Power broker: Meet Darrell Steinberg, Sacramentos top Jewish politician

Now that he’s president pro-tem of the state Senate and smack in the middle of California’s fiscal crisis, Darrell Steinberg says he wants a new part-time job.

Knife juggler.

“It’s less hazardous,” he jokes, referring to the ongoing negotiations among Senate Republicans, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steinberg’s own Democratic Party majority on how to close a budget deficit that may grow as large as $42 billion over the next 18 months.

A native of Millbrae, Steinberg is only the second Jewish president pro-tem of the state Senate — and the first since 1852, when San Francisco Whig Elcan Heydenfeldt held the job.

That makes Steinberg, at 49, perhaps the state’s most powerful Jewish politician since Gov. Washington Bartlett, who died in office after a nine-month tenure in 1887.

Steinberg says Jewish values, learned from his parents and at Burlingame’s Peninsula Temple Sholom, helped shape his progressive politics.

“My Jewish upbringing has helped inform my values and a lot of what I stand for,” says Steinberg, whose parents still live in the Millbrae home in which they raised their three boys.

“Certainly the belief that the main responsibility in this sort of job is to stand up for the underdog, the person without a voice. Being Jewish is a very integral and proud part of who I am.”

An unabashed liberal, Steinberg has spearheaded legislation and ballot measures protecting the homeless, the mentally ill and other disadvantaged groups. He’s a reliably pro-environment, pro-union, pro-choice voice in the legislature.

And –– according to friends, family and colleagues –– he is one of the nice guys in politics. Even conservative Republicans fall all over themselves to praise him.

“I’ve always gotten along with him and admired him,” says Sen. Dave Cogdill, the Senate’s Republican leader and Steinberg’s prime legislative adversary. “The things that impress me the most are his honesty, his straightforwardness and his ability to work with anybody, to sit down, discuss ideas, work with you.”

Gentle persuasion has been Steinberg’s style throughout his career as a lawyer, Sacramento city councilman, member of the state Assembly and now as a senator.

“He’s a genuinely nice person,” affirms younger brother Rick Steinberg, a pulpit rabbi in Irvine. “He worked hard to win people over with good will as opposed to backroom politics. That’s what he wants to do: Use the velvet hand.”

Even as far back as his “Scooby Doo” lunchbox days, Steinberg seemed destined for a career in politics.

“He was an officer in school in the third grade and ninth grade,” says his father, Marvin “Bud” Steinberg, 75, a retired accountant. “He was class president in his junior year [at Capuchino High School in San Bruno]. He was even [honorary] mayor of Millbrae for a day when he was around 15.”

Rick Steinberg remembers looking up to his older brother, and not just because he was a big man on campus.

“Without any hubris or self righteousness, he just found himself in positions of leadership through his good nature, dedication and hard work,” says the rabbi. “That served as a good role model for my other brother and me. The Jewish influence in him is strong in terms of social justice.”

Steinberg studied economics at UCLA, where he first showed a serious interest in politics. He spent one summer interning for former Congressman Henry Gonzalez, while his talent for shmoozing got a workout when he snagged a floor pass to the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

After Steinberg enrolled in the U.C. Davis School of Law, his penchant for championing the disadvantaged began to blossom. He volunteered to read law books to blind students, and sprung into action when he realized the U.C. Davis campus was not accessible to the handicapped (in the days before passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act).

“He took this all the way up to the administration,” Rick Steinberg recalls. “He fought them tooth and nail. In the end he prevailed.”

As a newly minted lawyer, Steinberg landed a job with a Sacramento firm specializing in corporate law. “I loved Sacramento,” Steinberg says. “I loved the size, the scale, the ability to get involved. I felt I could make a life here.”

In 1984, Steinberg sought a new job, a new house and Jewish cause to devote his time to, eventually securing all three. As for the latter, Steinberg began volunteering with the Sacramento area’s Jewish Community Relations Council, headed by Bob Dresser.

“I knew he was bright, very personable, a very nice guy,” Dresser recalls of his first impressions. “He still has all those traits.”

One of Steinberg’s proudest moments with the JCRC came when he visited refuseniks in the Soviet Union in 1988.

“We smuggled in books and smuggled out valuables,” Steinberg recalls. “We met with heroic people. We got hassled and followed, but it was incredible. You realize you can never take religious freedom for granted.”

Dresser, pressed to come up with anything unsavory about his friend, dredges up a single moment on the softball diamond when he and Steinberg played for different teams. “I was rounding third,” he says. “He was in left, threw the ball and hit me in the back of the head.”

Around 1990, Steinberg’s life changed when he went out on a date — a date put into motion by the parents.

“Julie’s mom and I were at a party,” recalls Bud Steinberg. “We said our kids should meet. I gave Darrell her number.”

Julie and Darrell Steinberg married in 1991. They have two children, daughter Jordana, 14, and son Ari, 11.

Soon after marrying, Steinberg began contemplating a run for Sacramento City Council. “He asked me what I thought,” Dresser says. “I said, ‘I think you are too young.’ Fortunately he didn’t listen.”

Steinberg, at age 33, won that 1992 city council race, and was re-elected four years later. In 1998, Steinberg set his sights on the 9th District in the state Assembly (Sacramento) and won, in part because he had found a signature issue: establishing a decent mental health system for California.

As a new assemblyman, Steinberg admits, he “didn’t know any better,” so he promptly introduced a bill to fund mental health services with a $350 million price tag. By the end of the debate, that number had shriveled to $10 million, but it was a start.

“We had some pilot projects that were successful,” he says, “and we built up funding to $55 million in 2002-2003. We were helping 50,000 people a year, but barely skimming the surface in terms of need, so we decided to go the initiative route and put together Prop. 63.”

That ballot measure, written by Steinberg and passed in 2004, generated more than $1 billion annually in state and federal funds for metal health programs across the state.

During his three terms in the Assembly,  Steinberg authored bills to address greenhouse gas reduction, high school dropout rates and foster care system reform.

After reaching his term limit in the Assembly in 2004, Steinberg began planning a 2006 run for the Senate. He won, landing seats on the judiciary, health, budget and natural resources committees.

In his first Senate term, Steinberg began lobbying his colleagues for the pro-tem job to replace the retiring Don Perata. Why did he think he was suited for the job?

“I don’t know,” he jokes. “Good looks? I have developed a skill set over the course of my professional life that centers on helping solve problems. I did it as a lawyer, when I often found ways to settle difficult cases, [and] I did it in the legislature.

“This is a problem-solving business. Not everything is yes or no. It’s often something in between. That’s the art and the fun of the job.”

Steinberg won the support of a Senate majority, and was sworn in at a midnight ceremony in November.

Even then, the gathering storm of the state budget shortfall dominated his agenda.

As for that crisis, Steinberg now says, “I can’t predict what will happen, but everyone understands the urgency and the gravity of the situation.”

Even Republican Dave Cogdill is betting that Steinberg can bring all parties together.

“I think that’s in his heart,” he says. “Because of the positions we take, we believe we are pretty immovable, but you’re never going to convince anybody if you don’t allow the debate to take place, and that’s where Darrell Steinberg really shines. Over the short time he has been pro-tem, my direct involvement has actually deepened even though we’re miles apart.”

Steinberg remains optimistic.

“I have no illusions about the difficulty, but I’m really looking forward to it,” he says of solving the crisis. “Why would you do [this job] if you didn’t think you could make a real difference and help change that which is not working? It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to help lead a wonderful state like California.”

Burdensome as his job may be, it doesn’t keep Steinberg away from family life. He and his wife belong to Sacramento’s Congregation B’nai Israel, where Julie Steinberg serves as cantorial soloist. “Mostly what’s great about the synagogue, it’s the one place I don’t have to be a public official. I’m Julie’s husband,” he says.

Adds his mother, Arlene Steinberg, “Julie is a beautiful woman and so wonderfully supportive of him. He has a good balance. Any event on weekends he always takes the children. When he speaks, the kids are always with him.”

With the clock ticking on California’s future, it sometimes seems Steinberg is the only person in the state not sweating bullets. Does this equanimity reflect confidence in a happy ending or is it merely a tactic to stave off public anxiety? Like any good politician, the senator wouldn’t say, preferring to hold his cards close to the vest.

Then again, optimism of the Steinberg variety is hard to fake. “As difficult as these times are,” he says, “ we need to approach the future with a great sense of confidence.”

And, like a good politician, he adds the always-comforting sign-off: “There are better days ahead.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.