Darrell Steinberg, Mayor-elect of Sacramento, is the biggest cheerleader for his city. Steinberg served on the City Council, in state Assembly, and was the California Senate Pro Tem from 2008 to 2014, making him arguably the most qualified mayor in Sacramento history. Steinberg avoided a runoff in November by winning more than 50% of the vote and will take office in December. In a The Planning Report (TPR) exclusive interview with Mayor-elect Steinberg, he provides insight into his city and regional goals, plans for spurring economic growth, and prioritization of public transportation and sustainable communities.
Darrell, you recently won the Sacramento mayoral primary, avoiding a runoff by winning 59 percent of the vote in the June election. Share with our readers your policy priorities, and how you plan on implementing them in January.
Darrell Steinberg: I have three buckets of priorities, with a number of initiatives that fall within the three main buckets.
First, we must continue to diversify and strengthen Sacramento’s economy. Sacramento has long been a proud government town, but we can no longer be based just on government. I’ve been through enough bad state and local budgets to know that the city cannot rely exclusively on government to attract and retain a consistent high-wage jobs base.
With our relatively low cost of living and our proximity to Silicon Valley, Sacramento is perfectly positioned to grow a robust tech economy. The millennial generation is flocking to Sacramento because of our vibrant downtown culture. There is a commitment to building more housing in our urban core, but we also need more jobs.
Sacramento is also seeing a boom in the restaurant industry, and we are the farm-to-fork capital. Just 15 miles from UC Davis, which is the leading agricultural university in the country (and perhaps the world), Sacramento has the ingredients for a successful partnership that benefits the university, and also catalyzes the farm-to-fork industry that is at the cornerstone of our economy.
Additionally, we are at the confluence of two rivers, and I intend to work to make our riverfront a vibrant destination.
Second, I want Sacramento to show the region and the state that we can reduce homelessness in a real way. I authored the Mental Health Services Act, which was passed by voters in 2004 as Proposition 63, to improve California’s mental health services. This year, I partnered with Senate President pro Tem Kevin De Leon to secure a portion of those funds to create a $2-billion housing fund for permanent supportive housing, called the No Place Like Home initiative. President pro Tem De Leon’s bill to implement the initiative was signed by Governor Brown, and now I intend to throw my leadership behind this issue.
Third, I want to make Sacramento a city that is wholly committed to its youth. In addition to my work on mental health, I’m equally proud of my work in the Legislature to protect vocational training and education by establishing the Community Pathways Trust. The Trust helps bring curricula to life by making education more relevant to college and to careers for seventeen- and eighteen-year olds who will be entering the modern-day workforce.
I want to see huge numbers of our young people involved in year-round internships and apprenticeships that connect their education to the demands of today’s working environment. I want to replicate the types of promises we see in other communities that guarantee college admission to a local state college or university like UC Davis, or a high-wage job, when students do their part.
In your leadership positions within the Senate and Assembly, you had intimate awareness of, and input into the policies of the UC and CSU systems, as well as the community college system. How will you work with California’s education leadership to implement your higher education priorities?
Alignment—although overused by policy wonks—is the operative word to describe what we can do better to achieve our goals on creating a successful education model in California.
Our K-12, UC, CSU, and community college systems need to be aligned, in the sense of constantly being in communication, to create understandable pathways for young people who need the certainty of college acceptance, an apprenticeship, and a high-wage job if they check all of the boxes.
I also intend to connect our public education system with our business community, so that our young people can have good-paying internships and learn what it takes to be successful in the working world.
As the mayor of Sacramento, I’m not interested in taking control of education or pursing a power play. I’m interested in strengthening existing alignment efforts, and using my convening power to take on tangible initiatives.
In 2010, TPR ran an excerpt of your remarks to the LA Business Council, in which you highlighted the opportunities presented by Senator Fran Pavley’s AB 32 and your own SB 375. In this issue, we are featuring an exit interview with Senator Pavley, who has similarly championed environmental causes. Comment on value and potential of these landmark legislative successes.
One of the exciting things about serving as mayor is taking the big-picture policy ideas that I led on in the Legislature, and showing hands on how they can work to improve the quality of life in a meaningful way.
SB 375—the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act—has without question changed the planning paradigm in California. Still, there is a lot of work to be done to implement these policies throughout the state. Challenges have arisen from resource constraints, the difficulty of finding permanent sources of funding, and the need for clean transportation.
For me, this is the opportunity to build an economy around urban infill. When I worked to get SB 375 through the Legislature in 2008, the controversy was around whether the state should be incentivizing land-use patterns and urban infill. Since then, the market has started to change organically.
Younger people want to live in the urban core. They don’t care about the open space of the suburbs, because they don’t want to spend hours in automobiles to commute. Younger professionals are opting for the opportunity to walk to work, as well as to have a nightlife that is completely walkable. The generational market is making SB 375 even more relevant for infill development. SB 375 has helped provide California with an opportunity to change the way we grow into the future. It is an exciting time for Sacramento because this market is driving the need for 10,000 infill units in our Downtown. It wasn’t long ago, before the passage of SB 375, that you would never build market-rate housing downtown, because land prices there were too high and people didn’t want to live there anyway. In the past few months, I’ve been to two openings for market-rate housing complexes in Downtown Sacramento. The demand is there.
You have focused on the themes of alignment and regional collaboration for decades. Talk about how you will use your position to align your city and region’s priorities.
I intend to use my position as mayor to be a collaborator with the entire region.
Blueprints have already been developed on numerous regional issues. Sacramento is positioned to apply these growing cooperative relationships to more issues, like homelessness. I have already reached out to a number of the region’s leaders, such as Mike McKeever of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, to discuss how Sacramento can be the first out of the gate in terms of implementing transformative policies.
Just 10 years ago, a regional conversation about homelessness would have received scant interest from folks outside of the Downtown area. Today, homelessness is no longer just a city issue. The whole region wants to talk about homelessness because it is spreading outside the city of Sacramento’s borders and into the suburbs. County and regional leaders are feeling the need for a team approach, and I intend to capitalize on that.
As Pro Tem, you authored SB 743, which, among other goals, sought to increase urban infill. The implementation of SB 743 is currently a hot topic because of the Governor’s Office of Research and Planning efforts to change the transportation impact metric in CEQA from Level of Service to Vehicle Miles Traveled. Can you elaborate on your hopes and expectations with respect to SB 743?
Overall, SB 743 aimed to reduce the friction for the projects that want to see happen: affordable housing, urban infill, and clean energy. It included a number of elements, including reducing the time period for litigation for major, job-creating projects. We cannot address our housing needs and changing cities without reducing this friction.
The Level of Service/Vehicle Miles Traveled issue is a very important opportunity to clarify and objectify traffic impacts on projects and reduce friction—including litigation friction. Whatever its merits, the Level of Service standard is not objective and creates many more opportunities for litigation and disputes.
I’m hopeful that when the lengthy regulatory process is completed, the movement to Vehicle Miles Traveled will be seen as a big advance for reducing transportation-related emissions.
Lastly, let’s turn to two recent ballot initiatives in Sacramento that failed: the Strong Mayor Initiative and the Sacramento streetcar. The former would have given the mayor the authority to appoint and remove the city manager, propose the city budget, and veto City Council actions on most ordinances as well as the budget. The Sacramento streetcar was proposed to transport people from West Sacramento to Downtown in an effort to alleviate congestion from the new arena. Are these priorities that will resurface during your administration?
The Sacramento Streetcar is a high priority for me. I am working with the community, Congresswoman Doris Matsui, and state leaders to utilize cap-and-trade dollars. I authored the cap-and-trade investment plan while in the Legislature, and I know that 35 percent of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund monies are designated for low-carbon transportation and SB 375-related sustainable urban infrastructure. It was recently awarded a $30 million grantfrom cap-and-trade funds.
The Sacramento streetcar would create the ability to bring people from West Sacramento into the Downtown corridor, expanding our transit system. We are assertively going after cap-and-trade dollars for the Streetcar because it is a regional connector, and would be a great addition to Sacramento’s public transportation system.
As for the Strong Mayor initiative: I supported it, but the voters spoke. I am going to focus on being a strong mayor within the current system, and I know that I can be successful.
I believe strength comes from your ability to build coalitions, lay out a vision, and consistently produce on your vision. I led the Senate with 40 members in a strong, but collaborative way. I am confident that I can lead the City Council—with eight strong members of its own—in a collaborative way.