Head To Head

Sacramento’s mayoral candidates on jobs, innovation and working with the business community

Back Q&A May 11, 2016 By Bill Sessa

Jobs have returned to Sacramento. Many surveys, such as the Sacramento Business Review, show that the region’s employment rates have returned to pre-recession levels. Nearly 25,000 jobs came back just last year alone. Unfortunately, two-thirds of that growth is in retail and hospitality jobs that typically pay low wages, while higher-paying jobs achieved only modest gains. Can we do better? Comstock’s discusses the issue with the three leading candidates for Sacramento mayor: City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, former state Senator Darrell Steinberg and Tony Lopez. 

Does the Office of the Mayor have a role in expanding and diversifying Sacramento’s economy?

Ashby: “I absolutely believe the mayor has a central role. Sacramento gets a bad rap about being able to recruit and retain business. I think we need to do better; to work with small business to help them grow and stay here. Sacramento is in a perfect place and time to catch the overflow from the Bay Area. We have a great workforce with UC Davis and Sac State, but only about 25 percent of our graduates stay in the area. A lot of how you do that is in the weeds [details]. We have to look at things like what happens when the City adopts a fee. Let me give you an example: RagingWire is here, but they are in the County. The City has a utility user tax. The County doesn’t. So, it would have cost them much more to locate in the City.”

Steinberg: “City Hall and the mayor play an indispensable role. Sacramento has long been known as a government town. We have a good workforce and it’s something we rightfully should be proud of and respect. But it’s not enough for a growing economy. Are young adults going to start their careers in Sacramento? The only way to do that is with high-quality jobs. We don’t have a choice. It’s essential. We have cost advantages over the Bay Area. We’re at the confluence of two rivers. We’ve shown we can get big things done with the Golden 1 Center, but that’s only the beginning of what I consider an economic renaissance.”

Lopez: “Yes, of course. The more attractive I make the city, the more we can expand and diversify, as long as we bring the increased job presence to the suffering neighborhoods.”

UC Davis is renowned for its research and Sacramento State’s business college emphasizes entrepreneurship. Can they be integrated into an economic development strategy?

Ashby: “We do have great schools in our region like UC Davis and Sac State. And there are other good schools like Cordon Bleu in North Sacramento and other vocational schools. But what’s missing is coordinating them with city hall. If someone wants to be a nurse, for example, how do we help them? We have the No. 1 veterinarian school in the country. But the question is how do we create premium opportunities for people and how do we connect them to jobs? Do we have the tools, like production or cold storage facilities, to move our Farm-to-Fork program along? The solution is we have to engage the schools with City Hall. The colleges are on the [Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council] board, so they are participating on the private side. We need for them to be more involved on the public side, too.”

Steinberg: “[Former mayor, the late] Joe Serna told me back when I was on the city council that a community is only as good as its schools. I think we need to strengthen our relationship with schools and collaborate with them. Now, the schools and city hall are largely siloed. I saw a troubling statistic not long ago that two-thirds of high school graduates need remedial work to go to college. I point to the Career Pathways Trust I created when I was in the Senate. Sacramento already has received $21 million from that fund to help create a stronger relationship between our schools and City Hall. More 16- and 17-year-old kids from our neighborhoods should have internships and apprenticeships. Pathways should begin in middle school and high school to give young people the skills they need to do their part and we will do our part so we can tell them there will be an appropriate high-quality job for them.”

Lopez: “Yes, it’s long overdue. Silicon Valley has had a free ride, picking off our best and brightest whilst politicians provide ‘words’ and little else. Business and opportunity are the answers to the question of integrating the greatness of what each learning institution is training tomorrow’s workforce for. The current City Council hasn’t a clue as to how to activate these young adults or they would have already. The state Capitol only provides avenues for graft and corruption to ensure re-elective powers. The best and brightest of tomorrow understand that Silicon Valley and its mentality of ‘accomplish, create and deliver’ provides the … most opportunistic way to succeed for them.”

Related: Life After KJ - Sacramento City Hall is about to get a lot less interesting

Some business leaders have suggested that the Office of the Mayor create an advisory council. Do you support that as a concept and how might you use a group like that?

Ashby: “You have to be humble enough to know when to ask for advice. [Greater Sacramento] is one of the best things to come along in a long time. They have helped create an atmosphere that can bring business to the city. When you are making policy decisions, it’s always a good idea to talk to people who live in that world; to cast as wide a net as possible.”

Steinberg: “I’m always open to advice and to talk about what we need. I’m proud of being accessible. Would I need another advisory group? I don’t know. We already have [Greater Sacramento] and a number of other organizations up and running and they are doing a great job.”

Lopez: “Yes, of course. I want to, and will, find the best and brightest who recognize and honestly assess Sacramento and where it stands today.”

Mayor Johnson has recently created an Office of Innovation as part of his economic development program. Do you support that? How might you use that office if you are elected to take Johnson’s place?

Ashby: “As a concept, I think it’s a great idea. I have the benefit of being in a cohort of elected women over the last year. Several of the women were innovation officers. What I learned is that what works is having a person who uses data and technology to address problems. Let me give you an example. In one place, [the City] upgraded parking meters. They used an app so a person could find a parking space before heading downtown. It made finding a parking space easier, reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and traffic congestion …. I think that office can be used to recruit innovative ideas and startup companies and retain them in Sacramento.”

Steinberg: “I completely support it and the innovative funding that goes with it. I would use those funds to identify high-value prospects and fortify the case for Sacramento to help me get the jobs we are entitled to.”

Lopez: “Yes, I do. I’m concerned with the fact that many companies who the mayor claimed would move [to], stay and play in Sacramento, are now landing in Elk Grove. As the next mayor, I would use innovation to, of course, diversify Sacramento’s place in the greater California’s economy — the world’s fifth largest [the International Monetary Fund and World Bank rank California as eighth] — by doing things like digitizing all of Sacramento. I will make sure that the city can and will innovate itself into a digitized mecca where life’s daily entry and exit points are as easy as a flip of the switch or a stroke of the finger. We live in a world commonly powered by “The Internet of Things” [and] it is the responsibility of the City to innovate and integrate towards this endless opportunity.”

Related: Coming On Strong - Sacramento wants a strong mayor — just not the one we have now

Sacramento is the largest city in the region. Does that give the mayor more responsibility for leading economic growth in the region?

Ashby: “I would have the Economic Development Department determine what businesses need. When we talk about innovation sites [and] co-location sites, there has to be a conversation about hurdles that get in the way and how to eliminate them. There has to be a discussion over the six-county region. We all share the same concerns about infrastructure, land use, floods and traffic. So, yes, the mayor should have a role in leading those discussions. But that doesn’t mean the mayor of Sacramento should have an outsized role. Each of those cities and counties have elected officials, too, and you have to respect that. I see Sacramento as an equal partner to every other city and county in the region.”

Steinberg: “There is no question that the mayor of Sacramento is seen as a regional leader. I would be a regional mayor. When I saw the recent news in Elk Grove about its new development and the jobs it will bring, I offered my congratulations. As the head of the Senate, I authored SB 375, the leading legislation that sets standards for regional growth. It’s in my DNA.”

Lopez: “Yes, Sacramento occupies an important role in California as we must elevate as a city and region instead of hiding in the shadows of the Capitol or sitting quietly whilst being carved up by developers looking to enrich themselves. Our diversity only goes as far as our economy takes us — as those forgotten neighborhoods are the key. Get them good-to-great jobs and work opportunities and this economy will fly high. Handling our social ills with swift, decisive actions will send a strong message that we mean business to potential companies deciding on Sacramento. The City, starting with the mayor, must be responsive to the rest of California and America as a beacon instead of ‘third-party groups of profit’ self-proclaiming that they’re the face of this city, which has created a ‘tier’ level of misunderstanding from potential business investment for Sacramento. The mayor’s office, with me in charge, will speak as a loud voice for this city, which I believe will signal to other cities in the region that Sacramento, from a leadership point, is once again open for business, which is sorely lacking nowadays. My career politician competition for the mayor’s office both illustrate largely why and how the city must deliver new strong leadership so as to be taken seriously.” 

Editor’s Note: Russell Rawlings suspended his mayoral campaign on April 24. “Throughout the course of this campaign I have learned a great deal and been able to champion the issues I didn’t feel were being adequately addressed by our city — homelessness, affordable housing, public transportation and empowering our neighborhoods,” he said in an official statement posted on his campaign’s Facebook page. “I am grateful for all of the support everyone has shown me as I championed these key issues in my campaign.”

Editor’s Note: We incorrectly edited the name of the RagingWire to read Raging Water. This article has since been edited to reflect Ashby’s verbatim statement.