Reinventing Angelique Ashby: Her campaign to be Sacramento’s next mayor

From struggling single mom to candidate, can she distance herself from K.J. and overcome name-brand frontrunner Darrell Steinberg?

“I’m not a bureaucrat from the state. Rather, I’ve been hustling hard in the city of Sacramento, fighting for our region.”

“I’m not a bureaucrat from the state. Rather, I’ve been hustling hard in the city of Sacramento, fighting for our region.”

Photos by Darin Smith

The Starbucks on Ninth and I streets bustles with a morning rush of potential voters: the businesswoman who talks too fast and laughs too loud, the guy who takes one look at the snaking line and gulps “nope,” the young professional whose friend lends her cash for a beverage, the homeless man with a scraggly beard who keeps rising to offer his seat. Regular folks. Constituents. Everyday Sacramentans.

The candidate walking past outside will need their support if she wants to become the next mayor of Sacramento. And by all accounts, District 1 Councilwoman Angelique Ashby really, really wants the job.

“I’m poised to step in right now. There’s no learning curve for me,” she said, a not-so-veiled dig at her main rival, Darrell Steinberg, a onetime councilman who served most recently at the state Capitol. “I don’t have to figure out who’s in charge of what in the city or who’s been working on what.

“I’m a day-one-ready mayor.”

Ashby’s rise from a broke, 20-year-old single mom to a 40-year-old mayoral candidate is the stuff of stump-speech gold. But not many outside her Natomas-centered district, where Ashby evolved from a well-liked community activist to a well-liked elected representative, know it.

Her campaign is an opportunity to redress that, as well as to extract herself from the long and complicated shadow of Mayor Kevin Johnson, with whom she was closely aligned until his star imploded over resurfaced sexual-misconduct allegations. And until Ashby pre-empted K.J.’s announcement that he wasn’t going to run again with her own mayoral bid.

Others contend that Ashby is rewriting the past out of convenience, and because she can.

“I get the sense that she is trying to distance herself from the mayor, but there is a record,” said Heather Fargo, Johnson’s predecessor and a Steinberg supporter. “Because she’s not that known citywide, I think she’s able to create an image that she wants to create, to make herself. She’s introducing herself to the city in a lot of ways.”

To that end, Ashby detractors contend that she’s a provincial politician who hasn’t performed outside of suburban Natomas. That she’s unfit to lead a city on the comeback.

The councilwoman has a retort: “I think the inference is that I’m: (A) outmanned by a person who has more money than me, (B) has been in politics much longer than me, and (C) has more political connections because of his duration in politics,” she said. “My pushback is this: I just refuse to accept the notion that the mayor’s office is for sale, and that politicians get to decide whose turn it is.”

Origin of a candidate

On this windswept December morning, Ashby's people have arranged for the two-term councilwoman to meet this reporter at a coffee chain across the street from Cesar Chavez Plaza. But when she appears outside, doing a legit walk-and-talk with her mom on the line, Ashby beckons to follow her down the sidewalk and through the revolving door of the adjoining Deloitte accounting office. This is her secret meeting place, she jokes, sinking into one of four love seats surrounding a broad coffee table.

Ashby’s personable in a way that doesn’t feel preprogrammed. She refers to mornings as her “nemesis” and warmly teases this interviewer’s disorganization: “What the hell, is this your system?”

She’s gifted with the capacity to remember names, marvels Brian Rice, an Ashby supporter and president of the Sacramento Area Firefighters Union Local 522, where the councilwoman announced her candidacy on a Wednesday in October. “If you have to walk from point A to point B with her, you better be prepared for a 20-minute walk,” he said. “And, for me, it’s like you’re watching a leader here.”

An Oregon native whose family relocated to Roseville when she was 10, Ashby first got acquainted with Sacramento as a commuting student at Sacramento High School. After graduation, she says she was a little rudderless. Her parents had divorced, and Ashby was living in the Greenhaven neighborhood and attending classes at American River College. Before her second year, she became pregnant. After she and her boyfriend split, Ashby says she buckled down, juggling single motherhood, work and her course loads at UC Davis and, then, the University of Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, where she obtained her degree in 2003. Home for her and her son was a low-income apartment complex in south Natomas.

When Ashby married an emergency room nurse in 2002, the family moved to a new home in north Natomas. She got involved with the Creekside Neighborhood Association and opened a consulting firm with her dad.

Then, the financial crisis hit. Businesses and residents fled Natomas. Ashby didn’t, says Natomas Chamber of Commerce President Danielle Marshall.

In 2009, Ashby challenged incumbent Councilman Ray Tretheway for his District 1 seat and won with 51 percent of the vote.

Steven Maviglio was part of Ashby’s campaign then and said it “wasn’t easy to topple” the connected incumbent. “Nobody works harder on her campaign than Angelique,” said Maviglio, who also spearheaded K.J.’s successful mayoral bid in 2008. “She’s a firestorm of activity.”

Marshall says the raised stature didn’t dilute Ashby’s attentions. When Comcast pulled up stakes on a local call center in 2012, displacing at least 300 workers, Marshall says Ashby was instrumental in recruiting a hodgepodge of small businesses to make up the lost jobs and put Natomas back in the black the following year. The yeoman effort occurred with Natomas frozen in a development standstill, due to the building moratorium that the federal government instituted in late 2008, due to the area’s low levies.

The moratorium was finally lifted in April, which Ashby has made a central part of her résumé.

“I’m not a bureaucrat from the state,” she said, another jab at Steinberg. “Rather, I’ve been out here, hustling hard in the city of Sacramento, fighting for our region. I fought our community’s way out of a building moratorium.”

Not quite, says Councilman Steve Hansen, a Steinberg endorser who says credit for lifting the moratorium belongs to Rep. Doris Matsui and Sen. Barbara Boxer. But Hansen says Ashby should get props for helping craft an agreement on new building plans for Natomas, which can be implemented now that the moratorium is lifted.

“I admire her grit. She’s a very smart person,” he said. “She’s ably represented Natomas. But can she represent the whole city?”

Her supporters believe she can.

Restaurateur Patrick Mulvaney met Ashby five years ago, when she was running that first campaign. Before she took office, Mulvaney invited Ashby to join a Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce “study mission” to Seattle. At the end of the week, during the wrap-up meeting, Mulvaney recalled a room full of tired local business leaders taking turns saying nice things about the Emerald City. Then Ashby stood up and flipped the script, saying Seattle was nice and all, but she wouldn’t swap it for Sacramento.

“In essence, she gave a Winston Churchill ’We will fight them in the air, we will fight them in the sea, we will fight them on the beach’ speech,” Mulvaney said. “It’s clear that she really cares about the city.”

Outside of Natomas, supporters and detractors alike give Ashby props for spearheading 2014’s successful Measure B, which raised money for the Sacramento Library through a $12 annual increase to the city’s parcel tax.

And then there’s the everyday work that her supporters say goes unnoticed.

Rachelle Ditmore and her husband met Ashby two years ago. They were attempting to expand the reach of their Oak Park nonprofit ministry, City of Refuge, which provides faith-based services to victims of sexual exploitation. Ditmore recalls that someone told her to contact Ashby. She sent an email, not expecting much. Within 30 minutes, she got a call back from Ashby, who connected her to “the right people,” she said. “I’m not even in her district!”

She says that is Ashby’s strength: identifying community assets, whether people or places, and nurturing them to their full potential. “She definitely does not lead from 10,000 feet above,” Ditmore said. “I believe she needs to be the next mayor.”

The challenges ahead

Ashby holds a meeting with various business and public office leaders last week.

There will be plenty of tests for the next mayor: Reducing homelessness and poverty, spurring housing and development, expanding civic amenities and balancing the city’s increasingly red ledger all crowd a growing agenda.

On many of those topics, Ashby points to efforts already underway and says her job will be to continue the momentum.

The arena is coming, there’s a plan for the railyards and the city has added units to its downtown housing initiative, which now calls for approximately 13,000 residences over the next decade, 30 percent of which will be designated affordable. Coupled with Ashby’s hope to finally develop the riverfront, she contends that pouring investor money into the city will have a trickle-down effect for the most vulnerable, not push them further outside the margins. “That’s how you address homelessness. That’s how you address civic amenities,” she said.

Some find those projections a little too rosy. “Sacramento is still in a very, very fragile point in its recovery and it needs capable leadership,” Hansen said.

The issue is unfunded post-retirement health benefits for city workers, a nut that stands at $452 million, according to city-finance officials. Because these post-employment benefits aren’t offset by “significant” investments, like the city’s pension plan, exponentially mounting costs will eventually cut into “vital services,” officials project.

Other than the $3 million to $4 million that has been squirreled away in a relatively new trust fund, Hansen said, “There is no down payment on that.”

Fargo believes the city council will have to make some hard cuts. “People are probably going to lose their jobs,” she predicted.

Whether Ashby can break ranks with the police and fire unions that have provided her their weighty endorsements—and political-action committee donations—will be a big issue this election, especially since the next mayor will have to pull the city back from the edge of the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

As of June 30, 2015, Ashby had $67,711.70 in cash donations spread between two campaign accounts, $2,500 of which came from the firefighters’ PAC and $9,400 of which came from developers and holding companies. But those groups likely will give much more; her stated goal is to raise $1 million for the race.

“Because of their support, I think it’s going to be a challenge to deal with the operating deficit and pension reform,” Fargo said.

Not everyone agrees. Kerri Asbury, president of the Democratic Club of Sacramento, noted that while Ashby does have the support of public-safety unions, Steinberg has fought to protect pensions as a legislator. “I wouldn’t foresee a significant difference in comparing the two on that issue,” she said.

And Rice, who thinks the unfunded liabilities issue is overstated, credits Ashby with bringing him along on this issue. His union agreed to cap retirement benefits on new hires and require firefighters to contribute to the post-retirement savings account. “[She] really pushed us to look at it and be ready for it,” he said.

The police union has yet to agree to similar concessions. But Ashby might be able to sweeten the pot in one way: She believes the city needs to renew Measure U, the half-cent sales tax that’s set to sunset in March 2019. Ashby didn’t support the voter-approved measure in 2012, because she didn’t like that it was sold as a temporary tax, she says. But she advised Rice “behind the scenes” on how public safety agencies could make the case to the whole city, he said, by spreading the wealth to other city services.

“That’s one where she got us to look outside of ourselves,” he said.

Ashby supporters and detractors differ on some of her other stated accomplishments, including the development of citywide ethics reforms, a process Ashby says she succeeded in driving home to a reluctant council.

“Most of the council didn’t want any kind of ethics commission,” she said. “And I felt it was necessary.”

Maybe in an alternate universe, scoffs Eye on Sacramento President Craig Powell. He was part of a 23-member coalition that called for an overhaul of the city’s ethics and transparency regulations, organizing forums in each council member’s district. He said Ashby was the only one who didn’t attend.

It’s not like there weren’t gaffes to address. Both Johnson and Councilman Allen Warren had been the targets of recent sexual harassment allegations, while Ashby is currently fending off a former employee’s wrongful termination claim. Additionally, the city’s quick-trigger policy for deleting its own emails has become a flashpoint for those calling for more transparency at City Hall.

Powell says the problems inspired many council members to view ethics reform as something they could co-opt for their own purposes. The framework the council adopted includes the establishment of an ethics commission that lacks independence or substantial enforcement authority. The mayor selects its members with the support of council members. The city clerk hires its staff. The commission can’t choose what to investigate, subpoena witnesses or call for the removal of elected officials when egregious ethics violations are confirmed. At the center of this watered-down version, Powell contends, is Ashby.

She “has been an energetic advocate for her district, but she can’t claim the mantel of leadership [on good government],” Powell said. “In reality, she has been the No. 1 adversary and executioner of real ethics reform and transparency.”

Ashby calls the city’s ethics framework a beginning point. “We started with what I thought I could get my colleagues to agree with,” she added. “So, yeah, absolutely it will evolve. In fact, it’s a failure if it doesn’t evolve.”

Her role on this issue is crucial to her campaign, as ethics is one of two legs she has used to distance herself from both Johnson and Steinberg, who presided over a scandal-plagued Senate in his final years. The other issue is her gender.

“I’m the only female on that council,” she said. “I think most people see me as—and at one point I even had the label of, I think it was intended somewhat negatively—the ’mom from Natomas,’ right? I am a mom with three kids. I’m the only person in the history of the city of Sacramento to give birth while in office.”

That Ashby is one of only a handful of women in Sacramento politics is a distinction she raises often. Maviglio thinks it could be an effective strategy. “Break up what is essentially a male-dominated city … and run a ’change’ campaign based on just that,” he said.

A viable ethics commission, not gender, will be among the topics that the Democratic Club of Sacramento County explores before its approximately 60 voting members decide which, if any, candidate deserves their endorsement next month, said Asbury. Also on the list: big-box stores, strong-mayor initiatives and whether Measure U sales tax monies are being spent as promised.

With regard to the first two issues, Ashby and the local Democratic Club are on opposite sides. Ashby voted with the majority to ease big-box restrictions in the city and supported Johnson in his four failed bids for expanded mayoral powers.

That’s not to say Ashby is incapable of winning over the left. She earned the respect of local Black Lives Matter leader Christina Arechiga, which is no small feat considering the pair’s introduction.

“The first time I met the president of Black Lives Matter was when I had her remanded into custody at a city council meeting,” Ashby recalled.

Arechiga doesn’t hold that against Ashby. The West Coast regional coordinator for the National Association Against Police Brutality said Ashby was the only councilperson to reach out and listen.

That engagement continued when a steering committee Arechiga served on met with Ashby, who was charged with developing the oversight piece of a citywide community policing strategy. Unlike council members Warren and Rick Jennings, who had the other two pieces of the strategy (and whom Arechiga described as “clueless”), Arechiga says Ashby came in having done the research. And she broke with her police union allies on the topic of body cameras, the footage from which the union wanted its officers to be able to review seven days before they provided statements on critical incidents. Ashby didn’t go for that.

“She did something that no one else on the council did,” she said. “I want to be treated the way Angelique Ashby treats me.”

Winner take all?

It wouldn't be a local City Hall election without a few tantalizing conspiracy theories.

For this story, SN&R contacted nine political insiders, many of whom agreed to speak frankly about the race on the condition of anonymity. They represented mostly Democratic causes, and two officially supported Steinberg, though one leaned toward Ashby, while others were undecided or unsupportive of both candidates.

Six reported hearing the same behind-the-curtain chatter that Steinberg is only interested in keeping the mayor’s seat warm for two years, and will use the $1 million-plus war chest he’s accumulated to run for state office in 2018.

“He just needs something until he runs for a state office,” one political insider said of the speculation.

For its part, Steinberg’s camp has told supporters the candidate is in this race for keeps. So, too, is Ashby, who announced her candidacy before K.J. settled his.

“From everything we’ve heard, she’s wanting this,” said a member of a group whose endorsement both candidates are seeking. “If she was such a close ally, I don’t think she would be willing to take on the mayor.”

Whatever the long-term intentions of the candidates, insiders say not to count out Ashby this go-round.

“At first blush, many insiders think it is Steinberg’s race to lose,” conservative political consultant Tab Berg wrote in an email, “but with at least three (maybe more) candidates, he’ll be hard-pressed to win outright in June; especially in such an unsettled election cycle.”

Prognosticators have Ashby polling well in the northern part of the city, where there are upward of 160,000 votes at play. And if she can pull half the city’s female voters and 30 percent of Republicans, some say she could eke out a victory. With Hillary Clinton vying on the same ballot to be the Democratic presidential nominee, there could be an increased turnout among women, which would benefit Ashby the way that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 benefited Johnson, a Steinberg supporter added.

“There is some sort of path to victory for Ashby,” a Democratic strategist said.

Fargo, for one, isn’t counting Ashby out. She’s been where Ashby is: a north area representative and the only woman on the council, Fargo was elected to the first of her two terms as mayor in 2000. “She needs to be taken seriously. She’s a serious candidate,” she said. “I think there is a real race here.”

Albeit an uphill one for Ashby, thinks Maviglio. Does that mean Ashby will have to go negative to close the gap?

She’s got the personnel to do so. Her campaign manager is Josh Pulliam, a childhood friend who has orchestrated aggressive statewide campaigns, like the one that attacked then-Senate candidate Roger Dickinson for problems at Sacramento County Child Protective Services. In 2010, Pulliam also admitted manipulating the photo of a state Assembly candidate to make it look like there was a glass of champagne in her hand for the purpose of a campaign mailer. “He doesn’t pull any punches,” Maviglio said of Pulliam, who he described as a friend. Maviglio thinks attacking the likable Steinberg would be tricky. But if Ashby chooses to, he said, “She’s got the right guy.”

Back in her “secret” meeting place, Ashby hints at what may come by flipping the argument that Steinberg is more experienced. “I can’t do anything about the fact that I’m younger than my opponent,” she said. “I actually think that’s to the benefit of Sacramento, right? I have a lot of energy. I think I represent the future.”