Setting the stage

Blue Lamp bar owner says she’s running against a well-funded incumbent for people like her employees

Gabriell Garcia has priorities for District 1, including the repurposing of Sleep Train Arena and creating a detailed evacuation plan for Natomas if the Oroville dam breaks.

Gabriell Garcia has priorities for District 1, including the repurposing of Sleep Train Arena and creating a detailed evacuation plan for Natomas if the Oroville dam breaks.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

When Princeton University revealed last week that the city of Sacramento averaged five evictions per day in 2016, while the county averaged 15 per day, one person who wasn’t shocked was Gabriell Garcia.

That’s because the owner of the popular Blue Lamp bar in Midtown has recently seen a third of her employees displaced by catapulting, unaffordable rents. Garcia was mentored by personalities in the Sacramento bar business who think of their staffs as extended family. Now that she’s an owner, her own small, adopted family—and a lot of people like them—are in trouble.

That’s one of the reasons Garcia says she’s running for the city’s Natomas-centered District 1 council seat against incumbent Angelique Ashby, the only woman currently on the Sacramento City Council. Garcia says she’s tired of watching council meetings where people stand at the podium talking about evictions and homelessness and a lack of services for the disabled, while some elected officials stare down at their cellphones or send glazed looks into outer space. As a small business owner, Garcia doesn’t have that option when a person whose livelihood depends on her arrives at work experiencing distress.

“If I were on the council, and you’re at the podium speaking, you better believe I would be looking at you, and watching your body language, and listening to the words you’re saying,” Garcia observed. “I think we need more citizen representation and less political representation in order to keep our city viable for our community.”

Garcia grew up in Sacramento. She moved to Los Angeles in her early 20s, where she worked as a production manager in the entertainment industry. After her first daughter was born, she suddenly had an urge to get back home. Garcia says she’s never regretted the move, though it led to a new direction in her professional life.

With few entertainment industry options, Garcia started looking for a job with flexible hours for a single mother of a 3-month-old. She settled on bartending. She worked at some of the region’s favorite pubs and restaurants, but it was her nine-year stint at the family-owned Limelight Bar and Café that really formed Garcia’s views about how to create a positive work environment. She wanted to be at the helm of a similar modest but meaningful establishment. In 2013, she teamed up with her husband to purchase the Blue Lamp on Alhambra Boulevard. This Halloween will mark Garcia’s fifth anniversary of owning one of the city’s last accessible stages for local artists.

Garcia has become an admired figure in Sacramento’s creative community, especially for her ongoing commitment to provide a venue for young, diverse performers. But it hasn’t all been a party. She says watching her employees get priced out of their apartments is painful.

Similar to District 5 challenger Tamika L’Ecluse and District 7 challenger Tristan Brown—and in juxtaposition to the current City Council—Garcia openly favors rent control. She says the council should craft a policy that allows landlords to get fair market value on their investments while stopping the greed-based evictions that have displaced thousands of Sacramento renters.

“We have landlords who have been slumlords for years, and have run-down apartments, and the people who have dealt with that are now getting 30-day notices to get them out of the place, so the landlord can charge two or three times more,” Garcia said. “I have a motto for our family at the bar, which is, ’We all might be eating ramen together, but no one’s eating a steak while someone else is starving.”

Garcia is also convinced that the city’s affordable housing crisis is tied to what she views as Sacramento’s homelessness crisis. She volunteers in a program that brings free diapers to mothers living on the streets, as well as another program that provides free backpacks to homeless students. But Garcia says even if she didn’t have that background, just walking the streets of Midtown provides evidence of a brewing catastrophe.

“I see it on the streets, that the homeless are getting younger and younger,” she said.

Racial equity and police reform are additional components of Garcia’s platform. She told SN&R she’s baffled that Sacramento’s progressive council endorsed Republican District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert over Democratic challenger Noah Phillips. Much like the council’s resistance to rent control and a tenants’ bill of rights, Garcia sees the Schubert endorsement as a window into the way Sacramento’s political class rallies around itself and stays ensconced in a wagon circle of big campaign contributions from developers and unions.

“I’m just going to run a grassroots campaign—our average donation is $25,” Garcia stressed. “I’m also going to put my energy into voter registration drives. Win or lose, I want to have the highest voter turnout we’ve ever had. … The eyes of the whole nation are on Sacramento right now, so it’s really important that candidates care about more than where their next contribution is coming from.”