Darrell Steinberg at Sac Gives Back, a weekend of community service created by his office, in December of 2016. (Photo/Roderick Cooney Photography)
Darrell Steinberg at Sac Gives Back, a weekend of community service created by his office, in December of 2016. (Photo/Roderick Cooney Photography)

Darrell Steinberg, Sacramento’s popular Jewish mayor, is ready for a different challenge

Over his multiple terms as a Sacramento City Council member, a California state legislator and Sacramento’s mayor, Darrell Steinberg has never lost an election.

That record will remain unbroken.

Steinberg announced at a May 25 press conference that he won’t seek a third term as mayor, thus closing out a remarkable 31-year-long political career.

At least, for now.

Steinberg, 63, was born in Millbrae on the Peninsula and settled in Sacramento after earning a law degree from UC Davis in 1984. He won his first race for Sacramento City Council in 1992 and has been on a roll ever since. He moved on to the state Assembly and then to the state Senate. During his Senate tenure, his colleagues elected him president pro tem — the highest-ranking leader — a post he held until term limits led to his candidacy for Sacramento mayor.

He called his role as mayor a “promotion” after his landslide victory in 2016. Now, he says he’s ready for something new.

“It’s a positive decision,” Steinberg told J. “I’m not burned out or too tired. I still have the fire. But I just feel after eight years I want to [serve] in a different way.”

Among the accomplishments he counts as mayor, the city increased its emergency shelter beds from under 100 to 1,100, secured more than $120 million in state funds to combat homelessness, helped route $41 million in federal Covid-19 stimulus funds toward affordable housing, and established both an Office of Climate Action and Sustainability and a Racial Equity Committee.

In the state Legislature, he authored Prop. 63 (known as the California Mental Health Services Act), a 2004 ballot measure that increased taxes on the wealthiest Californians to expand state delivery of mental health services. He was the Senate’s first Jewish president pro tem since 1852, steering that body through the 2007-2008 recession that nearly bankrupted the state.

Our people have learned the dangers of saying nothing, and I’m not going to do it.

Steinberg, a Democrat, hasn’t decided what comes next, though he hasn’t ruled out running for office again.

“It’s on par with other options,” he said. “I just don’t know. And when I get out [of office] I‘ll see what that feels like.”

Meanwhile, as he said at his press conference, “This is not an epitaph. I’ve got 18 months to go” as mayor.

Though he’s known for his congenial manner, Steinberg made headlines when he excoriated a speaker during public comments at the May 15 city council meeting. A man identified as Ryan Messano, who has repeatedly made antisemitic statements this spring at city council meetings, approached the podium and launched into another invective-laced tirade. “Antisemitism used to mean someone who hates all Jews,” Messano said in part. “Now it means someone who is hated by Jew bankers.”

“OK, see you later pal,” Steinberg interjected. “We don’t want to hear any more from you. We don’t want to hear any more of your shit.”

It was the “shit” heard round the world.

“I was criticized in some quarters,” he later told J., referring to his indelicate language. “But to say nothing? Our people have learned the dangers of saying nothing, and I’m not going to do it.”

The incident highlighted the fact that Steinberg is only the second Jewish mayor of Sacramento. (The first, Bernard Steinman, was sworn into office in 1893.)

Growing up, Steinberg and his family belonged to Burlingame’s Peninsula Temple Sholom. Before launching his political career, he chaired Sacramento’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

His wife, Cantor Julie Steinberg, serves at Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, a post she has held since 2012. The couple has two grown children.

Barry Broad, president of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region and a friend of 40 years, describes Steinberg as an “all-too-rare person” in politics.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg speaking at the Religious Action Center's Consultation on Conscience in Washington, DC, May 1, 2017. (Photo/Courtesy Religious Action Center)
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg speaking at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience in Washington, DC, May 1, 2017. (Photo/Courtesy Religious Action Center)

“He is someone who is truly dedicated to public service and to the Jewish community, who deeply cares about the world around him,” Broad said. “Someone once said politics can turn cracks into fissures in the personalities of people, but there are very few who have a career as wide ranging in the public sphere as Darrell Steinberg and who have maintained their integrity the way he has.”

Though issues such as homelessness and mental health policy have dominated Steinberg’s political agenda, the increase in antisemitism and hate crimes, both nationally and locally, has been on his radar as well.

“It’s a very serious issue,” he said of antisemitism, “and needs to be taken with the greatest amount of concern and action. Our history is too deeply embedded in all of us. The haters are always there, and sometimes they slither above the surface. I always try to educate people. We all educate each other and talk to each other about our faiths, traditions and cultures. I just try to live the values.”

Colleagues have taken note. State Sen. Angelique Ashby (D-Sacramento), who previously served on the Sacramento City Council and ran against Steinberg for mayor in 2016, wrote a tribute to him.

“He wears his heart on his sleeve,” she wrote. “I’ve seen him cry with the mother of a fallen officer, sit with the family of a person experiencing homelessness, listen carefully to members of our community who feel left behind, and I’ve watched him take an impossible conflict between opponents and mediate to consensus.”

Broad added that Steinberg’s toughest public role has been as mayor. “When you confront a host of intractable problems — and in Darrell’s term, homelessness is the No. 1 intractable problem — these kinds of issues chew up mayors. [He] has had to confront that and has done so with a good deal of energy and honesty.”

Steinberg is modest about his political style.

“I negotiate, I advocate, I mediate, I initiate, and I get up every day and try to help the city move forward. I hope I’ve done it in the right way,” he said. “You never finish the work. You do everything you can for your time. The nature of democracy is you turn it over to someone else.”

As he looks to his next chapter, Steinberg said his overriding feeling is one of gratitude.

“‘I still feel like a young person,” he said. “I’m blessed to be in good shape, and I still have more to give, more to do in life. My dad celebrated his 95th birthday. My mom and dad are still alive. I’ve been blessed with so many opportunities. I still believe in the good in people and in what’s possible.”

One downside to leaving the political spotlight: The Sacramento Bee recently determined that over the last 25 years, Steinberg has been the third most-photographed person to appear in the newspaper’s pages, behind former Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When told that fact, Steinberg replied, “I appreciate that, more often than not, they photographed me from a distance.”

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.