A new Goldman State Podcast drops every Friday!

Mar 27, 2023

Thanks but No Tank: Katie Valenzuela Is Taking No Prisoners

Having survived a recall, councilwoman plans her next foray

By Ed Goldman

I think it’s a safe bet that Sacramento City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela would rather be remembered than recalled. 

Valenzuela, 37, who’s poised to announce in the next day or so that she’s running for a second term, has a knack for inspiring emotional responses to her self-titled Democratic Socialist views. A small but fired-up segment of a constituency tried to launch a recall campaign last year but it fizzled for a variety of reasons, principally not enough signatures. It had been an outgrowth of one the clumsier redistricting attempts since the “Land Grab Act” of 1783 (I’m sorry; no teaching guide is available at this time). 

Edgy Cartoon

Katie Valenzuela. Photo by Jamila Khan.

“I just say what I think and feel,” she says over a recent lunch. “I’m never going to compromise my values to hang onto a political seat.”

What she says and feels rubs enough people raw enough so that, a year from the 2024 election, she already has an announced opponent, Phil Pluckebaum (Hey, we learned how to pronounce Pete Buttigieg’s surname, didn’t we?) who, in turn, has the endorsement of the following: 

  • The city councilman who was redistricted out of his own district, Jeff Harris, whom Valenzuela said should be censured and referred to him to as racist because of his questioning the motivation of a 2022 Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution Valenzuela was pushing. I know Harris and have written about him. I like him. He isn’t remotely racist;
  • Steve Hansen, the city councilman whom Valenzuela beat in the 2020 election; and 
  • Current Sacramento County Supervisors Phil Serna, Patrick Kennedy and Rich Desmond, one of whom may come close to being a statesman someday (hint: it’s neither Serna nor Kennedy).

Meanwhile, if current Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg doesn’t run for re-election because he privately pines to be a California Supreme Court justice (I think he’d be good at it), the aforementioned redistricted Harris and ousted Hansen are likely to run for his seat. Or maybe even if Steinberg runs again. While politics has always been a game of musical chairs, in Sacramento it sometimes more closely resembles a tilt-a-whirl ride (nausea included).

Valenzuela’s principal sins seem to include her compassion for homeless people—she’s the only city councilperson to have opened, and kept open, a good-sized shelter for them in her district, even though a substantial number of people in her district still remain unhoused.

In January of 2024, Valenzuela’s city council district will comprise East Sacramento (old money), the River District (industrial but an emerging residential and youthful component) and the Central City, an eclectic mixture of hipsters, empty nesters, creatives, boutiques, bodegas and a good-sized LGBTQ population. 

When Valenzuela ran for office, she rather fearlessly rejected contributions from corporations and certain unions. More recently, she took on a tank—and lost. 

The Sacramento City Council approved the purchase, for more than $400,000, of an armored vehicle for its police department sprightly nicknamed The Rook (apparently The Sherman was taken). The cops call it a shield; the testimony or your senses calls it a tank. At the same time, the cop shop is a group whose funding Valenzuela would also like to see reduced to help fund more homeless shelters, youth programs and mental health care (which, contrary to popular opinion, isn’t solely under the aegis of the county).

While a majority of people of color in Sacramento and other cities don’t want to see the police defunded, not many of them are crazy about a tank rolling through its neighborhoods, either. The issue erupted at a recent meeting when a group of anti-Rooks pretty much burst into the city council chamber and made such a fuss that the meeting shut down. “This is not a war zone. This is our community,” Valenzuela said, and most everyone assumed she was referring to the meeting, not the city. Even so, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scene in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” when a U.S. general and a Soviet ambassador begin grappling during a meeting and the President has to remind them, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!”

I mention all of this because I have admiration and even affection for Valenzuela. While I certainly don’t agree with her on everything, I simply like people willing to fight the good fight without causing a government takeover. Politics is sometimes at its best when pugnacious.

But I’ve been staggered by the vitriol Valenzuela seems to inspire. R.E. Graswich¬—a former Sacramento Bee sports writer and columnist, and briefly a radio and TV newscaster—sounded absolutely apoplectic in attacking Valenzuela in his column for “Inside Sacramento” last September in which he wrote: “Katie’s fatal flaw as an elected official: her judgment. In a democracy, leaders serve the public, not themselves.”

Valenzuela has an impressive background, both in academia and social activism.

She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in community development from UC Davis, the latter with an emphasis on regional nonprofit collaboration and tribal governance. While working on her master’s she spent a summer abroad studying government in Freiberg, Germany, a mining town.

She was hired by the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition as a senior policy advocate a few months ago, after a three-year stint running an eponymous consultancy which helped track legislation, develop strategy for advocacy campaigns and engage in the 2022 Scoping Plan Process at the California Air Resources Board. Her clients included The Greenlining Institute, the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ), Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, the Energy Foundation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others. 

She’s also put her heart where no money is, as a volunteer for the Sacramento Community Land Trust, the California Air Resources Board, Sacramento Building Healthy Communities, and Sacramento Young Professionals of Color.

This isn’t your run-of-the-mill Democratic Socialist. She’s what liberals of the Democratic Party used to be, and many still are, despite the brickbats of both the never-say-die Right and the newly “woke” Semi-Left. 

When Valenzuela was growing up in Bakersfield, social activism was the family business, more or less. Her late father, Vernon, for whom a freeway is named in his memory, was an early advocate for his fellow returning Vietnam veterans, specifically those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Her mom, Lisa, worked as a dental hygienist until her retirement. 

“I do everything I do from my love of this community,” she says. “It’s easy to reconstruct what I’ve done to mean that all I care about are homeless people and my own career. But my concern is also about the working poor—people who have jobs, work hard but are in dire need of affordable housing.”

As for the camps established for the homeless, “We want to staff them, we want to help them fix their lives. I love this city and I just think it can be and do more.” I get the impression that whether or not she’s re-elected next year, she’ll still be a visible, viable presence: One who should be remembered, not recalled.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).