Wide open race

Pastor Les Simmons and SCUSD trustee Mai Vang are both generating excitement as they seek to replace Larry Carr in District 8

Mai Vang has represented Area 5 on the Sacramento City Unified School District board since December 2016.

Mai Vang has represented Area 5 on the Sacramento City Unified School District board since December 2016.

Photo by Andrew Nixon for CapRadio

Two popular community advocates go head to head for leadership of South Sacramento

There's an open path to the Sacramento City Council seat for District 8 since incumbent Larry Carr opted to step aside. Now, two candidates with lifelong ties to South Sacramento—and with energized, grassroots campaigns—are battling it out at the ballot box to succeed him. Since both are raising plenty of campaign cash and grabbing major endorsements, this race is one to watch.

Mai Vang is the daughter of Hmong refugees who built a new life for themselves in the capital city. The oldest of 16 children, Vang says she took her earliest cues on leadership from her grandfather, an influential man within the Hmong's tight-knit clan system. While Vang grew up poor, she says the lessons her Hmong elders passed down proved anything is possible when people support each other.

“There's this idea of collectivism, that no one does anything alone,” Vang said. “I learned what community is, and what hard work is, from the Hmong community.”

As a young adult, Vang helped found Hmong Innovating Politics, a group working to give Hmong-Americans a greater voice in local issues and California's legislative process. The group successfully pushed Sacramento and Fresno to provide Hmong translations of voting ballots.

“We started out with money in a shoebox under someone's bed, and now we're a statewide organization,” she said.

Vang's interest in her heritage extends to the academic world, too, teaching classes on Asian-American studies at both Sacramento State University and UC Davis. But it is Vang's background in elevating neighborhoods that's fueling her campaign. She spent four years working in City Hall as the community affairs director for Carr before being elected in 2016 as a Sacramento City Unified School District trustee.

Vang says both those roles have shown her what the stakes are for South Sacramento and the need for new investments and opportunities.

“There's a lot of work that still needs to be done,” she said. “When you look at student outcomes, two-thirds of the indicators are impacts that are outside of the classroom. So when you talk about stable homes, clean neighborhoods, those are things that impact student learning as well.”

Records indicate Vang has raised nearly $104,000 in campaign funds through Jan. 29. She also has Carr's endorsement, and those of fellow Sac City Unified trustees.

She does not have the support of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, which has been warring with the trustees over the district's budget. Instead, the teachers are backing—both with money and volunteers—Les Simmons, senior pastor at South Sacramento Christian Center.

Les Simmons is a well-known pastor and community activist.

Photo by Maria Ratinova

His parents, Esley and Deborah, founded the church 30 years ago, and it's now one of the region's most culturally diverse places of worship. Simmons met his wife, Katrina, when they were in the third grade at Prairie Elementary School. His mom owned a beauty supply shop and Katrina's mother owned a nearby salon.

“We'd be sweeping the floors as kids in our parents' stores, and then she ended up joining our church,” Simmons remembered. The two didn't start dating until college, when Simmons was doing faith and humanitarian work in India and found himself wishing Katrina would send him letters. They have been married 18 years and have three children.

Katrina eventually became a pastor at South Sacramento Christian Center, too, as the church was getting more involved in counteracting violence and tragedy in its surrounding neighborhoods.

Marching against violence

Simmons has been the most public face of those efforts. After a 2010 gang shootout at a South Sacramento barbershop killed bystander Monique Nelson as she shielded her baby from flying bullets, Simmons began leading community peace walks that lasted for five years. In the summer of 2017, when five people were shot—one fatally—in Meadowview Park, Simmons led a press conference aimed at stopping the carnage.

At the same time, he acted as the main intermediary to get Sacramento leaders to greenlight the controversial Advance Peace anti-gang initiative, which has been credited with interrupting 17 acts of retaliatory gun violence in 2018 and keeping 74% of its participants from picking up a new gun charge. No youths were victims of homicide in Sacramento in either 2018 or 2019.

One of Simmons' biggest accomplishments involves his role as director of the Valley Hi site for the Black Child Legacy Campaign, a response to black infants and youth dying at twice the rate of any group in Sacramento County. The Valley Hi site offered parenting classes, youth mentoring and job training. Sacramento County reduced black infant sleep-related deaths by at least 29 % in the last three years.

But Simmons says the generational disinvestment that led to those grim statistics in the first place haven't gone away, which is why he's running. “I'm doing this to ensure that the economic development, the city services and resources, are driven to South Sacramento in an equitable way,” he said.

Simmons has also been in the public spotlight for his efforts on police reform. In 2016, he stepped down as chairman of the city's first community police commission. A frustrated Simmons said the Police Department wasn't being transparent about the officer-involved killing of Joseph Mann and that the commission was helpless to investigate it. He departure was a catalyst for the city forming a new police commission with more oversight powers, but Simmons remembers that some people warned him not to call out the police in such a public way.

“It was a very difficult decision,” he said. “As chair, I'd been trying to move our city in a better direction, as it pertained to community-police relationships, implicit bias training and cultural competency training, and getting law enforcement to understanding the context of our community … But when Mann was shot, it was about deciding to resign, or continuing down this path that was powerless.”

Simmons was also outspoken about the police killing of Stephon Clark, and was arrested during a protest last year, though the charges were dropped.

Records show Simmons has raised some $88,500 in campaign donations as of Jan. 30. While the district's outgoing councilman is endorsing Vang, Simmons has the support of Matthew Bryant, Carr's chief of staff who also worked for former council members Bonnie and Sam Pannell. Additionally, Simmons is being endorsed by current council members Rick Jennings, Steve Hansen and Jay Schenirer.

Vang is being endorsed by council members Angelique Ashby, Jeff Harris and Allen Warren, not to mention a bevy of state officials.

“Of all the candidates running, I have the governance experience to do this job on day one,” Vang told SN&R, adding, “the largest demographic in the district is 24 to 35-year-olds, and we have a whole generation that's missing from the City Council.”

For his part, Simmons says South Sacramento residents know he'll take on the hardest fights for them.

“I believe the hopes and dreams of the people of District 8 are possible,” he stressed.