Renters’ revenge

The Sacramento City Council may look very different next year—tripling the number of women and adding a true progressive

Environmental policy director Katie Valenzuela appears to have achieved an upset in District 4, where early vote tallies show her poised to unseat two-term incumbent Councilman Steve Hansen.

Environmental policy director Katie Valenzuela appears to have achieved an upset in District 4, where early vote tallies show her poised to unseat two-term incumbent Councilman Steve Hansen.

Photos by Maria Ratinova

This story has been updated from its print version.

Two incumbents rumored to succeed Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg are in danger of losing their City Council seats as renter frustration surged through downtown, money outpaced experience in the north and organized labor proved it was still a force to be reckoned with.

While there are still nearly 150,000 ballots to count in the county from the March 3 election, one thing’s for sure: The new Sacramento City Council will look different.

Primary rebuke

In the biggest upset, Councilman Steve Hansen will surrender his central city District 4 seat to Katie Valenzuela, a policy director for the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

According to the most recent update from the Sacramento County elections office, Valenzuela led Hansen with 53% of the vote—a margin that, if it holds, would be a surprisingly large rebuke of a well-financed incumbent.

Valenzuela, a 34-year-old first-time candidate, ran a moneyball campaign—presenting herself as a progressive voice who would side with renters rather than the real estate interests that favored Hansen. That message seemed to resonate in spite of—or maybe because of—Hansen’s six-digit fundraising advantage.

“The housing crisis was a huge factor,” Valenzuela told SN&R this week. “It was the No. 1 issue people were talking about. Nine times out of 10, it was either that or homelessness or the ways those two issues are connected.”

While Hansen raised $140,000 more than his challenger, Valenzuela had the backing of the county Democratic Party, her fellow Democratic socialists, housing advocates and labor organizers frustrated with Hansen’s opposition to a rent control ballot initiative. Reached before Tuesday’s update widened her lead to 970 votes, Valenzuela noted there could still be thousands of ballots left to count, but sounded cautiously optimistic.

“It was straight-up volunteer power,” Valenzuela said. “We were outspent three-to-one. So, it was about mobilizing community members. I think we had a multi-pronged approach focused on really connecting with people.”

While Valenzuela focused on the issues, not everyone did.

In late February, Hansen became the target of fake Grindr profiles mocking his reelection campaign. Hansen, the City Council’s first openly gay member, condemned the attacks on Facebook: “LGBTQ candidates should be safe, but this is why so many are afraid to run,” he wrote. “We are all better than this.”

Controversy also arose when a political action committee funded by SEIU 1021 papered Midtown with door hangers showing Hansen’s heavily shadowed face on one side and President Donald Trump’s on the other. Hansen called it a smear campaign, while the union said it was an allusion to Hansen’s 2018 endorsement of Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a Republican.

In response, the Democratic Party of Sacramento County kicked Hansen and Councilman Eric Guerra, who won reelection in District 6, off its central committee.

Valenzuela distanced herself from the attacks and said they overshadowed the real issues, particularly Hansen’s vote to eliminate an inclusionary housing ordinance and his brokering of a deal to replace a strict rent control initiative with temporary protections.

Following Tuesday afternoon’s update, Hansen all but conceded the race in a social media post that sought to link Valenzuela to the negative campaigning.

“While we are still waiting for an estimated 7000 votes to still be counted, it seems like we will come up short in this race after an unprecedented negative campaign against me by my opponent and her allies,” Hansen wrote. “I’m still going to be working hard as your Councilmember until at least December. We’ve got much to do together until then and after. I’m not going away. I’m going to continue to share my passion for Sacramento today, tomorrow, and into the future.”

If current vote counts hold, Mai Vang is headed to a runoff in District 8.

Photos by Maria Ratinova

The other unsafe incumbent

In a January interview, Hansen was noncommittal when asked if he was considering a run for mayor. His council colleague Allen Warren said he was definitely considering it.

Those hopes may have taken a blow on March 3. Tuesday’s updated count shows that Warren is still in the lead to keep his District 2 seat representing north Sacramento, but he had only 39% of the vote, suggesting he may have to audition in November for a job he’s had for eight years.

Warren’s chief rivals are Viva Supermarket owner Sean Loloee, who outspent Warren in claiming 27% of the vote; and Twin Rivers Unified School District Ramona Landeros, who had 22%, despite raising little money and racking up no endorsements.

The next update from the elections office is scheduled for March 13. If Warren and Loloee face each other in a runoff, it will mean that an incumbent whose wages are being garnished will go up against a grocery store owner being sued for labor exploitation, which may be why the District 2 council race drew the fewest ballots.

If north Sacramento is the story of ambivalent voters choosing between compromised candidates, then the race to succeed outgoing Councilman Larry Carr is the story of two qualified candidates creating a tough choice in South Sacramento.

As of March 11, Sacramento City Unified School District trustee Mai Vang led pastor and community activist Les Simmons with 46% of the vote to Simmons’ 32%.

If the final count doesn’t put one of them above the 50% mark, it will mean a runoff between two well-funded candidates with large followings.

Ryan K. Brown, Vang’s campaign manager, told SN&R that the strong showing at the polls was partly due to the more than 400 volunteers who worked on Vang’s campaign.

“The reason we were able to pull so far ahead is people are really responding to what Mai’s been talking about, her personal story and her determination to fight for South Sacramento,” Brown said. “A lot of people we’ve been meeting do feel that South Sacramento gets ignored and doesn’t get its share of the city’s resources. … The key for November is continuing to talk to every voter we can and make sure they feel listened to.”

If the early leaders make it all the way, then next year’s council will add two women, including Sacramento’s first Hmong-American council member and a Latina who would be the only true progressive on a dais of centrists.