Highlights from last night's Sacramento mayoral debate between Steinberg and Asbhy

Last night, the first mayoral debate of the election year went down at the Crocker. Signs out from of the museum stated that it was sold out. But inside the auditorium there were plenty of open seats. “Sold out” like a Kings game.

Anyway, debate time! Err, “forum” time. A very debate-y forum, have you. Sponsored by the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, a.k.a. business interests who can afford to rent out the Crocker for a night, and moderated by former TV politico Kevin Riggs. 

Oh, and only including candidates Angelique Ashby and Darrell Steinberg (Tony “the Tiger” Lopez and Russell Rawlings were left out—the Chamber said it was because they never asked for the group’s endorsement. Both candidates showed up at the museum to voice their dis displeasure.

The Sacramento Bee and KCRA called the non-debate “cordial,” and I won’t disagree. But subtle digs abounded. Here are the highlights:

  • Steinberg’s opening remarks took us back to 2009, a time of multibillion dollar deficits at the Capitol. Yeah, he was part of the team that turned that ship around, that brought about surpluses. But his comments also feed Ashby’s narrative that a vote for Steinberg is a vote for going back. He’s going to have to fine-tune that. The other focus of his opening remark was his CEQA bill that helped seal the Kings arena deal. An admittedly crucial moment in time for the pro-arena crowd—would we have the Kings in town without that bill—but do people really give a damn about the finer details of 11th hour CEQA bill maneuvering? “Even in blue california, I could pass a CEQA reform bill,” he said—but I’m not sure Joe Sacramento voter even knows what that means.
  • If Steinberg’s opening remarks went to the big picture, to the macro, then Ashby’s were anything but. She’ll reduce crime, she said. She’s posited the city at a crossroads: She is for hope and the future, more growth and development, she said. “Or will we go back?” she asked, pointing her finger at Steinberg, the night’s first jab.
  • Riggs first question after opening statements was about homelessness and, specifically, whether each candidate supported the anti-camping ordinance. Steinberg seems to have softened his response: “I would be OK with the anti-camping ordinance, so long as it doesn’t stand alone.” Ashy dodged the question. Riggs allowed it, and instead she dinged Steinberg for his role in gutting redevelopment.
  • Would Steinberg run for statewide office even if elected mayor? “Unless it’s Secretary of State or the U.S. Supreme Court, no.”
  • Steinberg dinged Ashby back by noting that her colleagues are backing him for mayor. “I’m proud to have the endorsement of the majority of the council.” That’ll be a tough mountain for her to overcome, especially when it comes to campaign mailers. But her response worked: “I didn’t go to the city council to make friends. I’m not the establishment candidate in this race.”
  • Steinberg was at his best when he was showering the audience with vision and ideas. At one point, he rattled off five big goals: 1) Develop the riverfront “it is a wasted opportunity … the riverfront should be our main street.” 2) Expand the convention center and fix the community center theater. And some policy proposals: 3) Make sure city budget is in sufficient balance to afford tax credits for manufacturing and tech companies, 4) “I propose tonight” that if a restaurant wants to do a second location, the city should provide “zero interest loans.” And 5) 90 day permitting process and less uncertainty for builders and developers.
  • A memorable back and forth was when Steinberg dinged Ashby for voting against 2,000 housing units, including Sacramento Commons and McKinley Village. That’s bad, and Steinberg knew his audience (the Chamber). But with Joe Voter, especially Joe East Sac Voter, that “no” on McVillage might earn her some friends; this could backfire on Steinberg. Another blowback: Steinberg pointed out that Ashby was only no vote on CSUS housing project at Sac State, but Ashby said it was her “being a mom” that led her to vote no: The company building the housing used red Solo cups as their logo, and that their brand was “sex and drinking,” and there was no way she was going to vote yes on frat housing—which, she pointed out, failed to come to fruition.
  • Steinberg skewered Ashby on minimum wage and left her tongue-tied. She’s going to need to go back to the drawing board.
  • Riggs asked the candidates to give a grade for Regional Transit. Ashby: NI, needs improvement. Steinberg: “NDI: Needs dramatic improvement. It’s a mess.” With GM Mike Wiley on the way out, politicians aren’t pulling punches in bagging on RT.
  • Steinberg said he would “carefully utilize” DOU requests for rate increases. Ashby said that we “have to take” a rate hike.

Final thoughts: Ashby is the underdog. She’s not a visionary or big-picture-solutions leader like Steinberg. But she held her own in the policy weeds, and left the museum having landed the most punches. Frankly, her performance was unexpected, impressive. Steinberg is, of course, a master at this sort of forum. Yet I’d wager that he’s not happy with how it went, and will be retooling his remarks before more primetime head-to-heads later this spring.

The candidates, and Steinberg’s wife, Julie, made friendly chat in the auditorium after the event, which was nice to see. Lots of talk about Ashby’s SN&R cover, including this subtle Steinberg zing about the photo shoot: “Did you know they were taking it that close?”

One final thought: Did anyone on the debate stage mention K.J., even once? A friend and I don’t recall hearing the mayor’s name. Hmm …

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