Lessons from strong mayor’s failure

No-photoMy conclusion after covering the fight over Measure L, Sacramento’s strong mayor initiative, is the “No on L” side ran a great campaign but had a horrible election night party. A few blocks away, “Yes on L” ran a bad campaign but had a great party.

It was the voters who had the final say on Kevin Johnson’s six-year effort to transform the Sacramento city charter into a strong mayor form of government. Measure L, which would have greatly increased the mayor’s authority over hiring and the budget, was rejected by 57 percent on election day.

After following both sides of Measure L, I have a few observations. The “Yes on L” campaign had a few holes. The strategy was not able to connect with voters. The campaign was top-down and felt like any grassroots effort was lost.

The successful funding of the Kings’ new arena was the main “Yes on L” rationale for why a strong mayor was needed; but the arena was financed under a council-manager government. The “yes” side never made the connection of how having a strong mayor would directly improve things for voters.

On the other hand, the “No on L” side missed an opportunity to celebrate Sacramento’s diversity. Diversity is one of Sacramento’s claims to fame. There were many people against Measure L who didn’t feel like they could tap into the “Stop the Power Grab” campaign.

From the outside looking in, it appeared as if “No on L” was run by an elite group of insiders. This was a great (but missed) opportunity to say: We don’t want power concentrated in a mayor; we want power concentrated in the people, with a large, diverse group running the campaign.

Strong mayor is dead, but here are three tips for anyone contemplating future municipal charter changes:

1. Diversify your campaigns—Sacramento is one of the most diverse cities in the country! There is no reason why nearly all the people at the “No on L” campaign should look the same (white and older). Besides the red “Stop the Power Grab” signs, there was very little color in the room. Oppositely, there is no reason why “Yes on L” had most of Sacramento elite behind it but few community supporters.

2. Connect your message to voters—The “Yes on L” side essentially said we need a strong mayor because other cities have one. Voters want to know about job creation, public safety and education. There was little talk about how the strong mayor actually would improve the lives of Sacramentans. Then we had “No on L,” which connected to voters on principle but not in practice.

3. Be intentional—Sacramento is a political city, but it’s not solely filled with politicians. Those who have power, be it strong mayor or council-manager government, need to be intentional. Sacramento is growing and where it’s going is undecided. People in power have to look to Sacramentans for guidance. The future of Sacramento is not decided in City Hall. It’s decided on the streets, in the grocery stores, at the parks, around the dinner table: with the people of Sacramento.

yes-photoMy last message is to the people of Sacramento. This is our city. Sacramento has one of the most open governments. Our city council members and even state officials are right here in our backyard (heck, in our front yards too). There is no reason why there are uninformed voters in the city. There is no reason voter turnout is so low.

No matter what side you’re on, you need to vote. These three suggestions can go for my fellow citizens as well. Diversify your circles, connect to your politicians, and be intentional about the city’s future. Forget about strong mayor. Let’s have a strong Sacramento!


Nailah Ware

About Nailah Ware
Ms. Ware attends California State University, Sacramento, and works as an assistant at the California Secretary of State election office. She is president of the Glen Elder neighborhood association, and is passionate about the way political decisions impact individual neighborhoods. She is especially interested in issues involving public transportation.


  1. Steven Maviglio says

    Excellent analysis. It really was difficult to put the YES on L message on a bumper sticker and make it relate so voters realized it is in their self-interest to have a mayor that has the responsibility for running the city rather than an unelected bureaucrat.

  2. wavery clemons says

    When you looked around the room that you visited, those who were the “L” No voters, you were looking at those who have controlled this city for too long. Woodlake have controlled district 2 for years, and they make up such a small part of the north area. They will not give up their power to a strong mayor. You were on the wrong side young lady. Just as Travis Smiley was, when he said there was no reason for blacks to go out and vote in these mid-term elections. He said the question was, “What have President Obama and the Democrats done for us lately?”Whoa! what a mistake. Now look at what we have. Republicans running both the Senate and the House. People who have the media at their disposal make statements that others read and react to. It mades a difference. Sacramento needed a strong Mayor to shift the power from the old guard. City council members in Sacramento have controlled the destiny and direction this city has gone for too long. It has costs us money, services, and representation. Just ask county supervisor Jimmy Yee. Why are more progressive cities using this form of government? Sacramento is still controlled by a few districts. You saw for yourself who they are. Get with the Mayor and help him and your district shake loose from the old guard. Don’t let them fool you.

  3. Bruce Pomer says

    This is the insight that all of us politicians have to understand quoted from your article” The future of Sacramento is not decided in City Hall. Its decided on the streets, in the grocery stores, at the parks, around the dinner table: with the people of Sacramento.

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