Race to vote: Sacramento’s political establishment still leans heavy on white males

The county’s top office holders are 79.5 percent white and 77 percent male

Candidate Jonathan Tran chats with an unidentified resident about his run for the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education.

Candidate Jonathan Tran chats with an unidentified resident about his run for the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education.


School-board candidate Jonathan R. Tran is sweating through his plaid dress shirt. But it isn’t nerves that are causing the first-time political aspirant to perspire; it’s the damn heat.

A high orange sun beats down on a neighborhood behind the UC Davis Children’s Hospital, near Y and 42nd streets. One of a dozen candidates running for four contested seats on the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education, Tran has been jetting to south-city neighborhoods like this one every day after work to introduce himself to prospective voters and, in some cases, explain that there’s an election coming up.

“This time around, I think it’s a much more visceral reason [to vote],” he says.

He’s referring to the school board’s decision last year to close seven elementary schools, a wildly contentious decision that spurred a lawsuit and charges that the fast-tracked process masked a desire to spare affluent, whiter neighborhoods at the expense of poorer, minority ones.

It’s also a big reason why Tran is running. The son of Vietnamese refugees, Tran and his fellow grassroots organizers at Hmong Innovating Politics have been beating the same drum since forming the group a couple of years ago: To help marginalized communities, you need to elect the marginalized.

It’s a bit of a Catch-22, and Tran is the first HIP activist to put his donor money where his mouth is. But he doesn’t expect to be the last. The group is grooming other members for the political stage. Meanwhile, a separate organization is also working behind the scenes to steer people of color and inequality into positions of influence.

The area could do with an injection of diversity. Of the top 39 elected positions in Sacramento County—those governing six cities and the unincorporated county—only nine are held by women. Only five positions are occupied by black individuals. Asians take up two locally elected seats, while a Latino takes up one.

To put it another way, the county’s top office holders are 79.5 percent white and 77 percent male.

“Wow,” says Veronica Beaty of the Sacramento Housing Alliance. Beaty had actually heard that figure before from a local labor leader. “But,” she adds, “I guess I hoped he was wrong.”

Beaty’s own work on the Sacramento Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute aims to change this. One of a handful across the country, the BCLI acts as a farm league for getting people from underrepresented communities into leadership roles.

The BCLI does this by hosting a dozen nominees every year for a six-month, 80-hour training program that primes graduates for appointments on quietly influential municipal boards and commissions. BCLI participants first have to be nominated from underrepresented communities, Beaty says, so that they have neighbors they’re accountable to upon completing the program. “We’re trying to make some coordinated change,” she says.

Several grads are already serving on parks-and-recreation commissions, community-planning advisory councils and public-health boards. These positions often serve as precursors to running for elected office, which is the goal, Beaty explains. “We haven’t had any graduates run for office yet.”

While Toni Colley-Perry didn’t take the BCLI track, she pulled from a similar playbook. A onetime school board candidate herself, the 57-year-old educational consultant enrolled in an 11-week Citizen’s Planning Academy in preparation for her run for the Sacramento City Council’s District 8 seat. She’s facing off against three men to succeed Bonnie Pannell, who tapped frontrunner Larry Carr to take her place. If Carr wins, that would leave one woman on the nine-member city council. “It’s so precious to have a woman’s input, especially a woman of color and especially a woman from a low-income background,” Colley-Perry says.

More than the gender imbalance, the formerly homeless Colley-Perry thinks the current council suffers from an economic one that’s disillusioned her south-city district. “Twenty-two thousand registered voters and only 4,000 think it’s worth it to vote,” she says. “I know the issues that people are dealing with. … [Her opponents have] never had a day of hunger. They’ve never eaten beans two days in a row.”

The heavily outspent Colley-Perry acknowledges she may need another election cycle to make that case.

A chain-link fence wraps around a beige house. On the porch, Tran converses with the woman who lives there. It’s not something you often see during these quick-hit, grip-and-grin precinct walks. Minutes pass. The two actually exchange ideas. Suddenly aware of the heat, the woman says, almost apologetically, “It’s hot out here!”

“It’s very hot right here,” Tran laughs, before making his way down a shared courtyard to knock on more doors.

This may be the 28-year-old community organizer’s first time seeking office, but it’s not his first political rodeo. He worked in the state Legislature under both Senator Sheila Kuehl and Assemblyman Mike Eng. Two years ago, he and his fellow HIP organizers helped Steve Ly become the first person of Hmong descent to win a local office, for the Elk Grove Unified School District Board of Education.

Now, Ly is trying to move up the ladder, competing for a seat on the Elk Grove City Council against three others. There’s nary a white male face in the bunch.

When it became clear that Area 7 trustee Patrick Kennedy was graduating to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, HIP organizers gathered with local parents to discuss potential successors. Tran says the goal then was to convince a parent to run; there was plenty of passion, just not enough time or political experience.

“They wanted someone to run,” he says.

The conch landed in Tran’s lap. He had planned to run for office, just not necessarily this one. Tran turned his home into campaign headquarters, stocked with volunteers working the phones as he solicits endorsements from political organizations and parent groups.

He chuckles at how he’s been portrayed in the media. In its editorial endorsements, The Sacramento Bee reduced Tran to being a “Southeast Asian activist.” Tran points out that the school-closures lawsuit that HIP spearheaded was on behalf of plaintiff families who are 80 percent Latino. While HIP may have started as a way to educate and empower Sacramento’s Hmong population, it quickly evolved into a crusading group for all underrepresented communities. It’s also closing in on its goal of being an incubator for political leaders who are young, passionate and diverse. (Read: neither white nor male.)

“We can kick and scream all we want, but unless we can turn out the votes, no one will give a shit,” he says frankly.