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S/P Q&A: Sacto Council Member-elect Katie Valenzuela

Sacramento’s biggest 2020 electoral story was the upset victory by Katie Valenzuela in the Sacramento’s City Council District 4 race. Her district covers downtown Sacramento, Midtown and Land Park. The all-Democratic March 3 primary pitted the first-time candidate against two-term incumbent Steve Hansen.

Valenzuela was outspent 3-to-1 and faced surprisingly hostile news coverage by the Sacramento Bee. Her race also received little coverage by other news outlets. But on the strength of her clear pro-voter message and strong grassroots-volunteer support, she won by nearly seven points.

She and two other new council members will be sworn in on December 15 to join the nine-person body. Before this, Valenzuela took time with S/P to reflect on her previous and coming year politically.

Sacto Politico: What were your biggest takeaways from the Nov. 3 elections?

Katie Valenzuela: The general election results were a mixed bag. There were some amazing local victories across the state, long-shots that shouldn’t have had a chance. On the other hand, it looks like California voted down several propositions that were really important, and voted for some that are really harmful, like Proposition 22 [classifying Uber and Lyft drivers as contractors and not eligible for typical employee benefits].

In my heart, I think a lot of folks want living wages for workers, protections for small businesses owned by people of color and more affordable housing, but this really shows just how toxic money can be in politics. [Lyft and Uber spent $205 million on Prop 22.] This should be a wakeup call for a lot of Democrats and progressives that we need to make campaign finance reform real before 2022.

SP: What is your overall mood?

KV: I’m pretty mixed, but overall, I’m optimistic. I think we learned a lot this election, built a lot of capacity and engaged voters in new ways. If we keep building that, I think big changes are possible in the future.

SP: When the new City Council starts its work, what needs to top the agenda?

KV: Homelessness has to be on the top of our priority list. Things in the central city have been unsustainable for a long time, and the pandemic really highlighted just how urgent finding long-term solutions must be. I’m specifically really interested in two things: short-term camping and parking sites, and developing more permanently supportive housing units. The latter item will require public funding, which is the tricky part. I’m really looking forward to meeting with affordable housing developers to figure out what we need to do to develop the housing we need to pull ourselves out of this crisis.

SP: You were elected in the March primary with no need for a runoff. Has it been hard to wait so long to take office?

KV: It’s been incredibly hard to sit on the sidelines, especially with so much pain and need in the community and so many important decisions being made at the City Council. However in retrospect, I’m really grateful for this time. I’ve been able to meet with City staff to learn about how things work and what projects are underway, build relationships with new stakeholders, and really plan and dream with allies I’ve worked with for a long time.

This is such a different reality than it was in March, having the time and space to explore ideas and think through strategies is a real blessing. In addition to building up the People’s Budget Sacramento, I feel the People’s Campaign to fight strong mayor and promote rent control was a phenomenal learning experience for all of us. I’m really excited about where we are in Sacramento in terms of community organizing and capacity. We’re ready to tackle the next phase of our work.

SP: There is no user manual for how to make the transition from candidate to elected official. How has that been for you?

KV: No user manual is an understatement, especially for someone like me: young, female, person of color, defeated an incumbent, didn’t take traditional campaign donations. Some stakeholders have been really anxious about meeting me. I guess they’re worried I’ll be really unpredictable or unreasonable. But I’ve approached it just like I do community organizing: taking time for one-on-ones, really listening to folks as much as possible to understand where they’re coming from, and what they need. Step by step, zoom meeting by zoom meeting, I think folks are starting to open up to me. This is really exciting because we need to work together if we’re going to come out of this pandemic in an equitable, sustainable way.

SP: You disproved the “common wisdom” that an establishment incumbent with a large campaign war chest is invincible. Do you think yours is a good model for others locally to follow?

KV: My campaign approach had several components that made it successful. First, I had deep community roots and a clear vision for why I was running. It’s hard to run a campaign without those two components. My community relationships are what helped me build and sustain such a huge volunteer base, and my clear vision for why I was running helped distinguish me from the incumbent.

The other pieces of success included starting early. Grassroots campaigns are hard to pull off in short amounts of time. I also really focused on conversations with voters. Almost every time someone emailed or called me to ask me to come to their house for a cup of coffee, I did. I didn’t care if it was just one voter. I really prioritized listening and learning from folks while building strong relationships with as many people as I could. It was always time well-spent!

SP: As an incoming council member, what has your interaction been like with your future colleagues?

KV: My future colleagues have been pretty welcoming. We’ve had a few conversations here and there about various topics or current issues, just building relationships and sharing ideas. I know we don’t agree on everything, but with every one of them, there are at least a few things we DO agree on, so there’s lot of potential for partnerships and collaboration in the future.

SP: Who has most inspired you in your life and in politics?

KV: My dad got me involved in politics when I was 13 years old in Kern County. He was a pretty progressive guy in a very conservative area and really got a lot done for the community by focusing on relationships and improving outcomes for the community. He taught me a lot about taking risks for what you believe in, working with folks who don’t share your political beliefs, and not letting obstacles stop you from trying to do what’s right. He passed away in 2012 but is still my biggest inspiration. I think of him every day and think he would LOVE what I am doing here in Sacramento.

SP: What is your favorite book or movie about politics?

KV: This summer I started reading “Shock Doctrine” with a book club. Probably not the best time to read that book – being in a pandemic talking about disaster capitalism is just a little too real. But I learned a LOT about historical events that has really helped inform my thinking about how I’d like to help Sacramento rebuild, and how to anticipate what folks who oppose my ideas might do to stop our movement from growing. Overall, I would highly recommend it to any progressive political activist. It’s hard to get through, but totally worth it.

I also have to admit I watched a lot of “West Wing” this summer. There’s something so comforting about that show, particularly given our current state of federal affairs.

SP: Any final thoughts to end on?

KV: There is a movement building in Sacramento. My election and the success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is just the tip of the iceberg. Folks are tired of business as usual and want to be a part of building something better. I know a lot of us were hoping for more progress in this election. While we didn’t win everything we wanted to, we did continue the forward momentum, and we can’t let ourselves lose sight of that. If we keep building, keep focused on fighting for our neighbors, we are capable of great progress. I can’t wait to see what we’re able to do. ❤️

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