The zen of District 7

Challenger talks housing crisis, rent control, economics and a monk-like approach to politics

Tristan Brown is a first-time political candidate for the Sacramento City Council’s seventh district, which resembles a recliner sliding down the city’s west side and cutting across the south.

Tristan Brown is a first-time political candidate for the Sacramento City Council’s seventh district, which resembles a recliner sliding down the city’s west side and cutting across the south.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Tristan Brown is looking to tackle a former NFL player, but given that he’s a Buddhist, it will be on the field of ideas for Sacramento’s future.

Brown’s entering the contest for the District 7 City Council seat matched against former Oakland Raiders Super Bowl champ and Councilman Rick Jennings. Brown is a young Berniecrat, often smiling and preternaturally excited by policy talk, a zen practitioner who draws a stark contrast with Jennings in his views on Sacramento’s housing crisis. He’s also a rare voice around the capital—warning about how an unchecked “gig economy” can permanently harm working-class people.

The District 7 race is Brown’s first time as a candidate for public office, but the legislative representative for the California Federation of Teachers is hardly an amateur. He’s director emeritus of Sacramento’s New Leaders Council, vice chair of the Center for Workers Rights, a volunteer for the Sacramento Buddhist Church and Habitat for Humanity, and a co-founder of the new Organize, Win, Legislate Democratic Club.

Beyond Brown’s multifront organizing efforts, he says he truly has a platform that challenges some of the City Council’s policies, particularly around housing. Brown stresses that the council’s 2014 decision to abandon its rule requiring developers to make 15 percent of any residential project affordable units—replacing that mandate with a low fee earmarked for the underperforming housing trust fund—was clearly detrimental to Sacramento.

“I think we used to be a model for inclusionary housing,” Brown says. “And we said goodbye to that. I look at [the new fee strategy] as a form of trickle-down, supply-side theory, which says we’ll build this great monolith, and it will create jobs, and it will all work out, but I’ve never seen that genuinely be the truth.

“Rents have gone up 13 percent, while wages have gone down—the spending power has gone down,” he adds. “It’s just not working, and I’d rather us return to our old policies.”

Brown also distinguishes himself from the City Council on another housing question: The city of Sacramento reportedly experienced the highest year-to-year rent increase in the nation in 2016, and a recent SN&R analysis of county records revealed that tens of the thousands of locals have been forcibly evicted from their homes in the last three years. Despite these developments, Sacramento’s mayor and council members have expressed a range of skepticism and resistance to a new grassroots campaign for rent control.

Brown is in favor of the idea, even though representatives from Sacramento’s real estate industry have already warned him that saying so means losing their deep-pocketed support.

“I think it’s something we’re going to have to have in the future—in the immediate future,” Brown says of rent control. “I know there’s a fear that, if we have it, they’re not going to build here. Well, they’re not building here anyway. I’d rather look back and say, ’I protected folks who needed a roof, rather than landed some shiny new thing.’ That’s my higher priority, getting people to live with dignity. And if we lose a skyscraper, we lose a skyscraper.”

That sort of real-people-above-the-really-privledged mentality is something Brown tries to incorporate in his daily life. The longtime labor supporter says he doesn’t stand in self-checkout lines at the grocery store, preferring instead to give his money to companies that preserve local jobs over cost-cutting automation. When jetting around Sacramento, Brown always tries to use a union taxicab over Uber and Lyft, though he admits that’s becoming harder and harder now. The changing employment landscape in Sacramento is something the council needs to plan for, Brown says.

“The gig economy is a race to the bottom,” he says. “There is no infrastructure there for the longevity of the person as an employee.”

Brown believes the City Council needs to be pushing for every educational and vocational training advantage it can bring to the region, along with lowering the cost of living any way that it can. From his perspective, the cost of parking is an obvious place to start.

“I think it’s an unfair policy that, until 10 p.m., even a mile-and-half away from the arena—even if there’s no game—there’s these predatory parking guys patrolling,” he says. “Nothing against the public servants themselves, but it’s a huge bummer to want to go out in Midtown, and be part of that economy, and just be constantly worried about it.”

Brown’s clarification about not throwing Sacramento’s meter-readers under the bus over a council decision seems to hint at the Buddhist approach he’s bringing to the race. The 2014 contest between Jennings and retired fire chief Julius Cherry got heated indeed, with Jennings’ supporters decrying Cherry as a public-pension abuser, and Jennings himself telling SN&R that Cherry was portraying him as Kevin Johnson’s “bitch.”

“I don’t think that really helped anyone,” Brown says of the ugly turn the last District 7 race took. “I don’t have anything against Rick, personally. … Some people have asked me, ’Why are you trying to get Rick fired?’ Well, the term’s up, so I look at it as we’re both applying for the same job—and democracy requires a choice.”