Sacramento mayor’s race: division of labor

Fargo and Johnson vie for the union label

Illustration By Chad Crowe

Local labor unions have agreed to disagree over who should be the next mayor of Sacramento. There are 45,000 labor-union members in the city of Sacramento, accounting for 23 percent of the registered voters in the city. This figure is split into voting blocs for two mayoral rivals, incumbent Heather Fargo and challenger Kevin Johnson.

Mayor Fargo is seeking a third term, and is backed by several unions because of her nearly two-decade-long career as a public official. The policy knowledge she has earned in that time is a positive for them and the city generally, those union officials say. Among her biggest labor backers: the Sacramento Sierra Building Trades Council and the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

Challenger Kevin Johnson, who has made crime and economic development the centerpieces of his campaign, enjoys the endorsement of the vocal Sacramento Police Officers Association, and the powerful Sacramento Central Labor Council.

“Organized labor is a major force in our community, as it should be, providing economic security in sync with Sacramento’s community values,” said Johnson, a former guard for the Phoenix Suns, who enjoyed the benefits of unionization while he was a member of the NBA Players Association.

Bill Camp is the executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, which has more than 80 labor-union affiliates and represents 160,000 union members, active and retired, in the six-county Sacramento area, and backs Johnson for mayor.

Camp said one SCLC concern was Fargo’s lack of support for a labor-union agreement between the city, unions and the developers of the Embassy Suites Riverfront Promenade hotel near the Tower Bridge, which opened in June 2002. The city gave land and a $5 million subsidy to help build the privately owned project. State law required the developer to pay “prevailing wages” while building the project, but Camp didn’t get the labor agreement he wanted.

The labor council is also down on Fargo because of her role in the expansion of Sutter General Hospital in Midtown Sacramento. The unions tried and failed to make a “community benefits” agreement with Sutter, a condition for getting city approval of the project. This agreement would partly have guaranteed affordable housing, local hiring practices and other benefits to the hospital’s employees. Fargo led the council in approving the $1 billion expansion without cutting a deal with the unions.

John Borsos is SCLC president and vice president of the Service Employees International Union-Health Care Workers West. He said, “Johnson was open and heard our point of view. Sacramento needs a change.”

In Fargo’s view, what Sutter Health offered to the community, including housing at the new site and a new B Street Theatre complex, was sufficient. Then and now, the work forces at Sutter General and at Sutter Memorial hospitals in the city are both union-free.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s campaign pledges to boost public safety. “He wants more cops on the beat,” said Steve Maviglio, his campaign spokesperson. The Sacramento Police Officers Association, which represents 1,100 active and retired members, has endorsed the challenger. “We think that Kevin Johnson has a better economic-development vision of Sacramento, and the police department fits into that broad view,” said Brent Meyer, president of the SPOA board of directors.

Heather Fargo, who was first elected mayor in 2000, enjoys a reputation as a consensus builder, according to Richard Wake, a former member of the Sacramento County Democratic Central Committee.

“Mayor Fargo has worked well with many interest groups and has done a lot for the Democratic Party in Sacramento, unlike Kevin Johnson,” he said. But Wake said Fargo’s more collaborative approach is not a hit with some male heads of local labor unions, and could in part explain their support for Johnson.

Asked her view on the role of organized labor in Sacramento now, Mayor Fargo said, “It’s to represent their members and improve their quality of life with apprenticeships and other kinds of training, the same as across the U.S.”

Matt Kelly, the executive secretary of the Sacramento Sierra Building Trades Council, endorses Fargo. His group represents 25,000 labor-union workers in the local construction industry.

“We feel Mayor Fargo has the capability and the experience to keep Sacramento headed in the right direction,” Kelly said. “She has dedicated the majority of her public life to make the city a better place to live.”

On the other hand, Kelly said, “Kevin Johnson is running for mayor because of his arm being twisted by Bob Thomas, an ex-city manager, Lou Blanas, an ex-sheriff, and a handful of developers to further their own agenda.”

According to City Hall lore, Thomas had a notoriously bad relationship with Mayor Fargo—with the two often clashing over development of north Natomas and the open space beyond that. Blanas and Thomas are also allied with Angelo Tsakopoulos, a major land speculator in the undeveloped territories north of the city, and a financial backer for the Kevin Johnson campaign.

And while you might expect the building trades to be more supportive of unrestricted growth, Kelly said he backs Fargo because she backs careful development.

“It is unfettered development to expand the boundaries of the city vs. following the general plan,” Kelly added. The general plan is the city’s blueprint for growth over the next 30 years.

Johnson denies that he’s any developer’s proxy. “Actually, I didn’t talk to any potential endorsers before entering the race,” he claimed. “I took this on because I believed strongly in the need for new leadership in Sacramento. After understanding what voters were looking for in a leader, I made the decision to run, and I haven’t looked back since.”

If he did look back, he’d see a lot of angry teachers behind him. Johnson is still pursued by labor trouble from the takeover of his old alma mater, Sacramento High School. The school was converted into a charter school to be run by Johnson’s St Hope Corporation in 2003. In the process, the Sacramento City Teachers Association was shown the door.

SCTA president Linda Tuttle said her union is backing Fargo because, “She has a long history of supporting labor in Sacramento and her ethics are of the highest level,” said Tuttle.

On the other hand, “Kevin Johnson won’t allow teachers at his charter schools to join labor unions. We have concerns why labor groups are supporting a candidate who does not have a strong history of supporting labor.”

Among Fargo’s other union buddies is Norm Lucas, head of the United Transportation Union, Local 492, in the Roseville-Sacramento area. Local 492 represents 300 workers employed in the railroad industry locally. “Out of all the candidates Mayor Fargo is the best qualified due to her experience in public office,” he said. He said she, “slowly and methodically” facilitated the development plans for the 240-acre downtown rail yards. Lucas credited Fargo with stopping the would-be rail yards developer, Thomas Enterprises, from “running roughshod over the city.” The rail yards’ former owner, Union Pacific, negotiated for years with the city and Thomas Enterprises to make a deal for the heavily polluted land.

As for Fargo’s challenger, “Kevin Johnson needs to get his feet wet in public office on a school board or SMUD board to gain some political experience first,” Lucas said.