By Lucas McMaster, Malachi Parker, Jacob Peterson, Raymond Purscell and Aya Mikbel
Public Health Advocate Dr. Flojaune Cofer says she is running for mayor to bridge the gap between what the people of Sacramento want and what their current leaders are doing.
Cofer is the senior policy director for the nonprofit lobbying organization Public Health Advocates. She is also known for her work as chair of the advisory committee for Measure U, a sales tax increase adopted by voters in 2012 and bolstered by another vote in 2018. The measure was largely intended to help develop Sacramento’s underserved neighborhoods.
Although this is her first bid for public office, Cofer said her public health background and connection to the community provide a fresh perspective on the city’s long standing issues.
Cofer recently spoke to a group of Sacramento State journalism students who asked questions on behalf of the Sacramento News & Review about homelessness, affordable housing and police misconduct.
Q: You’ve identified the number of people experiencing homelessness as one of the biggest issues facing Sacramento today. So as a public health advocate, why are you the most qualified candidate to lead the city in addressing this issue?
I have identified it because the data have identified that as one of the most pressing issues. We have gone from having 2,500 people unhoused, the majority of which being at least sheltered, in 2013, to, 10 years later, having close to 10,000 people unhoused with 72% of them unsheltered. That is a huge increase. While we have lots of conversations about substance use and mental health, they have not exploded in that timeframe to make up for this.
This really is a matter of affordability. For everyone we can count, there are more people who are just one bill or an emergency away from not having housing. They are struggling and not paying this bill and then paying this one, and they’re doing this juggling game every month. All of those people are just below the tip of that iceberg that we’re seeing every day.
That’s why I think being a public health professional and bringing a public health approach is important, because we look at all of the factors that are leading to a problem, not just the immediate ones. We don’t go, “Heart disease – great, you need some Lipitor and some of this, that and the other.” We say, “Where do you live, and what are you breathing every day? And what are you eating, and what is your stress level like? And how does that look like for other people who are experiencing the same thing? And how can we put something in place, so that we can address your immediate concerns, but also we can prevent all the other people who have your exact same risk profile, from ending up with the same heart disease you have?” That’s the approach we need to bring to help homelessness.
Q: With many downtown buildings being more empty than full post-pandemic, how do you plan to bring vibrancy back to the city?
We are moving to a place where people can do things more remotely, and it’s actually in our best interest from a climate perspective. So then how do we continue that practice? Well, we have all these buildings downtown, they would be great for housing. You know why? Because if you live on top of a restaurant, you’re more likely to go to that restaurant, especially if you can afford to live there, and you have a little extra money left over. So then downtown wouldn’t die at 3:00 PM, when everybody’s hightailing it back out of town. There would be people there, who lived there, who would be going to your coffee shops in the morning, and your restaurants by night.
I think part of what our business community really needs is for us to stop trying to be a bootleg version of Silicon Valley. I’m so tired of hearing, “How can we be little Silicon Valley? How can we be little Hollywood?”
How can we be big Sacramento? What do we have that’s unique that we can contribute in terms of our business infrastructure?
And I think one of those things is a green jobs hub. I think it’d be great if Sacramento, as the State Capital of the fourth largest economy on the planet, could really dig deep around green jobs, because they’d be livable wage jobs. There are so many different things we’re going to need in that sector, and it would be a great way for us to be able to contribute globally to an issue that we’re all struggling with, while also making sure that we’re taking care of, economically, the people who live here.
Q: A 2023 audit of the Sacramento Police Department shows the Black community is being disproportionately targeted. What policies would you implement to combat this?
One of the big things that we need to do first and foremost is we need to invest in our Community Police Review Commission. So they exist, but we often don’t take their recommendations and we often don’t include them in the process as we’re deciding what we’re going to do as a city. And I think that’s a mistake. I think we end up with better policies when we involve our community members, because success has many parents. Right now, there are these piecemeal ways that we’re approaching addressing some of the racial disparities in policing. It’s this group versus that group, and it’s like, “Why don’t we all come together, and find a way to be able to push policies forward?”
So some of those policies would look like: not getting any more military equipment for our police department. They are not a municipal military force, they are here to protect us. The relationship between the community and the police department is rapidly eroding, because of fourth Amendment violations, and in pretextual stops that are not supposed to be happening.
And I think when it comes to homelessness, and when it comes to mental health concerns, they’re not the right people. We need to be thinking about who else can be responding as part of the emergency response network.
Q: One of the goals that’s on your campaign website was to implement participatory budgeting. How would you plan to implement that and what are some of the key differences between that and the process the City currently uses?
When I was the chair of the Measure U committee, we actually brought participatory budgeting to the City of Sacramento. Participatory budgeting, for those who don’t know, is a process where you set aside a portion of the budget and you allow community members to come up with proposals for what will be on the ballot, and then actually be able to vote on which projects they want to fund.
Part of what I’d like to do, in terms of participatory budgeting for the city, is actually looking at the cannabis tax revenue. Because Sacramento has the highest disparity in terms of who was arrested and incarcerated for cannabis, prior to its legalization, in the state. Black people were 29 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, which, the interesting part of all of that is, that marijuana use is the one thing that as Americans, we all agree on – people of all race and ethnicities, and all genders, use marijuana at about the same rate. So when we see disparities in who is arrested, it really is based on bias. So let’s now take the revenue from the thing that we have now legalized … and put together a participatory budgeting process where you can say, “What does my community need, in order to be able to be whole?” Because it’s often different from the things that people outside the community will value.
Q: SacRT use has been in decline since COVID. How do you plan to support Sacramento public transportation as it navigates through this difficult time?
We work towards making it free, and making it efficient.
I see public transportation as a public good, it’s a thing that we need people to do in order for us to be able to achieve our climate goals, in order for us to be able to have a functioning city. We also have to make it so that it is a more usable space. There’s no incentive to ride, it takes longer, it’s not free. The only people who are using it regularly are if you’re forced to, or if you’re going to very specific places where it actually makes sense. We need it to be people’s first thought, when they’re thinking about going somewhere, “Oh, how do I get there on transit?”