Why a handful of interest groups may pick the next Sacramento City Council member
Mayor Heather Fargo, when she was running for the city’s top spot, put it best: “There are two groups of people who pay for campaigns: labor unions and developers.”
Sometimes, it seems as if developers and labor unions are the only folks who pay attention to campaigns as well. Take the April 10 special election for Sacramento City Council’s District 1, Fargo’s old seat, which covers the Natomas area and much of Downtown.
The district is critical to Sacramento’s future. North Natomas and the Richards Boulevard area are slated for the bulk of Sacramento’s new development, and whoever represents these areas will have a major opportunity to guide Sacramento’s growth over the next few years.
In North Natomas, the breakneck pace of development has strained against a hard-fought community plan worked out by environmentalists, developers and community activists. The City Council has the power to ensure that new development follows either smart-growth principals—incorporating public transit, affordable housing and preserving open space—or spins out into full-blown suburban sprawl.
Meanwhile, major infill opportunities like the abandoned Richards rail yard are sure to spark fights over just what mix of housing, office space and business will make Downtown more “livable.”
The race has drawn a lot of cash, especially from labor unions and developers, two groups that have enormous interest in the district. Both groups stand to profit mightily from the buildout of North Natomas: developers from the sale of entitlements and houses, and unions from the thousands of jobs that the building boom is creating.
At the same time, the campaign has garnered little attention in the media or among average citizens. Some worry that the election will be held in a public opinion vacuum, and that doesn’t bode well for what is supposed to be a democratic process.
“What we have is a stealth election,” said Robert Waste, a professor of public policy at California State University, Sacramento. “It’s really too bad for Sacramento. District 1 is the fast-growth area in the city. We should be paying more attention.”
Everybody loves Ray
The favorite in this race is Ray Tretheway, a longtime Natomas community activist and current director of the Sacramento Tree Foundation.
Tretheway’s house in South Natomas attests to his environmental credentials. There are solar panels on his roof and the house is warmed in the winter by solar-heated water running beneath the floor tiles. It’s cooled in the summer by an energy-efficient evaporative cooler. The walls are made of rigid Styrofoam, which keeps the house extremely well-insulated.
This guy lives in a solar house and plants trees for a living—it’s no wonder the environmentalists like him.
More important, he is one of the architects of the Natomas Community Plan, widely considered the most successful planning effort in Sacramento for its adherence to smart growth principals, mixed-density housing and emphasis on public transport.
Tretheway is a longtime friend of Fargo’s, having worked side-by-side with her on the community plan and on innumerable other battles with developers in Natomas. The two also worked together to launch the Tree Foundation. So it’s not at all surprising that Fargo endorsed Tretheway.
He has also picked up key endorsements from Sen. Debra Ortiz and County Supervisor Roger Dickinson, as well as former mayors Anne Rudin and Phil Isenberg.
And while he has at times been at odds with Natomas developers, almost all of the developer money in this race is now flowing toward Tretheway, probably in large part because he is the front-runner. More illustrative of his broad appeal is the fact that he has picked up endorsements from both the local Sierra Club and the Chamber of Commerce.
Tretheway’s support among the core of community and environmental activists, the local Democratic Party machine and developers leads many observers to think he’s a shoe-in for the job. The less charitable call him the anointed one, someone who is being selected rather than elected.
But Tretheway contends that he earned his endorsements with 20 years of work in the district: “And I haven’t changed my tune in those 20 years. It’s all about the quality of growth.”
But he worries that the pace of new development is creating sprawl in spite of the community plan.
“The essence of that plan is smart growth,” said Tretheway. “The council has a critical role in making sure that the development community follows the plan.”
Look for the union label
If anybody has a chance to break Tretheway’s lock on the election, it’s Cathy Hackett, the self-styled “progressive labor” candidate. Hackett is an officer for the California State Employees Association and budget analyst for the California Department of Transportation.
Hackett was asked to run by the Central Labor Council to represent labor’s interests in City Hall: “I feel labor needs to participate more in local politics.”
Hackett said her core support will come from union members living in the district. Not surprisingly, she has the bulk of union endorsements, including the Service Employees International Union, the Coalition of Organized Labor PAC, and the Professional Engineers in California Government.
She supports a living wage ordinance and more affordable housing Downtown. She also said the lack of parking Downtown and public transportation are major issues in her campaign.
While many will cheer the prospect of a strong labor voice on the council, others are more skeptical. Critics contend Hackett will do the bidding of the labor council, which is heavily dominated by the building trades.
Labor’s interest in development has sometimes placed the Central Labor Council at odds with local environmentalists over specific development projects. One significant example was the CLC’s support of C.C. Myers’ controversial Deer Creek Hill proposal. Some question whether the labor council is seeking a more pro-development council member in City Hall.
Hackett dismisses the notion that she would be in anybody’s pocket.
“Once you get elected, everybody wants to be your friend,” she quipped, noting that labor’s interests are universal ones. “In general, I think everybody can get behind having a decent wage, decent benefits and a good retirement.”
Neither of the front-runners appear to be taking any political risks. Neither have called for any bold new policies or taken controversial stands.
Both have refused to take sides on the fight over what to do with Sacramento’s historic rail depot. Both say they are for smart growth and revitalization of Downtown. Both support light rail from Downtown to the airport. Both are members of the Sierra Club. And the slogans from both sides adhere to ideas that are already fairly popular.
“Both of these candidates are playing pretty close to the 50-yard line,” Professor Waste remarked.
The three other candidates are more willing to make waves and take more controversial stands, if they can only get their message out.
Raul Baca, a community activist from Alkali Flat, has criticized the fundraising of both front-runners. Both candidates’ ability to pull in large sums from outside the district has made it nearly impossible for less vetted candidates like himself to compete.
Baca has said that his first act as a council member would be to introduce a policy banning contributions from outside the district. He claims to have raised $10,000 entirely within District 1.
He has also blasted Fargo and area Democrats for automatically endorsing Tretheway, and claims that the mayor did not interview other candidates. “I think it is unfortunate that the mayor and senator [Ortiz] are playing ‘old boy’ politics,” said candidate Baca, who was a Fargo supporter during her race for mayor.
Also running is Steve Watanabe, the chairman of the local Libertarian Party. Watanabe is campaigning against “intrusive government.” He believes the city government should put fewer restrictions on development and should not place limits on campaign contributions, although he admits to being unfamiliar with many of the specific issues in the district.
The final candidate is the fresh-faced, 21-year-old Timothy Snipes, who is campaigning for better pay for police officers and less red-tape for small businesses.
According to the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters, voter turnout is expected to be very light. Typical turnout in this kind of race is less than 20 percent, and this race may be as low as 15 percent. While voter interest is low, campaign finance reports suggest that special interest is high.
Tretheway has raised close to $100,000, according to the latest campaign finance filings, and Hackett says she has close to $40,000. These numbers don’t seem like much compared to the record-breaking fundraising frenzy that marked last season’s race for mayor, but this is shaping up to be an expensive race.
Fargo last won re-election to the seat with a campaign chest of about $33,000. At the time, Fargo was a two-term incumbent with little serious opposition. But the 1998 race was in a primary crowded with statewide ballot measures and candidates, and arguably drew many more people from the district to the polls than this race is expected to.
The amount of money being raised, together with the lack of public interest in this race, adds up to an election that, to some, seems undemocratic.
“The thing that bothers me is that they are both hand-picked: one by labor, one by the [Democratic] party," said progressive activist Julie Padilla, who ran for mayor in the primaries and considered running for District 1.