The burbs’ political brawl
The influence of political mailers and special interest money were on full display in local races
In the waning days of October, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg made a hard pitch for his Measure U sales tax by promising it would create a new capital equity fund for affordable housing. Referring to the city’s current housing trust fund, Steinberg added that his new initiative would be a fund “that actually works.” That promise, coupled with the growing severity of the state’s housing crisis, may have helped push Measure U over the finish line.
But rising rents and a lack of affordable units were also centerpieces of suburban races from West Sacramento to Folsom. As of this week, the way those elections panned out presents a complicated picture for housing issues in the greater metropolitan region.
At last tally, West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon appears to have survived a challenge from the union-connected Joe DeAnda by a comfortable margin. Cabaldon is viewed by housing advocates as a leader who delivers results. Since being elected in 1998, Cabaldon’s been on a public crusade to dissolve stereotypes about low-income housing in his city. He’s also made building more units a bedrock of West Sacramento’s long-term plans. Those efforts have paid off on Cabaldon’s side of the river. Affordable apartment complexes such as The Rivermark, West Gateway and Savanah at Southport have all been built in recent years.
Cabadlon framed his likely re-election as public buy-in for a more affordable and diverse city.
“This was a campaign about the soul of the city and whether we were going to continue to be an inclusive, progress, forward-looking place,” Cabaldon said. “It was nice seeing folks who were otherwise quiet and happy with the city step up and defend each other, and speak up for a city that’s for all.”
Housing concerns were also at play in the Citrus Heights City Council race, where planning commissioner Porsche Middleton now looks poised to join the council alongside returning incumbents Jeannie Bruins and Sparky Miller. If those results hold, it means Councilman Albert Fox is off the dais.
Middleton’s election would bring a young African-American woman to an all-white, predominately male governing body; but the upstart also stands out for another reason. She was the only candidate in the race open to holding community discussions on rent stabilization. In a Q&A with the Citrus Heights Sentinel, Miller, Bruins, Fox and candidate Treston Shull all parroted variations of the California Apartment Association’s talking point that such measures automatically hinder building. Only Middleton, a Democrat, said she would entertain a dialogue about rent control, as long as other housing strategies were also being pursued.
As of November 16, Middleton held a 1,500-vote advantage over Fox for the remaining council seat.
“I really want to focus on business development, maintaining fiscal integrity and finding viable solutions for our homeless,” Middleton said in anticipation of winning a seat. “The housing crisis is a major priority for me. On the planning commission, we approved several new complexes that will have affordable rentals. We need to work closely with the county to make more progress, because Citrus Heights doesn’t have a lot of available space to build on.”
Questions around Folsom’s housing future made its 2018 city council race one of the ugliest and costly suburban battles in recent memory. A controversial series of housing developments known as Folsom Ranch will be one of Sacramento County’s largest build-outs over the next 25 years, plastering some 26,000 acres of open space with track homes.
Officials from Folsom’s planning department have confirmed that, so far, every developer involved in Folsom Ranch has opted out of the city’s inclusionary housing rule, meaning they won’t build any affordable homes. Instead, they’ll pay a fee into Folsom’s housing trust fund, a less certain proposition for creating lower-income units.
Affordability concerns, along with traffic impacts, water availability and loss of open space made Folsom Ranch a dominant topic of this year’s election. A slate of four control-growth candidates competed for three open seats against incumbent Kerry Howell—who voted to grant land entitlements for Folsom Ranch—and pro-development candidates Sarah Aquino and Mike Kozlowski. The smart growth hopefuls included Folsom planning commissioners Aaron Ralls and Jennifer Lane, along with Sierra Club executive member Barbara Leary and retired fire captain Mark Moore.
A political action committee for the North State Building Industry Association spent $104,000 on mailers and sponsored Facebook posts attacking Ralls, and $55,000 supporting Howell, Aquino and Kozlowksi. The hit pieces on Ralls, who owns a local barber shop, questioned everything from his previous career as a correctional sergeant to whether he voted in college. Photos of Ralls with his shirt off at the ocean, his chest covered in tattoos, featured heavily in the mailers. Ralls tried to make the most of the financial assault by matching a personal donation to charity for every attack mailer that people brought to his campaign events.
The Folsom Chamber of Commerce’s PAC also spent $12,000 supporting Howell, Aquino and Kozlowski. As of November 16, the chamber and North State BIA’s preferred candidates were all leading in the vote counts, with Aquino holding a 1,400-vote lead over the next nearest candidate, Howell.
“I was blindsided by the amount of money interest groups will spend to make sure they control the city council,” Ralls told SN&R. “I will run again in 2020, and I’ll be doing fundraisers before to try to counteract all the money.” Ω
While Howell appears set for another term that will bring her 24 years on the council, it doesn’t look like anyone will follow in her footsteps. Nearly 80 percent of Folsom voters backed a local initiative imposing term limits. For Ralls, that was one silver lining to the election.
“I’m a huge fan of the term limits,” he said. “If we had had them 20 years ago, Folsom might not be in the situation it’s in now.”