The mayor’s money

Darrell Steinberg is a reelection lock with no serious competition and plenty of campaign cash—but not everyone is comfortable with the source of his funds

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

Photo courtesy of the candidate

With Mayor Darrell Steinberg on course for an easy reelection on March 3, his formidable campaign war chest has scarcely been tapped in the years since he ascended to Sacramento’s highest office.

Now, political observers are watching to see if Steinberg will be spending cash on the initiatives he’s championing, while his critics are crying foul over some of the players shoveling dollars into his coffers.

As of his latest filings, Steinberg had more than $161,000 in campaign funds at the ready.

He raised roughly $101,050 of it since becoming mayor in 2016. An SN&R review of city records found that among Steinberg’s largest donors from 2017 to present were building trade unions, who contributed $28,150; commercial developers and construction companies, who put in $21,550; and corporate landlords, real estate firms and property management groups, who shelled out $9,550.

While those lobbying forces frequently contribute to a variety of candidates, many housing advocates in Sacramento don’t approve of the mayor accepting their money because of his role last year in brokering a deal over tenant protections and rent control.

Steinberg was pivotal in the passage of the Tenant Protection and Relief Act, which was opposed by at least one of his major contributors, the California Apartment Association. That organization’s political action committee has given the mayor $4,050 since 2017. The compromise Steinberg reached with some tenant advocates was palatable enough for another significant donor, the North State Building Industry Association, to stay neutral on the measure. That organization’s PAC has given Steinberg $3,500 in the last three years.

But Steinberg has since refused to allow a vote on much stronger rent controls and tenant protections contained in the proposed Sacramento Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Charter Amendment, despite some 47,000 city residents signing petitions to get it onto a 2020 ballot.

For Jonah Paul, who quit the Housing4Sacramento coalition after other members compromised with the mayor, Steinberg’s position is undemocratic. Paul believes the only explanation is the influence of special interest groups who are hostile to rent control, which account for well over half of Steinberg’s campaign contributions since taking office.

“It’s pretty simple: The biggest determinant factor in an official’s policy is who gave money to their campaign,” Paul said. “The mayor has received copious funds from the real estate and landlord lobbies. Meanwhile renters, tenants and working people don’t have that kind of influence. All they have is their vote. … When you have a situation like that, it’s going to lead to anti-renter policies. People want to make it about nuance and how policy is complicated—it’s not.”

But housing advocates aren’t the only ones who might take issue with Steinberg’s funding sources. During a council meeting last June, a long line of residents blasted the mayor for his dealings with Verizon Wireless.

Steinberg has given the telecommunications giant access to Sacramento’s infrastructure to make the city a leader in 5G networking, despite concerns over public health. Recently, 180 scientists and doctors from around the world signed a letter asking for a moratorium on the tower technology, citing concerns over how the radiation output affects human brains, fertility and cancer rates. A number of the Sacramentans expressing fears over 5G decried Verizon’s financial influence on the Federal Communications Commission, but Steinberg himself has accepted $3,500 in donations from Verizon since the city struck its deal.

“Mayor Steinberg is supported by a broad coalition that includes businesses that invest in Sacramento, organizations that represent working people, community leaders and residents,” the mayor’s office said in a statement. “He has a long history of pursuing policies to benefit disadvantaged and struggling populations.”

“Recent examples include his leadership in the city’s efforts to ramp up its shelter capacity and services to address our crisis of homelessness, the plan to issue a $100 million bond to build affordable housing, and the successful push for our own ordinance to prevent rent gouging and require just cause for evictions,” the statement added.

Sacramento City Hall may be allowing campaign money to play a bigger role than other California cities.

According to a 2016 analysis by California Common Cause, Sacramento has among the highest individual campaign contribution limits in the state. Of the 109 cities with contribution limits, only Anaheim, Escondido, Fresno and Richmond had higher thresholds. The city’s current limit per primary or general election for a council candidate is $1,750. By contrast, the limit for a council candidate in Roseville is $500, while Folsom is $150 and Davis is $100.

But Sacramento is off-kilter when compared to California’s larger cities, too. The limit for council contributions in Los Angeles is $800; San Francisco, San Fernando and Berkeley have lower limits as well.

Sacramento’s limits for mayoral candidates are even higher, maxing out at $3,500. The individual donation limit for the mayor of Los Angeles, by comparison, is $1,500.

For large political committees, the contribution limits are $11,650 to candidates for mayor and $5,850 for council candidates per election period.

Residents may want to ask themselves if they’re comfortable with special interests being able to spend more in Sacramento, says California Common Cause executive director Kathay Feng.

“Setting lower contribution limits may increase incentives for candidate campaigns to spend more time talking to constituents and less time chasing deep-pocketed special interests,” Feng told SN&R via email.

The city code requires a biennial review of Sacramento’s contribution limits. According to a Feb. 12, 2019 staff report, city manager Howard Chan authorized bypassing a review and recommended increasing limits to the City Council.

Council members then raised their own contribution limits from $1,650 to $1,750, and the mayor’s from $3.350 to $3.500 on a consent agenda vote. There was no a public hearing or debate.