Our Man Inside

For the first time since 1882, a Sacramentan will be the second most powerful politician in California. After decades of state leadership coming from the Bay and Southern California, we’ll finally have one of our own at the big table. So what will it mean for this region? And does Darrell Steinberg have what it takes to deliver?

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(Photo by Max Whittaker)

 

TThe Greenhaven Wizards have turned their opening soccer game of the season into a rout, toying with the other team as if they were little boys. That’s because they are, in fact, little. The Wizards, a squad of kids age 12 and younger, dwarf their opponents, several of whom look too short to ride a roller coaster without an adult. One wee lad, his tousled dark hair matted with sweat, might have wandered away from Middle-Earth.

The Wizards already lead 6-0 when one of their players dribbles downfield and fires a shot on net. The goalie, the biggest kid on the other team, takes a step to his left and dives, snagging the ball in midair. Watching the action, the man who soon will wear the title of California’s second most powerful politician behaves like just another loud-lunged soccer dad. “Great save!” Darrell Steinberg shouts, clapping his hands. “Great save, goalie!” It’s a typical display of paternal pride. Except for one thing: his son plays for the Wizards.

So instead it’s a typical display of Steinbergian symmetry. In his suit-and-tie day job as a state senator who traverses the Capitol’s halls of power, he bears a reputation for fairness and civility. As an assistant soccer coach ambling the sidelines at Renfree Park in a green team jersey and faded jeans, he expects his squad to uphold those principles even while trouncing Team Lilliput. When an opposing player falls down after a scrum for the ball, Steinberg exhorts a couple of Wizards: “Help that guy up!” More than once he tells his reserve players, “C’mon, guys! Root for your teammates!”

The Wizards win big, and after the game, Steinberg and his 11-year-old son, Ari, climb into the family Prius to head to a nearby Nugget Market a few blocks from home in the Pocket. Walking toward the deli section, they trade feigned karate jabs as Ari, a thatch of brown hair topping his lanky frame, supplies kung fu sound effects. Moments later, while his son orders a sandwich, Steinberg finds himself drawn into conversation by a security guard dressed in black from his shirt collar to soft-soled oxfords.

The man, who recognizes the senator from his frequent visits to the store, speaks in a soft baritone and hands him a three-page typed letter. “I lost my VA benefits,” the guard says. “This tells the whole story right here.” Steinberg offers to check into the matter, receiving a nod of thanks. “That happens quite often,” he says when the man leaves. “People come to you for help.”

Just another soccer dad: assistant coach Steinberg high-fives the kids from his son’s opposing team. (Photo by Marc Thomas Kallweit)He can expect an exponential rise in such requests—to say nothing of entreaties of far broader impact—starting in the near future. On Nov. 30, he will take over as the California Senate’s president pro tem, an office considered second in influence only to the governor’s and last occupied by a Sacramento politician in 1882. From that perch, the 48-year-old Democrat, who joined the Senate in 2006, will give the region a degree of clout it has lacked since before the invention of the diesel engine. He will also bring a leadership style, familiar to legislative colleagues and the Greenhaven Wizards alike, that contrasts with the approach of those who have held the post in recent years: an emphasis on esprit de corps between rivals even during—especially during—the throes of battle.

His timing would appear nothing short of perfect. On the day of his son’s game in early September, the state’s perennial budget blockage had reached new depths of dyspepsia, with a deal nine weeks overdue and counting. “I’m coming in at sort of a unique time in that things are pretty broken—that’s pretty obvious to people,” says Steinberg, who served six years in the Assembly until term limits forced him out in 2004. “So I think there’s a lot of hunger for reform and for a leader or leaders who are not going to be afraid to suggest some far-reaching change.”

To borrow a phrase drained of much of its resonance since a certain president popularized it a few years ago, Steinberg wants to be a uniter, not a divider. His wife, Julie, with whom he also has a 14-year-old daughter, Jordana, describes his purpose in simple terms. “It’s showing that politics isn’t a dirty word, that being a politician isn’t a bad thing.”

Democrats control 25 of 40 seats in the Senate, and in representing the majority party, the pro tem acts as the chamber’s maestro: directing its agenda, dictating which bills advance when. Steinberg’s presence virtually assures that the Sacramento Valley’s concerns—levee construction, economic growth, high-speed rail and conserving its water supply, to name a few—will move up on the Legislature’s to-do list. While his role will require him to shepherd statewide interests, he says, “I will have an enhanced ability to ensure Sacramento is a priority. I will always fight for my district.”

Not long after departing the Assembly in 2004, Steinberg received a voice mail—and a nickname—from the über-Republican, with whom he had forged a rapport while working on the state budget. “Steiny, come back!” Schwarzenegger implored. “We need you!”

No less a political sage than John Burton, the former state senator from San Francisco who stepped down as pro tem in 2004, offers a colorfully blunt prediction for what lies ahead. “Let’s put it this way: I doubt if the region will get f--ked.”

Coupled with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s outsized profile and the distinct prospect of former NBA star Kevin Johnson serving as the city’s next mayor, Steinberg’s ascent puts Sacramento on the verge of assembling a political power trio that could bring sudden buzz and sustained prosperity. The incoming Senate leader may hold the greatest leverage of any politician for boosting the area’s fortunes, owing to his experience, close ties to city officials and strong relationship with Schwarzenegger. Not long after departing the Assembly in 2004, Steinberg received a voice mail—and a nickname—from the über-Republican, with whom he had forged a rapport that year while working on the state budget as chairman of the Budget Committee. “Steiny, come back!” the governor implored. “We need you!”

Steinberg in the Senate chamber. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Steinberg’s dual brand of polite resolve and resolute politeness has yielded dozens of legislative victories, none bigger than his historic ballot proposition four years ago that annually pumps more than $1 billion into state mental health programs. Inevitably, he has also suffered the occasional egg facial. In 2006, while out of elected office, he represented the Maloof family in failed negotiations with the city to build a downtown arena for the Sacramento Kings.

But since returning to the Legislature the same year, he has exhibited a deft touch in lending a hand to his district. Most notably, he worked with Assemblyman Dave Jones to direct $66 million in state bond funding to revitalize the railyards and Township 9, a planned development of homes, shops and offices north of downtown along the American River. The end of the capital city’s 126-year pro tem drought arouses only bigger hopes of a fertile future.

“Sacramento for the longest time has not gotten its due,” says City Councilman Rob Fong, who first met Steinberg when they both attended UC Davis law school in the early 1980s. Dreaming out loud, Fong suggests his friend’s stature could aid the city in obtaining state funding to create a California-themed performing arts center in the railyards, among the largest tracts of undeveloped land within a major U.S. city. “For people like me and our delegation here,” he says, “having this kind of access to the pro tem and his staff is a big deal.”

Or as City Manager Ray Kerridge puts it, “Having the pro tem come from Sacramento? It’s huge.”

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The California Senate exemplifies a style of interior design informally known as ye olde starchy parliament. The half-crescent space, with its blood-red carpet, Corinthian columns and twin crystal chandeliers, evokes England’s House of Lords, minus the wigs or Whigs. The calendar reads late August, and the state budget is more than seven weeks late—a presumably humor-proof subject, at least within the Capitol’s confines.

The Senate has recessed just past noon after a rapid-fire morning of voting on a jumble of bills. Less than two weeks remain before the 2008 legislative session ends, and with hundreds of measures to mull, a sense of urgency prevails. Yet not all of the state’s business weighs so heavily as the budget. One proposal urges public schools to teach students how Filipinos aided the U.S. in World War II. Another would ban motorists from driving with a live animal on their laps.

As the members scatter to their next appointments, Steinberg flits across the room with a dancer’s light step, looking sartorially senatorial in a charcoal-gray pinstripe suit, light blue tie and black tasseled loafers. Save for the slow retreat of his close-cropped dark hair and its graying at the temples, with his lean runner’s build and toothy, quick-draw grin, he could pass for several years younger. Near the 12-foot-high double walnut doors at the back of the chamber, he greets a legislative worker who, having been out on maternity leave, has dropped by with her infant son. Steinberg smiles wide and asks to hold him, but once the handoff occurs, the baby begins to squirm and whimper, his cheeks creasing into parentheses of worry. The senator gently bounces the boy in his arms.

Steinberg’s handwritten acceptance speech. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

“It’s OK, I’m frustrated by the budget, too,” he coos, entertaining a clutch of Senate staffers nearby. A quip about the seemingly unreachable margin needed to pass the fiscal package—“I agree: a two-thirds majority isn’t right”—cracks them up again. The newborn stares at him and, for the moment, falls quiet. Another mollified constituent.

Fresh off that small victory, Steinberg reunites mother with child and resumes walking, entering a hallway that runs behind one wall of the chamber. He breezes past a series of black and white photos of lawmakers who have served as the Senate’s president pro tem over the years. The space next to the portrait of Sen. Don Perata, the current pro tem, remains blank, though not for much longer.

As it happened, the day after his infant improv routine, the Senate formally elected Steinberg its next president pro tem in a unanimous voice vote, evidence of his equally honed talent for winning over adults. Possessed of a spirit that inspired a former colleague to tag him “the happy warrior,” he elicits almost universal hosannas for his substantive style, if less so for crafting bills that sometimes rile conservatives. Sen. Lou Correa, a Democrat who represents Santa Ana and served with Steinberg in the Assembly, recounts what a Republican member told him in 2004, the year term limits knocked the Sacramento lawmaker from office.

“He turned to me and said, ‘I don’t know what you guys are going to do once Darrell leaves,’ ” Correa recalls. “The implication was Darrell was the intellect driving a lot of the consensus and the change, and once he left, there would be a major vacuum in the Capitol.”

Son Ari plays head games with Steinberg as well-wishers, and daughter Jordana, surround him. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Steinberg’s campaign for Senate leader revealed a shrewd, quietly efficient tactician eager to acquire more authority. Familiar with nearly all of the Senate’s members from his stint in the Assembly, he started approaching his fellow Democrats soon after returning to the Legislature in 2006 to line up votes for this year’s pro tem vote. Seeking to avoid a reprise of the party’s 2004 power struggle, a three-way race with all the decorum of a knife fight in which Perata prevailed, most saw Steinberg as the answer.

He met with his cohorts one-on-one throughout 2007; with each pledge of allegiance, he checked off his or her name on a bill card—a slip of paper lawmakers use to tally votes when rounding up support for a measure—that he sometimes carried in his suit pocket. Last February, after voters sank a ballot initiative that would have tweaked the state’s term-limit law and thereby allowed Perata to serve another four years, Steinberg played his hand. By then he had the backing to far outpace his lone challenger, Sen. Alex Padilla of Pacoima. As Steinberg explains, “There’s an old notion in politics that when you have your votes, you don’t sit on them.”