlooked communities of Pocket, Greenhaven and Valley Hi, which also face real issues, like gangs and blight

Rick Jennings (right) is a celebrated nonprofit executive and former school-board member. But he says everything in life so far has prepared him to run for office.

Rick Jennings (right) is a celebrated nonprofit executive and former school-board member. But he says everything in life so far has prepared him to run for office.

photo by lisa baetz

Local city council candidate Julius Cherry just wanted to create a little buzz. The retired fire chief is new to the world of political campaigns, so when he met with his advisers to come up with a slogan, the team settled on the following. Cherry says it has a ring to it:

“I’m not the Mayor’s favorite candidate … but I’d like to be yours.”

He explained the aftermath while munching on steak and eggs during a late lunch this past week. “I’ve gotten some grief from people,” he says. It is the first thing visitors see on his campaign website. “I mean no disrespect by it. But I’m not sure my opponent thinks that.”

Nonprofit executive director and former Oakland Raider Rick Jennings is the rival in question. He does in fact take insult at Cherry’s jab, which he calls divisive.

“He wants to tie me to the mayor as a yes vote, as the mayor’s vote, as the mayor’s bitch,” Jennings says.

So goes Mayor Kevin Johnson’s increasingly politicized Sacramento.

Jennings and Cherry both live in south Sacramento’s Pocket community, going on decades. Both raised their children there. Both men are nearly the same age. Both have raised tens of thousands of dollars to run to succeed Councilman Darrell Fong. Both earned big-name local endorsements. It’s as competitive a race as Sacramento has seen in years.

The battleground, District 7 itself, has it all: heritage neighborhoods, not-in-my-backyard residents, old-school businesses, vacant storefronts, a beautiful river, a contentious new development, gang violence. The region consists of the Pocket, Greenhaven and Valley Hi, all often overlooked communities when it comes to big-picture Sacramento. But now, with less than 60 days until the June 3 election, heads are turned.

SN&R met with the three candidates—yes, there’s a third, a schoolteacher named Abe Snobar—who all spoke of a deep pride for and commitment to their sometimes forgotten neighborhoods. There are endemic problems that the city as a whole can no longer afford to neglect. “Sacramento will not become great until there is better connectivity” to these neighborhoods, says Snobar.

At least now the district is getting a little buzz.

The fireman

As a young boy in Gary, Indiana, Julius Cherry remembers driving on the freeway into Chicago, some 25 miles away. There was a sign, “Mayor Daley Welcomes You to Chicago.” It remained there for decades: while growing up, when he left to join the Air Force, when he’d come back to visit. The adults called it “The Daley Machine.”

“And you were either inside the machine or outside the machine,” Cherry says.

He also remembers his stepfather, who wanted to become a police officer. He passed the test, and later a man came by the house. This man explained that if his stepfather could contribute $500 to a campaign, he’d likely get a call from the police department.

“Today, we’re appalled by that story,” Cherry says, “but at the time, my stepfather wasn’t upset because they asked for $500. He was upset that he didn’t have $500.”

Julius Cherry stirred controversy with his campaign slogan, but the retired fire chief says he’s ready to work with everyone at City Hall if elected.

photo by lisa baetz

This is one reason why Cherry doesn’t believe in the strong-mayor initiative, in placing all the power in one person.

“Let me make this very clear: I’m not suggesting anybody in Sacramento is corrupt. What I’m saying is a patronage system sets up an environment for corruption.” That’s why he’s “fundamentally against” the executive-mayor model.

But that’s not why the Vietnam War veteran, Sacramento resident of 42 years, attorney and retired fireman of three decades is running for office. His “No. 1 issue, bar none, unequivocal, is long-term financial stability.”

Cherry, 59, was Sacramento Fire Department chief from 2004 to 2007. “On the city’s executive team, we for years have discussed the fact that there’s a structural deficit.”

What he means is that the city is constantly juggling to make ends meet. Some years, the economy is good and revenue is up. Others, times are rough and public safety, libraries, parks and more face major cuts.

“The whole boom-bust cycle is not OK,” he says.

He also worries the city’s finances are bound to get worse—and soon.

Consider Measure U funds—or revenue from a tax increase that was passed in 2012 to help pay for basic services—would expire just after Cherry’s first term, if elected. That same year, additional liabilities for public-employee health care and pensions will jump onto the books as well. And the new Sacramento Kings arena bond payments will add some $20 million annually into the debt mix.

“You’re not going to cut your way out of this problem,” Cherry says.

Back in District 7, he says his other two main priorities will be to restore basic services and increase revenue by growing the local tax base. This means ending fire-station brownouts, getting more police in the neighborhoods, and using his influence as council member to direct “sunshine” on issues such as gangs.

According to the city’s most recent campaign-finance reports, Cherry leads all District 7 candidates in fundraising, bringing nearly $83,000. In addition to the coffers, he’s garnered endorsements from Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg; county Supervisor Phil Serna; three current council members, including incumbent Fong; former Mayor Heather Fargo; most local Democratic Party groups and labor unions; and the firefighters’ union.

Will he be able to stand up to the firefighters when seated at the budget-negotiation table?

“I love the firefighters, no question about it. I spent my life in that career. … But they don’t expect me to give them any more consideration than anyone else. And that’s just how we’ll approach it.”

Unlike the mayor and other council members, Cherry also says he will never accept behest-type donations. “I’m very skeptical of that. I’m concerned about the appearance,” he says, citing the drama over Walton family donations to city leaders and the big-box ordinance vote last year.

He says he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and do the hard work. There’s a lot of it. “But I’m very optimistic about our future,” he says.

The Raider

District 7 (in red) is one of those oddly configured districts that unites communities otherwise separated by space, issues and needs.

As a teenager, Rick Jennings says he was into “stupid stuff, girls and gangs.” But his Uncle Tommy got his ear one day and changed his trajectory. Jennings ended up at the University of Maryland, and became the first college graduate in his family, and later played for the 1976 Oakland Raiders Super Bowl team.

After the Raiders won the big game, owner Al Davis called Jennings into his office. “How did you negotiate your contract?” Davis asked him. Jennings told him that before the season began, he did his homework to find out what other comparable players were making. “And I’m going to be honest, I bumped it up a little,” he told Davis.

“Well, you cheated yourself,” Davis responded. Then he handed Jennings an envelope with his bonus for winning the Super Bowl—and an extra $10,000. Jennings says this moment taught him about integrity and character.

After the NFL, Jennings moved to the Pocket. “Same house since 1986, same wife since 1978,” he says. He worked for Xerox, where he climbed the corporate ladder, earning upwards of $180,000 a year. “But I wasn’t making a difference. I was suffering.”

So he quit corporate American in the ’90s to work for Kevin Johnson as executive director of the St. HOPE Academy, the now-mayor’s Oak Park-based nonprofit. In 1996, Jennings was nominated to the Sacramento City Unified School District board, where he would serve for 12 years and was instrumental in driving the contentious plan to turn Sacramento High School into an independent charter.

In 1997, he also became executive director of the Center for Fathers and Families, which assists low-income family men with issues such as drug addiction and domestic violence.

“But everything has prepared me for this,” Jennings says of his run for public office.

Jennings says he walks 10,000 steps a day, which adds up to about 4-and-a-half miles. This afternoon, he walks from his nonprofit’s headquarters a few blocks to SN&R’s office, also located on Del Paso Boulevard, where he settles in for an hourlong interview. The 60-year-old Baptist, in a purple collared shirt and slacks, still appears in game shape.

He says if elected, he will work to be a coalition builder in District 7. “That takes a workhorse, not a show horse,” he says.

One of his priorities is public safety, he says, and a big issue in the Pocket now is the bike-trail expansion along the Sacramento River. “Most people feel strongly that the river should be open to the community,” he says. But some riverfront homeowners worry that crime will increase if the riverbank is opened up to the public. Jennings walked the river recently, studied police reports, spoke with neighbors. Turns out, data shows that in places where the river access is open to the public, there’s “not a significant spike in crime,” he says.

His campaign fundraising nearly equals that of Cherry. He’s taken in more than $64,000, including major donations from the police union, AT&T and the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce’s PAC. His endorsements include outgoing Supervisor Jimmie Yee, District Attorney Jan Scully, four current city council members and former Councilman Robbie Waters.

But it’s one endorsement, Mayor Kevin Johnson’s, that’s causing the biggest buzz.

The schoolteacher

Abe Snobar moved to Valley Hi in 1986, at age 13, and still lives there to this day. “I always say that I was raised by District 7,” the candidate likes to say. He went to Valley High School, where he played football, and he eventually graduated from Sacramento State University. He’s taught at five area schools, including elementary and special education, and quite possibly possesses more Valley Hi pride than all other residents combined.

But, he admits, Valley Hi has a retention problem. “It’s a transient neighborhood,” he says. “People build up the pride, move away, then never come back.” He and the other candidates concede that there’s not a lot of reasons to stay. Snobar’s two daughters even live in Elk Grove with his ex-wife most of the time.

Crime is a major issue. The perception is that Valley Hi is not safe. Even Valley High School itself is surrounded by not one, but two fences. “You put a cage up, and now you’re going to create a sense of feeling trapped,” Snobar says of his alma mater.

Abe Snobar doesn’t have a lot of campaign cash or political support. But he does have unequaled passion for District 7.

photo by lisa baetz

Administrators tell him the fence isn’t for the students—it’s to keep out the neighborhood. “But what does that say about the neighborhood, then?”

Snobar will be the first to tell you that he’s “not a politician, but a schoolteacher,” his profession for the past 16 years. (Except this campaign year; he’s taking it off, working as a wine salesperson on the side.) But because he’s spent so many years in the schools, he understands that Sacramento’s leaders need to have a special patience with Valley Hi.

For example, Valley Hi residents speak a whopping 72 different languages, he says. Mien, Hmong, Russian, Vietnamese, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese—and on and on. A community center near Franklin Boulevard and Cosumnes River Boulevard could be a place to bridge this language gap, he says. “We need to create a place where the neighborhood can have a connection.”

Donors haven’t connected with Snobar’s campaign so far; he’s raised less than $4,000. He has yet to collect any big-ticket endorsements, either. But he’s not running on money or word-of-mouth.

“It all has to do with area pride,” Snobar says.

The issues

Cherry lets out a chuckle when asked about the campaign slogan featured so prominently on his website. He even repeats it out loud: “I’m not the mayor’s favorite candidate, but I’d like to be yours.”

There’s a certain innocence to the slogan, sure. The mayor likes Jennings. If you don’t like the mayor, vote for Cherry. There you go.

But some speculate that a reason that Jennings rebuffs Cherry’s slogan is that it hits close to home. The mayor was the one who recruited him from the corporate world and into St. HOPE back in the ’90s. Jennings’ wife, Cassandra, actually works for the mayor. As an adviser, she supervises Johnson’s “policy initiatives,” according to a press release in 2012.

Cherry’s slogan raises the question: Is Rick Jennings an automatic “yes” vote for all things K.J.?

It’s worth noting that Jennings actually has yet to take a stance on this November’s strong-mayor vote and vehemently rejects this notion.

“What [Cherry] doesn’t understand is that all my life I have stood up to every single man and given him his due respect. But I want to make sure I get my due respect. And a ’yes man’ is an insult to me. This is not about the mayor. This is about serving the people,” Jennings says.

Cherry says it’s all about that Chicago-style patronage system. “What we’re seeing is an accelerated politicization of Sacramento,” he says. “One of the reasons I’m running is the politics of Sacramento is trumping the public interest.”

He stands by his slogan. “If telling the truth is disrespectful, or dirty politics, then I’m guilty.” He calls the strong-mayor issue “a solution looking for a problem.”

Meanwhile, back in District 7, there remain plenty of problems looking for solutions.

Gangs were featured prominently in the news last month, on the heels of several shootings, some of which law enforcement says can be traced back to Mack Road and the Valley Hi Crips, in addition to Oak Park gangs.

“We’ve got to get out in front of this,” says Jennings. He’d like to see more forums, town halls and increased opportunities for residents to speak out about gang issues.

The former athlete also says sports leagues, which are lacking in District 7, could help. “Kids need opportunities outside of gangs at an early age.”

Both Snobar and Cherry agree that increased patrols due to Measure U funding will help. As a former fire chief, Cherry understands that it sometimes takes a year-and-a-half to get new hires up and serving neighborhoods, he says; the city started training new police recruits late last spring.

One reason gang businesses of drug-dealing and prostitution take root in neighborhoods such as Valley Hi is because everyday retail shops disappeared during the recession. Blight welcomes crime.

“Closing of businesses is a big issue,” Snobar says.

And the shutterings continue. He rattles them off: Denny’s on Mack Road, Albertson’s, K-Mart, Target. “And every small shop on the Raley’s side [of Mack], except the tire shop, Taco Bell and Togo’s.”

Snobar is District 7’s Wikipedia.

A solution is for the city to make its administrative processes more business friendly.

“The fees are high, and the red tape is too much for people to overcome. We need to make it easier for people to open businesses, and they will come,” Snobar says.

Both Snobar and Jennings are pro-arena and view it as an asset for District 7. Snobar is even a Kings season-ticket holder. But that doesn’t mean he would have given the arena a rubber stamp. “I also believe in the people’s right to vote,” he says.

Like strong mayor, the arena is a citywide issue that clearly splits Cherry and Jennings.

“When you take a resource like underused parking spots and turn them into an arena, I’m excited by that,” Jennings says of the project. “One of the things that has affected our ability to be a great city is that we haven’t taken care of our urban core.”

Cherry isn’t against the concept of an arena as a catalyst, but says taxpayers are taking on too much risk.

But the biggest risk of all to the fate of District 7 could be Delta Shores, a proposed new mega-development on the area’s southernmost land. Some 5,200 residents plus 250,000 square feet of commercial and 1.3 million square feet of retail real estate—if the long-stalled project does emerge in the next four years, it could further inequality in the area. Who’s going to open businesses in the old neighborhoods when everyone’s shopping at the new stores?

“There’s already really a disparity between the Greenhaven-Pocket area and the Valley Hi area,” Snobar says. “We tend to get the leftovers.”

Jennings agrees. “The residents of Valley Hi feel neglected.”

But Delta Shores could be an opportunity. The city is expanding its light-rail network, which will include a stop at the east end of the planned development, plus two additional stops in the Valley Hi neighborhood. This will connect the community not just to Cosumnes River College via the region’s foremost means of mass transit, but also to the rest of the city itself. And that’s really what all three candidates say District 7 needs most:

To feel like it’s part of Sacramento.