Katie Valenzuela, Mai Vang and Sean Loloee took themselves off mute, raised their right hands to their computer screens and repeated the oath of office. Like so many other things this year, the traditional swearing-in ceremony for three new Sacramento City Council members was done virtually on Tuesday.
Even without the typical crowds and photos with families, the ceremony had several touching and poignant moments. Current members warmly welcomed the new members and shared advice. It’s too soon to say how the council’s new dynamic will truly be during this critical time, however.
Vang, the new councilwoman representing the south Sacramento neighborhoods of District 8, is the first Asian American woman to serve on the council (at least in recent memory). She asked her former Sac High teacher Jean Crowder to do the honor of swearing her in. After a brief technical difficulty, Crowder’s face popped up on the screen. “Hi sweetheart!” she said to Vang, who lit up with a big smile.
While Vang was growing up in a poor immigrant family, the oldest of 16 children, Crowder stayed after school with her multiple times a week to make sure she finished her college and scholarship applications, then drove her home, sometimes as late as 11 p.m.
“If I didn’t have Ms. Crowder in my life, I wouldn’t be here today,” Vang said. “I truly believe we have so many Ms. Crowders in Sacramento today making a difference in people’s lives.”
Vang went on to earn a double masters from UCLA, including one in public health. She now teaches at California State University, Sacramento and UC Davis and is the director of a scholarship program. As she was sworn in, she stood in the purple spare room of her Meadowview home, a bright orange “Smash Patriarchy” sign displayed in the background.
Vang is also the first Hmong council member. Later in the meeting and near tears, she delivered a powerful three minute address in Hmong, thanking those who helped with her campaign and promising she would fight to improve the lives of residents who are struggling.
Like Vang, Valenzuela was sworn in by someone meaningful in her life – her mother, Lise, who joined virtually from her Bakersfield home. Lisa helped Valenzuela knock on doors toward the end of her campaign, encouraging residents in the central city and Land Park to vote for her daughter.
Valenzuela – a Democratic socialist who ran on a platform of reducing police funding and improving renter protections – gave a nod to the late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis in her opening remarks.
“To all the activists and organizers and trouble makers — good trouble — out there doing the work today, my victory is a big thanks to you and the work you’ve done,” said Valenzuela, who after a nine-month wait now officially represents District 4.
Sean Loloee, a more moderate Democrat, said he also had a family member help him knock on doors in North Sacramento — his son.
After being sworn into his District 2 seat, Loloee thanked his family, as well as former Council member Sandy Sheedy and developer Cyrus Youssefi, a developer and father of the late developer Ali Youssefi. Later on, his young daughter sat on his lap, watching the meeting along with him, their Christmas tree lit up in the background.
Loloee, who immigrated to the United States from Iran as a teenager, said he is the first Iranian American council member. “It’s also an honor to be the first Iranian American to be on the council of City of Sacramento so it’s definitely an honor to hold that title as well,” Loloee said.
An owner of two grocery stores in North Sacramento’s under served communities, Loloee said he wants to “set an example of what a compassionate and a giving city is supposed to be.”
Now that the new members are sworn in, the number of women serving on the nine-member council has gone from one to three. For the first time in six years, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby will not be the only woman on the dais. Vang and Valenzuela will also be the youngest members, at 35 and 34, respectively. Ashby was about the same age when she first joined, she said.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out of your own comfort zone and try things on this dais,” said Ashby, who represents North Natomas. “This will become your little dysfunctional family.”
When Valenzuela defeated Council member Steve Hansen, it was the first time a council member lost a bid for re-election in ten years. Then it happened again, when Loloee defeated Allen Warren. Vang replaces retiring member Larry Carr, for whom she formerly served as a staffer prior to serving on the Sacramento City Unified School Board.
Diversity gains and losses
While the new council improves diversity in several ways, there was a noticeable loss: the council has now gone from three Black members to one — Councilman Rick Jennings, who represents the south Sacramento neighborhoods of District 7. The loss occurs during a year when the nation is facing a major reckoning around the pressing need to uplift Black communities. With the loss of Hansen, the council also no longer has an LGBTQ member.
The members have some ideological differences, which were on display during election season. Valenzuela, Vang and Councilman Jeff Harris campaigned against a ballot measure that would have given Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s office more power. Vang and Valenzuela supported a ballot measure for stricter rent control, which the entire council opposed.
“Whatever happened before tonight, let’s erase that and let’s build a great future together moving forward,” Jennings said.
Steinberg had a similar message, saying he thinks the group will work well together, despite a polarized national political climate.
“The trust we establish with each other and with our community is paramount,” said Steinberg, who Tuesday was sworn into a second term he says will be his last. “If we maintain it and if we continue to gain the trust of the people that we represent and each other, there’s absolutely nothing that stands in our way.”
Tuesday’s meeting was filled with warm greetings and a light agenda. But the next session will likely be more substantive, and potentially contain conflict. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Valenzuela, who rents a midtown apartment, asked staff for an update on the city’s tenant protection program, including a presentation by tenant activists. She’s been saying for months that the program needs to be strengthened and said she is worried about an “eviction tsunami” occurring as a result of the pandemic.
Valenzuela said she has also been bothered by videos of the police response to the protests the last several Saturdays downtown, where pro-Trump groups, including people displaying “Proud Boys” gear, have been gathering, at times clashing with counter-protesters.
She asked the police department “to report on plans to manage future events organized by white supremacist groups in Sacramento, including a report on activities conducted over the last couple weekends.”
Valenzuela requested both items for the next meeting, though it’s unclear if her requests will be granted. The next meeting will take place at 5 p.m. on Jan 5. It will be livestreamed on the city’s website.