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Sacramento voters put activist Katie Valenzuela on the inside. Here’s how she plans to govern


Katie Valenzuela kept refreshing her computer.

She was waiting for the City Council agenda to be posted to reveal what changes, if any, the mayor’s office had made to its “strong mayor” ballot measure proposal, which Valenzuela strongly opposed.

When it finally posted, it was clear the mayor’s office had not done what Valenzuela asked. The incoming Sacramento City Council member was irritated, but unsurprised.

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She walked into her office of her midtown apartment, her small rescue dogs Chevy and Buster trailing behind her. There a wall bears a map, covered with colorful thumbtacks, showing the district she will soon represent. A “Katie Valenzuela” yard sign still hangs in her window.

She sat at her computer. She sent out a slew of tweets and texts. Then she made calls to more than a dozen community leaders.

“When something like this happens there’s a bat signal that goes out across the advocates,” said Valenzuela.

District 4 Sacramento City Councilmember-Elect Katie Valenzuela takes her dogs on one of their routine neighborhood walks to Ulysses S. Grant Park on Friday, July 31, 2020, in Sacramento. Xavier Mascareñas

A self-described democratic socialist, Valenzuela, 34, has been called Sacramento’s Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. When she is sworn into her council seat in December, she will be the youngest member and the only renter.

After winning her March primary to unseat Councilman Steve Hansen for arguably the most high-profile council seat, Valenzuela is about to exercise her power for the first time from the inside. Many are wondering if she will be able to achieve her vision.

Valenzuela has been an activist for more than a decade. For years she has worked for organizations lobbying state lawmakers around environmental, education and equity causes.

Her passion for environmental issues comes partly from growing up in Oildale in Kern County, the birthplace of Merle Haggard and firmly connected to California’s petroleum industry for more than a century. She has suffered from severe asthma since she was a kid, and now works as the policy and political director for the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

“I was one of the few kids of color in any of my classes,” she said. “It’s a very poor community. They’ve never had a lot of resources and they’ve had to innovate.”

She attributes her community organizer streak to her father,who died from bladder cancer in 2012. He was a well-known activist for veterans affairs issues in Bakersfield. He brought her to a youth leadership conference, where she ended up as the emcee when she was just 13. She was hooked.

“I actually feel closer to him now, which is weird,” Valenzuela said. “I think about him all the time.”

Valenzuela’s experience in Sacramento is not an anomaly. Around the country, progressive political activists are surprising the political establishment. Earlier this month, progressive activist Cori Bush defeated 10-term incumbent U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan easily fended off a more moderate challenger for her U.S. House seat.

Before Valenzuela decided to run, people had been approaching her for years, she said. She always said no – seeing herself as more of a behind-the-scenes activist than an elected official.

And then rent prices soared.

‘It was really about rent’

After graduating from North High School in Oildale, she decided to attend UC Davis because it offered her the best financial aid package, she said.

She’s worked at several progressive organizations, including Breathe California, Public Advocates law firm, and the now-defunct Ubuntu Green. She also worked in the state Legislature as a consultant for a joint legislative committee on climate change policies, and as a staffer for Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella.

In 2014, Valenzuela was renting a one-bedroom midtown apartment with a garage and balcony for $850 per month. She moved to Oak Park, where she and her then-husband could afford to buy a house. When she returned in 2017, following a divorce, the cheapest two-bedroom apartment she could find was $1,495. It was considered a “good deal.”

Many Sacramentans could relate. Studio apartments now rent for more than $1,000 a month. The typical apartment rent here soared 45 percent in the last seven years, adjusting for inflation, a Sacramento Bee analysis found last year

Her story won over voters such as Zoe Kipping, who pays $1,200 for her midtown studio. A block away sits the spacious one-bedroom apartment she used to rent for half that amount in 2012.

“I really related to Katie on that level,” said Kipping, 31. “It’s definitely a struggle.”

In early 2019, pressure was building to do something about rising rents. Tenant advocate organizations had collected more than 40,000 signatures to put a rent control initiative on the ballot. The City Council at the time was standing by without agreeing to place the measure on the ballot.

The local elected officials’ inaction prompted Valenzuela to announce her council run in April 2019.

“It was really about rent,” said Valenzuela, sitting in a midtown coffee shop the day after her March 4 win. “It’s very unusual to run if you don’t have $10,000 in your bank account or someone backing you and at the time nobody was backing me. So I got together some friends who know how to do this and said, ‘OK, tell me what I need to do.’ ”

They launched a grassroots campaign, knocking on more than 15,000 doors, with a pledge not to accept campaign donations from developers or public safety unions – the two entities most local politicians have traditionally relied on to fund their campaigns.

Then, in August 2019, Hansen announced a proposal – the council would adopt a less-strict version of rent control in exchange for the ballot initiative to be dropped. The council unanimously adopted it the following week.

To Valenzuela, it was another weak compromise.

While Hansen could say he brought rent control to Sacramento while still appeasing some of his more conservative supporters, Valenzuela was able to paint the deal as a watered-down, rushed-through endeavor to silence the wishes of more than 40,000 people.

She and her team delivered that message, and Valenzuela’s personal story as a renter. They knocked on the doors of nearly every apartment in the central city, one of the areas most severely affected by rent hikes.

Since then, she’s continued to push the city to put the stricter rent control measure on the ballot, which a judge ordered the city to do last week. She also has been demanding the city and county spend their federal coronavirus stimulus funds on rental assistance to tenants. In recent months, she also has been a leading proponent of “defund the police” and “no strong mayor”.

Sacramento City Councilmember-Elect Katie Valenzuela, District 4, left of center, talks with John Shaban of SEIU 1021, left, and Jefferson McGee of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, far right, outside the Gordon D. Schaber County Courthouse after a rent-control related hearing inside on Friday, July 31, 2020, in Sacramento. Xavier Mascareñas

Valenzuela works with a growing coalition of activist groups – those that focus on homelessness, the Black community, tenant rights and prisoner rights – that have been increasing their sophistication and power during the pandemic.

“It’s just such a fascinating intersection of really tragic things,” Valenzuela said. “You’ve got a pandemic, you’ve got the shooting deaths of multiple Black individuals … you’ve got folks stuck at home, a lot of folks unemployed. This activism that had been happening ... all kind of converged on each other and gave us a very straight focus.”

Success so far has been mixed. The city this week agreed to nearly $5 million in rental assistance, but Valenzuela says more is needed. The council placed a “strong mayor” measure on the ballot without including the changes demanded in a letter signed by more than 300 people.

But ultimately it will be up to the voters on Nov. 3. So will the stricter rent control Valenzuela is pushing, though a judge could still decide the city does not have to implement it.

“Is she more progressive than the others? Sure,” said Andrew Acosta, local political consultant and South Land Park resident. “Is she more effective than the others? Unknown.”

Plan to rewrite city budget

Once she takes the seat in December, her activism will be challenged with her ability to create change in a system of more moderate Democrats where Steinberg, strong mayor or not, basically runs the show.

Under the council’s current structure, any measure needs five of nine members to vote “yes.”

Steinberg, a master at whipping votes dating back to his days running the state Senate, almost always gets the five votes he needs (often it’s unanimous), even on controversial topics.

Councilman Jeff Harris, who agrees with Valenzuela on some topics, such as “no strong mayor,” said she should focus on compromise and cooperation when she takes the seat.

“You can’t go it alone and expect to push your own agenda,” Harris said. “I appreciate her having a voice and her idealism and I’m not trying to squelch that. I’m just trying to say that activism doesn’t work that well once you’re already on the council.”

Valenzuela said she has no plans to scale back the activism or act any differently.

“I’m considering this a trial run for when I’m in office,” Valenzuela said.

If anything, this summer she’s increased her activism. In addition to leading the campaign against “strong mayor,” she’s spearheading a project giving residents the opportunity to rewrite the entire city budget, modeled after a movement in Los Angeles called the People’s Budget.

In L.A., the budget proposal includes big cuts to the police department and reallocating that money toward housing, healthcare, mental health and parks. Valenzuela launched the project after the Sacramento City Council adopted a budget that included an all-time-high $157 million to the police department.

Acosta said he hasn’t seen an incoming council member take on those types of major projects while waiting to be sworn in, he said.

“They usually just do a victory lap, they’re not putting together the People’s Budget,” Acosta said.

And then there’s the statewide activism. As part of her day job, Valenzuela was part of a group that earlier this month placed replica oil rigs on the Capitol Lawn in support of a now-dead bill that would have created buffer zones between fossil fuel production and schools, homes and hospitals. That action and her comments prompted Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, to name her several times during his comments on the Senate floor opposing the bill.

At City Hall, even if she’s unable to get Steinberg on her side, when it comes to the issues, Valenzuela is confident she can get at least four other members to vote her way. Three members opposed putting “strong mayor” on the ballot earlier this month, Valenzuela pointed out.

It’s a strategy her father perfected in conservative Oildale.

“My dad taught me you don’t have to agree with everyone on everything,” Valenzuela said. “If you can stick to one particular thing, it makes it easier to work together.”

There are lines she’s unwilling to cross, though.

“You won’t see me running off and working with the oil industry on things,” Valenzuela said.

In the end, if she does find she has little support on the council, Valenzuela hopes she will pave the way for a new wave of young progressives to be elected to the council who can help her achieve her vision of moving Sacramento farther left.

‘We’ve shown a model’ of how to win

The winner of the November District 8 runoff election, Mai Vang or Les Simmons, will likely side with Valenzuela on some issues. Both have been vocal about wanting the council to reduce police funding and have taken a pledge to reject police union donations.

In 2022, Valenzuela possibly will be joined by even more like-minded colleagues. Councilwoman Angelique Ashby will be unable to keep her seat representing Natomas because she is running for state Senate. Jay Schenirer, who represents Oak Park and Curtis Park, is not running for re-election. Harris and strong Steinberg ally Councilman Rick Jennings will also be up for re-election.

“We’ve shown a model,” Valenzuela said. “It gives people hope that maybe you don’t need to have all these insider connections. Maybe you can do this even if it’s against an incumbent or it’s uphill.”

Despite the cadre of young democratic socialists elected across the country following Ocasio-Cortez’s historic U.S. congressional win, political consultant Steve Maviglio said it will be much harder for similar candidates to win in the other more traditional Sacramento council districts than it was for Valenzuela.

“She worked extremely hard and pounded on a lot of doors and that’s great in midtown but midtown is not the Pocket and it’s not Natomas,” Maviglio said.

Valenzuela won between 60% and 68% of the votes in nine midtown and downtown precincts. Hansen won 60% of the votes in two Land Park precincts. The overall result was 53% to 46%.

Valenzuela may face difficulty in winning a second term in 2024, with redistricting likely to shrink her district ,and because her Land Park constituents might be too conservative for her, Maviglio said.

For example, although the “defund the police” movement gained national momentum, causing cities such as Minneapolis and Los Angeles to reduce significantly police funding, many of her constituents might not have an appetite for it.

Most council members get calls that they want more police presence on the street, not less, Harris said. In addition, “defunding” would be difficult with the police union, he said.

“Katie will get a big education once she sits in closed session,” Harris said, referring to the city’s constraints in bargaining with the powerful police union.

Valenzuela said she’s already getting calls from her future constituents across the district and she often has productive conversations with them about many topics. Many are just glad she calls them back, she said.

“People tend to put me in a bucket as far as, ‘this is what she thinks,’ ” Valenzuela said. “People who are calling me ‘dangerous’ or ‘radical.’ ... It’s always coming from someone I’ve never met and probably wouldn’t even recognize on the street if I passed them.”

This story was originally published August 22, 2020 5:00 AM.

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