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?
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.”
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.”
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’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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
Within 48 hours of the term-limit measure’s defeat, Senate Democrats gathered for a closed-door meeting and agreed he would supplant Perata. (Ever the team player, Steinberg went along with delaying the official transition to Nov. 30, a day before the Alameda lawmaker leaves office, as well as the ensuing months of jocular references to him as the “pre tem.”) He emerged as a consensus choice on the strength of experience and the prospect of stability. His tenure could last until 2014, an eternity in the term-limits era and long enough to attempt reform in policy areas resistant to overnight change, including education, health-care access and the two-thirds budget voting rule.
An interview with the anointed successor ran in The Sacramento Bee in February under the headline “ ‘Nice guy’ says he’s a fighter.” A framed copy of the article leans atop a bookshelf in Steinberg’s fourth-floor Capitol office amid family snapshots of his kids. (A small photo of Steinberg with Barack Obama crowns the TV stand.) Still, good press aside, he makes clear he’s neither a milquetoast—“It’s easy to confuse nice with a lack of steel, and I think that’s a mistake”—nor an accidental pro tem.
“I’m very competitive,” he says. “And I wanted this for, I hope and I think, all the right reasons. There’s nothing wrong with ambition if it’s channeled in the right way. Without ambition, you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to achieve the things you care about.”
Count his sole opponent for the pro tem post among those who admire his good-natured diligence. “In the last several years,” Padilla says, “you’ve had people who say they want to solve things in the Legislature but don’t have the resolve to do what it takes, whether it’s working through weekends, working through the night, not going to parties. Darrell’s that kind of guy. He’s here to get work done.”
Which is not to imply that he profiles as a humorless drone. For all his earnest aspiration, Steinberg, as his baby budget talk reveals, wields a droll wit that leavens the sausage-making aspects of the legislative grind. Later the same day, he meets with a cluster of lobbyists in his office to hash over a charity bingo bill. Sitting at a cherry wood table, they banter a bit before turning silent, deferring to the senator. “My interest in this,” he says, pausing a few beats before continuing in a raised voice, “is not to have anything to do with it!” They laugh, perhaps not mollified but at least amused.
The Prius that Steinberg drives has a built-in Bluetooth with speakerphone. Heading home from Nugget Market after his son’s soccer game in early September, he dials the organizer of a recruiting event for Obama volunteers to let her know he’ll arrive late to the 11 a.m. gathering. The call ends, and he mentions that the hands-free device enables him to obey California’s ban on driving while using a cell phone, a law that went into effect July 1.
“Yeah, but you still use yours all the time,” Ari says from the back seat. “You’re always checking your e-mail.” Busted, the soccer dad just smiles.
The Steinbergs live in a subdivision that predates the numbing uniformity of new suburbia, in a three-bedroom house with a sunken living room, a cozy backyard and a kitchen that the incoming pro tem calls “a little messy.” It’s an understatement—plastic containers and food boxes of assorted sizes cover nearly every inch of the countertops and center island. Yet the clutter adds to an unassuming, average-family aspect that befits Steinberg’s aversion to pretense. He and Ari, along with Mo, the family’s mild-mannered shepherd mix, have the run of the place this morning. A music and education specialist at Congregation B’Nai Israel, Julie has gone there for a bar mitzvah; Jordana is visiting friends.
Steinberg leads a guided tour, pointing out the family photo collages adorning the hallways. In several shots he sports a self-described “cheesy” mustache that he shaved off a decade ago, long before anyone might notice a faint resemblance to Borat. Opening the door to the master bedroom, he steps over to a dresser stacked with at least two dozen books, most of them nonfiction. His reading list at the moment includes No Excuses by political consultant Bob Shrum and Big Daddy, the biography of Jesse Unruh, the larger-than-life former speaker of the California Assembly. As for the TV perched along the wall opposite the bed, Steinberg limits most of his viewing to news shows, sports and Seinfeld reruns.
As Ari thumbs away at Nintendo GameCube hockey in the living room, Steinberg walks over to the small dining room, accented by photos and a selection of awards from his life in public service. He picks up a framed black and white picture taken during his days as student body president of his junior high in Millbrae, the largely middle-class enclave south of San Francisco where he grew up. His voice softly plaintive for comic effect, he says, “Look at all that hair.”
The oldest of three sons born to Bud and Arlene Steinberg—he worked as an accountant, she stayed home to raise the boys—Darrell and his brothers showed an early passion for sports. Between rooting for the Giants and 49ers, they staged epic athletic battles of their own that boiled over now and then. Jeff Steinberg, Darrell’s junior by two years, recalls an incident in their teens when his normally placid brother threw a punch at him during a testy game of one-on-one basketball. Jeff ducked away, and the momentum of the missed blow wrenched Darrell’s shoulder out of socket, an injury that required a visit to an orthopedic surgeon.
“When you’re a younger brother, you know how to push all the buttons,” says Jeff, who runs Sojourn to the Past, a San Bruno-based nonprofit that creates civil rights education programs for schools. (Rick, the youngest Steinberg brother, is a rabbi at a synagogue in Irvine.) If sibling tensions sometimes flared, however, Darrell defended his brothers from outside threats. As a freshman at Capuchino High School, where Darrell was class president and starred on the tennis team, Jeff found himself hazed by older students. When he learned of the mistreatment, Darrell asked a few friends to talk to the bullies. “They stopped harassing me pretty quickly after that,” Jeff says.
Politics motivated their parents less than a desire to sow common kindness, whether comforting a bereaved loved one or helping out with a friend’s dinner party. The example of their good deeds, along with the family’s Jewish faith, nurtured a sense of empathy in the three brothers, and in his early teens, Darrell’s interest in public service ignited, fired by the civil rights movement. Jeff remembers him listening repeatedly to recordings of speeches by Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. He visited Washington, D.C., as part of a student government program and met one of his political heroes, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, long a champion of the disadvantaged.
“Darrell was ambitious in the good sense of the word,” says Steve Kroner, a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle, and a friend of Steinberg’s since they attended second grade together. By high school, the two were parsing Vietnam, the Cold War and other weighty subjects of the era, even as sports, poker and girls vied for their attention. (Though as Kroner concedes, “Neither Darrell nor I would have ever been confused with Vinnie Barbarino”—the high school Lothario played by John Travolta on Welcome Back, Kotter.) In retrospect, he says, “I’d never use the word ‘smooth’ for Darrell on the basketball court or with women or in society.” But then as now, he adds, other words apply: sincere, determined, compassionate. “I think people expect someone who’s risen to the heights Darrell has to have some kind of airs, to be a little more slick,” Kroner says. “Darrell’s not, and people relate to that.”
Steinberg attended Berkeley for two years on scholarship before transferring to UCLA, and after graduating enrolled in law school at UC Davis in 1981. There he experienced his first brush with advocacy, inspired by two friends who were disabled. The school’s moot courtroom lacked wheelchair lifts, preventing the pair from taking part in mock trials. Steinberg discussed the matter with administrators, who claimed no funding existed to make the room handicap accessible. Unconvinced, he kept digging and discovered that the school had the money, but had balked at installing the lifts for aesthetic reasons. He alerted the law school newspaper, and not long after a story appeared, school officials acquiesced. “Everyone was outraged, so that was pretty cool,” Steinberg says. “That sort of was the spark for me.”
The campus crusade impressed his friend John Adkisson, who had enrolled at Davis after working on a campaign for former U.S. Congressman Vic Fazio. He saw in Steinberg the traits of a grassroots politician who intuitively grasped how to fight for a cause with both tenacity and decency. A few years older than his classmate, Adkisson, who had ties to Sacramento’s political and business strata, nudged him to pursue a career in public service. “Darrell just had a way of connecting with people, even then,” he says.
Soon after law school, Steinberg landed with the California State Employees Association in Sacramento, a job in which he represented fired state workers. He was still there in 1989 when he and his future wife went on their first date, arranged in part by their mothers, who had known each other since high school. (As it turns out, Darrell was the second Steinberg brother that Julie dated; she and Jeff had gone bowling once in their mid-teens.) She awards the title of “my best first date” to her husband, as the two “closed down” a Berkeley restaurant. The conversation ranged from her recent stay in Israel to his trip to the Soviet Union in 1988 with former Mayor Phil Isenberg and other local politicos to visit Jewish dissidents known as refuseniks.
The couple married in 1991, neither anticipating that, within a year, Steinberg would run for office. As president of the Tahoe Park Neighborhood Association, he decided to jump into a City Council race, with Adkisson serving as his campaign manager. During his first speech, the candidate invoked Robert Kennedy’s name. “I told him this was a campaign about potholes, not world peace,” says a chuckling Adkisson, now a law partner at the Sacramento branch of Hanson Bridgett. He absorbed the lesson, laid down a cow’s worth of shoe leather walking his district and crushed his three foes. The wide margin of victory led to another nickname: Mr. Landslide.
Thrust into the role of candidate’s wife, Julie baked cookies and hauled a mammoth coffee pot to countless voter gatherings during that first race. A social worker by training, she admits that adjusting to the political milieu took some time, as she and her husband searched for balance between the professional and the personal over a period of years. “When somebody’s in office, the whole family is sort of in the fray with that person,” she says. Under the circumstances, she quips, “I couldn’t be married to a politician that I didn’t think was spectacular. But he’s more than worth supporting.”
The couple shares a teasing humor grounded in 17 years of marriage. With soft brown eyes like her husband’s and a lilting laugh, Julie, who at 44 is four years younger, kids him that “he gets into the next decade long before I do.” As the wife of the incoming Senate leader, she divulges the private details beneath the public image: He loves chicken cacciatore, dislikes cheese and can hypnotize a room with “a mean James Monroe impression.” (It’s a running family joke that he excels at imitations of long dead, lesser-known political figures—in this case, the fifth U.S. president, who died in 1831—that consist of brief, ad-lib speeches. Aaron Burr, vice president under Thomas Jefferson, ranks as another favorite.)
Steinberg’s workload, destined to increase when he becomes pro tem, makes dinner with the family a rare weekday event. Even so, they stay in close contact throughout the day, and he juggles his obligations to squeeze in plenty of regular dad activities: coaching soccer games, attending parent-teacher conferences, rafting with the kids on the American River. Their lone complaint about his jam-packed schedule: “They wish he’d get off the phone,” Julie says.
During his years on the City Council, from 1992 to 1998, Steinberg earned acclaim for his skill at unearthing state and federal funding for local projects. Former Councilman Rob Kerth credits him with helping him obtain $1.2 million in federal money to beautify a barren, 5.5-mile-long strip of land in North Sacramento in the mid-’90s. An old railroad corridor that spanned about 100 feet, the gully sliced through several neighborhoods, creating a serpentine dumping ground. The funding covered the planting of thousands of trees that transformed the blight into a 73-acre park. “He just likes things to get better,” Kerth says of Steinberg. “That’s the goal. He’s not the kind that has a big ego that needs to be stroked by the attention of the press.”
Steinberg enjoyed a close relationship with then-Mayor Joe Serna, the two men linked by a mutual philosophy of aiding the weak. (Adkisson relates that the late mayor once told him, “Thank you for Darrell.”) The duo stood alone in 1997 in opposing the city’s decision to sue Loaves & Fishes over complaints that the homeless shelter presented a nuisance to its neighbors. Both the lesson of that lawsuit and Serna’s tireless, spirited advocacy of social justice—“he was a cause politician and I took a lot from him”—stayed with Steinberg when he graduated to the Assembly in 1998.
In the Legislature, Steinberg seized on a chance to address the larger problem of mental illness among the homeless. Many of his first-year colleagues, bound by a herd mentality, authored bills on HMO reform, then a hot issue. Steinberg stuck to his plan to obtain funding for a mental health pilot program in Sacramento and two other counties. Needing $10 million for the project, he met with John Burton, the Senate’s pro tem at the time. Salty-tongued and a fierce champion of the dispossessed, he warmed to both bill and author. “To me, anybody whose first bill was to help people that nobody gives a sh-t about said a lot about him,” Burton says.
Steinberg’s success with the mental health pilot program later begat Proposition 63, his 2004 ballot measure that imposes a 1 percent tax on California’s wealthiest residents, yielding more than $1 billion a year for statewide mental health care. Two physical reminders of his work on the original bill hang in his office: a signed congratulatory note on a copy of the bill from then-Gov. Gray Davis, and a painting of an angel hovering above a placid forest lake. The artist, a middle-aged Humboldt County resident named Stuart Colson, presented the work to him as a gift a few years ago. One of the first patients treated in the program, he wanted to thank the lawmaker for helping him reclaim his life.
For all his skill in the art of the deal, Steinberg suffered one of his few career faceplants in 2006, the year he rejoined the Legislature. Prior to the election, the Maloof family hired Steinberg, then in private practice, to broker a deal for a downtown arena for the Kings. Public opinion quickly turned on the Maloofs, in no small part due to the infamous Carl’s Jr. ad that depicted brothers Joe and Gavin as wine-swilling playboys—at the very time they were asking the city to bear the cost of building a $500 million arena. Two ballot measures to support their plan died at the polls that fall, and by then, Steinberg’s image had absorbed its share of shrapnel. As former Mayor Anne Rudin said during the arena campaign, “I have heard people express disappointment that he has taken the position he has, because many people see this as a badly drafted proposal, and we know that Darrell has done better than that.” Since then, he hasn’t talked to the Maloofs.
If voters spurned the arena plan, however, they still embraced Steinberg, electing him to the Senate on the same day. Two years later, he takes a philosophical view of that defeat—“Sometimes you get knocked down a little bit, and it’s OK”—while vowing to think big during his reign as pro tem. “I say we reduce the dropout rate by 50 percent or better within the next 10 years. Put it out there. John F. Kennedy said, ‘Put a man on the moon and bring him safely back by the end of the decade.’” He doesn’t need to mention that JFK never talked much about potholes.
Steinberg hurries toward the Senate chamber along a narrow white corridor that buzzes with the chatter of lobbyists—special interests in the flesh, accessorized with texting devices and varied agendas. They huddle here beneath bright fluorescent lighting and wall-mounted TVs that carry feeds of the Legislature’s floor sessions and committee hearings, tracking bills while waiting to chat up lawmakers. Trailing his boss by a couple of steps, Jim Evans, Steinberg’s spokesman and a former Bee reporter, wryly sums up the scene. “This is the squalor.”
The pro tem-to-be slows to swap smiles and handshakes with a few corridor dwellers. He has scarce time to talk. Chairman of the Natural Resources and Water Committee, he wrapped up a meeting of that panel five minutes ago; in about 10 he needs to attend another hearing as a member of the Health Committee.
Steinberg turns down a hallway that leads to the Senate chamber and veers into the Democratic caucus meeting room. A long oval table ringed by high-backed black leather chairs dominates the space, where party members convened last February to choose the next pro tem. Evans tells him a Los Angeles Times reporter wants a quote for a story about a bill he authored that would curb California’s urban sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions, so they hash out a two-sentence sound bite for Evans to relay. After a quick check of messages on his BlackBerry, Steinberg exits the room and spots a lunch spread on a folding table. He pops a turkey tea sandwich in his mouth and piles three or four more on a paper plate, then rushes off to the health committee meeting, greeting News10 reporter Marcey Brightwell with a pat on the shoulder when they cross paths.
Given the bang-bang pace, Steinberg, while he represents Sacramento, could be more fittingly identified as the senator from Energizer. He appears calm despite the velocity of his schedule, an equilibrium he ascribes to starting his days at 6:30 a.m. with a two-mile jog around his Pocket neighborhood. (NPR keeps him company.) The job provides daily renewal. “I love this,” he says. “I take it very seriously, obviously, but I don’t think of it as work.”
If the past foretells the future, then the record of recent pro tems—the last three hailed from the Bay Area—portends the Sacramento region will benefit with one of its own at the Senate helm. Perata emerged as a potent advocate for Bay Area interests during his four years in control, securing $630 million for the Bay Bridge redesign and a sizable chunk of the $37 billion in infrastructure bonds he helped engineer in 2006 to upgrade the state’s roads, ports and levees. Over a six-year stint that ended in 2004, his predecessor, Burton, delivered millions in funding for a long list of projects in San Francisco. Among them: restoring both the Palace of Fine Arts and the Conservatory of Flowers, and lengthening the San Francisco Bay Trail. Bill Lockyer, a former Hayward senator and now state treasurer, served as pro tem from 1994 to 1998, a period during which the state helped fund projects ranging from a neighborhood center in San Francisco to a cultural museum in Santa Rosa.
Steinberg has already shown Sacramento the money as the “pre tem” despite California’s ongoing budget squeeze. In addition to the state bond funding for the railyards and Township 9, he recently helped steer $4.4 million to a residential and retail loft project in Land Park. He also guided $16 million to West Sacramento to redevelop the largely industrial Triangle neighborhood surrounding Raley Field.
City Manager Ray Kerridge, who worked in Portland’s city government before moving to Sacramento in 2005, laments that “it was always like trying to pull teeth to get a meeting with [lawmakers] in the Oregon Legislature.” By contrast, Steinberg, quick to return phone calls and arrange meetings, shone a light through the state’s funding maze as local officials groped for bond money. “When you get Darrell involved,” Kerridge says, “you know the people who come to the meetings are in a position to make decisions and move projects along.”
The new Senate leader’s statewide influence augurs well for a region that could stand to benefit from the kind of legislative muscle Perata and Burton flexed. Sitting in his Capitol office, Steinberg idly slips his right foot in and out of his tasseled loafer as he fingers his silver necklace chain, on which dangles the Hebrew symbol “chai,” or “life.” He sticks to discussing his plans in outline, asserting that a vast swath of common need lies between his district and California as a whole. He mentions his work on measures to curb urban sprawl and to restrict new development in flood basins as examples of legislation with city-state relevance. “I don’t think the two notions are inconsistent, especially when it comes to flood control and growth,” he says. “And so I’ll find a balance.”
He anticipates that the state’s water dilemma and flood control will rank high on the topics of debate in next year’s Legislature; he’s less certain about the $40 billion high-speed rail project that would connect northern and southern California. Sacramento appears destined to miss out on the initial phase of what could rate as the largest public works venture in state history, with the first leg running from San Francisco to Anaheim. Pending the outcome in November of a $10 billion bond measure to start construction, he contends Sacramento could receive hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the second phase.
Alone among Sacramento’s state lawmakers, Steinberg consistently pushed for the project’s first phase to include the city, and the paucity of local support left him little chance of persuading legislators from across the state. “I think the Sacramento legislative delegation was asleep at the switch on that one,” says George Skelton, a political columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Whether as pro tem he can revive the city’s bullet-train prospects remains unclear. But few expect him to relent, particularly after persevering on his measure to bridle urban sprawl in California.
Steinberg devoted nearly two years to shaping the landmark bill that, after passing the Senate and Assembly in August, awaits the governor’s signature. The measure would promote clustered regional growth, a concept that involves building commercial and residential developments within closer proximity of each other and transportation arteries to lower the number of miles that motorists drive. Reduced travel, in turn, would cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The bill has attracted national notice from the likes of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as the broadest statewide effort to check growth in the country. Bill Craven, the Senate’s chief consultant to the natural resources committee who worked closely on the initiative, only half-jokingly refers to it as “the Steinberg death march.”
Tracing back to late 2006, Steinberg nurtured an unlikely and fragile alliance among environmentalists, affordable housing advocates, homebuilders and local governments, groups disinclined to gather in the same room, let alone agree on statewide growth policy. “This was like four-dimensional chess,” Craven says. The original bill, introduced early last year, underwent multiple revisions over the ensuing 18 months, and as time passed, the “coalition of the impossible,” as Steinberg dubbed it, threatened to splinter on countless occasions. He held the middle by acting as mediator, motivator and, when needed, enforcer.
Ed Manning lobbies on behalf of the Sacramento-based California Major Builders Council, which represents the state’s 25 largest homebuilders. He recalls an episode during negotiations when a few of the interested parties balked at a compromise Steinberg had crafted. In a firmly measured tone, “he just told them that either they were going to come around or he was going to drop the bill,” Manning says. “That was high-stakes poker. That told them, ‘Wow, OK, I think he means it.’ ”
A veteran of the legislative trenches and Capitol corridors, Manning, who calls Steinberg “serially positive,” likens him to lawmakers from the age before term limits. “To get a member to spend this much time on a big bill—you just don’t see them do that anymore,” he says. Such persistence could yield boffo returns for the new pro tem’s home district.
“Sacramento has a tremendous opportunity now,” Manning says. “Often, we were overlooked. That won’t happen with Darrell as the leader.”
The Senate elected Steinberg its next pro tem in August with his wife and two children on hand for the occasion. He read a short acceptance speech that he had scribbled on notebook paper, promoting a theme that could be labeled preemptive conciliation. “I believe it is possible to be both partisan and to rise above partisanship,” he said. “It is possible to always be courteous but to also make it clear that you will never give up on what it is you are fighting for. It is possible to both fight for what we believe in and to find the middle ground and solve our state’s major problems.”
Following his address, hundreds of people attended a reception in the Capitol rotunda, where they sipped wine and noshed on finger food. Voices and laughter drifted toward the domed ceiling, and budget crisis or no, a mood of optimism pervaded. But the collective feeling may have revealed as much about Steinberg’s arrival as it did about the departure of Perata, who during his successor’s speech had taken the opportunity to pull out his PDA device, punching its buttons as he sat at his desk.
Whatever its virtues or flaws, Perata’s reign as Senate leader will be remembered in part for the acute partisanship that plagued the Legislature. Critics have rapped him for his combative leadership style and the controversies that kicked up during his tenure: a federal FBI corruption probe into his finances, his abortive recall effort of a Republican legislator, his decision to change locks on the offices of three Democratic legislators who had angered him. “I’ve known Don a long time,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State. “But he has gotten so negative and so cynical, and he needs to go.”
The pro tem’s office is an expansive, imperious space, with hand-carved wooden cabinets, tall windows and a private shower. Sitting at a large mahogany table near the room’s center, Perata, a former high school teacher, likens his former students to his legislative colleagues as he reflects on recent tensions. “Whether they’re teenagers or adults, people are going to push you as far as they can push you,” he says. “You’re placed in a position that you’ve never been in before, and you’ll do things that you might never have thought you’d ever do.”
Perata considers Steinberg a solid choice as pro tem, noting his experience and the fact that he could have six years to execute his agenda. “The trick,” says Perata, “will be for him, as a very outspoken liberal, to be able to mute that because your caucus is really more centrist than that.” Steinberg acknowledges they had a couple of “difficult conversations” early this year concerning the change in leadership, but praises Perata for sharing his expertise on a range of legislative matters.
Steinberg’s strong relationship with Schwarzenegger could help him break the gridlock that has gripped the Legislature in recent years. Cultivating enough goodwill to persuade lawmakers to change the two-thirds majority rule may prove difficult, but with his devotion to “the art of the possible,” as he calls it, observers believe the Steinberg era will bring change—and perhaps greater civility—to the Senate. “I can never imagine Darrell Steinberg saying, ‘This isn’t good enough, so I’m going to walk away and blow up the entire thing,’ ” says Tim Hodson, head of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State. “I can imagine him saying, ‘Perfection is the enemy of the good.’ ”
A sequence in August suggested that Steinberg may actually stand a chance of changing the tenor within the statehouse. After urging his colleagues to support a bill that would ultimately pass, he stood by his desk as an alphabetical roll-call vote began; the first two names belonged to Republican senators. Each man intoned a sonorous “no,” and moments later, a smiling Steinberg did the unthinkable: He walked over and shook hands with them.
“There’s tension built into the system, and some of the tension is purposeful,” he says. “But there’s a difference between that and what gets out of hand.”
Steinberg’s ascent has stirred speculation among insiders about his future. For his part, he talks strictly of the job ahead, but considering he’s the first Sacramentan to become president pro tem in 126 years, it’s worth noting that it’s been nearly as long since the city produced a governor—the last was Hiram Johnson, who served from 1911 to 1917. As it happens, term limits would force Steinberg from the Senate in 2014—a gubernatorial election year. Could he add Governor Johnson to his repertoire of dead politician impressions? It may not be too much of a stretch.