At first thought, it seems odd – given California’s progressive history – that Sacramento has never before elected an openly gay city councilmember. Steve Hansen wants to change that.
But Hansen was the top vote-getter in the June primary not because of his statewide political connects – which are vast and solid. Rather, he is known as a man of the city with a vision to lure the creative class – from artists and innovators to scientists and engineers – to the area for socio-economic development, especially downtown. He also has a decade-long record of working to empower Sacramento’s neighborhoods and communities to nurture their own unique identities apart from the label of California’s capitol.
LGBT people might be familiar with Hansen through his work as a Legislative Director of Equality California for two years during the extraordinary burst of marriage energy in 2004-2006. EQCA honored him at their Sacramento Awards in March. Hansen is involved in the local LGBT community and serves as Board Secretary for the Center for AIDS Research, Education and Services (CARES). He’s also a board member of the Sacramento Stonewall Democratic Club and he’s served on the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund’s Campaign Board.
Hansen currently works as Senior Regional Manager at Genentech where he advocates for government policies that find innovative solutions for difficult to treat medical conditions. He is also a graduate of University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law and was honored in 2010 by the Sacramento Business Journal as one of the “40 Under 40″ for his community service and business acumen.
In an extensive interview with Frontiers, Hansen noted that LGBT attention and money is generally diverted to San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego but an “investment” in the Central Valley and his election to the city council would help expand LGBT rights. “We’ve raised the ceiling but not the floor,” he said.
I don’t think the LGBT community has had an opportunity until now to invest in making Sacramento a better place for the LGBT community by electing people. I think it’s a great opportunity – now that we have done that in LA, San Diego, and San Francisco – that we invest in Sacramento to make change there. If you look at Prop 8, the Central Valley was the big place where we lost. And in some ways, Sacramento leads the Central Valley. If we make progress in the inland parts of the state, that begins to raise the floor. We’ve raised the ceiling, but we haven’t raised the floor. And we’ve raised the ceiling in such tremendous ways – getting people elected to the state senate, to the state assembly, and doing that over and over again – but never really cracking that in other places.
And I think the potential that the races of Cathleen Galgiani (Stockton), who’s running for senate and Susan Eggman (running for Cathleen’s old Assembly seat, that has changed a little bit) also presents [a good opportunity]. The LGBT community around the state has invested a lot in the coastal cities. And now I think it’s time for the coastal cities to invest in the other parts of the state to turn them around.
Susan Eggman is an open lesbian on the Stockton city council. Susan made it threw the primary and is running against a Republican in a Democratic seat. So she’s essentially going to be elected. And if Cathleen wins, you’ll have two lesbians nested in the Central Valley – one in a Senate seat, and one in an Assembly seat – and that’s a very powerful opportunity to make change – to change people’s perceptions. And Cathleen, I know, was very sincere when she came out about what it meant to her and I think a lot of people appreciated the courage it took for her to come out while she was actively serving in the legislature.
One of the most exciting parts about where we are in the movement happens to be in this part of increasing our influence in places where we haven’t had it. We do very well on the coast. We do pretty badly inland. And we need to begin to expand our influence if we’re going to win – not just the battle of today or another initiative, potentially. But if we want to win the longterm fight over equality, we’re going to have to do the hard work of investing in those places and bringing them up, as well.
My reasons for running probably have a lot to do with my childhood. After my parents divorced, my mom and I had a very rough time. We were on welfare. And neither of my parents went to college. I have a brother who I haven’t lived with since I was seven. He has autism. Part of me thought – really seriously – that I would grow up to push shopping carts. And because of a lot of good people and the opportunities that came my way through hard work, I’ve been able to not just graduate from law school but I was the Legislative Director at Equality California when we passed the Marriage Bill. I’ve gotten to help other people get elected and I looked around Sacramento and I thought, we needed some change. We needed somebody who wasn’t going to take for granted the opportunity the city has and who’s worked really hard to turn it around.
And in some ways, the city of Sacramento has suffered a lot because it hasn’t been the focus – the Capitol has been the focus. The city’s economy is very reliant on government jobs, to its own detriment. And I’d like to see us really make Sacramento into a vibrant, modern urban city where people will want to come and spend a vacation. In the 1920s, Sacramento was the Palm Springs of Northern California. We didn’t have highways, we didn’t have easy air travel. And people from San Francisco and other places came to Sacramento because it was warm and sunny. There are still some glimmers of the 1920s resorts that were there. And I think we’ve got the potential – when you start getting the synergy going between our arts and culture – we have a tremendous arts community that I think needs some burnishing – we need to do some work there – and begin to make Sacramento an attraction that’s not just the Capitol in the way that Austin is not really seen primarily as the Capitol of Texas but is really seen for art, technology, music first. I would like to make Sacramento seem that way, as well.
We’re talking about shifting the identity of one of California’s major cities to make it really more reflective of who the city is. I’ve been thinking of some ways we can do that. One is – I’ve decided to donate my council salary, which is about $60,000 a year, to start a social innovation fund to help our entrepreneurs and our social entrepreneurs – people who look at social issues, homelessness, the arts, environmental things and they see different ways to make change that aren’t necessarily being funded right now because funding, and government funding has to be very risk-adverse. So you look at social entrepreneurs – they have an idea and often their idea may present more opportunity for better outcomes but because of the risk, people won’t fund it. They go with what’s safe. And when it comes to homelessness or the arts, I think we’ve got a lot of creative ideas out there that could potentially revolutionize the way we look at some of those issues.
To make an eco-system that’s really supportive of identity shifts like we’re talking about, you have to do a bunch of different things. Supporting new organizations that present social innovations that can help work on serious problems is one piece. The housing piece is another. [Recently] a new loft project that’s primarily aimed at artists just got funded through housing tax credits – through the Tax Credit Allocation Commission. In federal law, there is an exception to low income housing where you can create it for artists and artistic-type folks. That’s exactly what they did in New York and it inspired one of our young developers to pursue that money and create a similar project in Sacramento.
Hansen said he was sponsoring a big arts festival called Launch that he hopes will help push Sacramento – in the eyes of people from other cities – away from being just caught between Tahoe and San Francisco and will put it on the map for music, outdoor concerts, arts, science. Hansen said: “It’s through a lot of those things that we’re beginning to look at how we shift the city in a direction where it can be self-sustaining excites me.”
While Sacramento has an “old Sacramento” associated with the Gold Rush era, Hansen likes to ask people: when did Sacramento last lead the Technology Revolution? Answer: the Transcontinental Railroad that terminated in Sacramento in the 1985s with telegraphs and associated accouterment.
Innovation is very important to me. I spent seven years at Genentech – one of California’s proudest companies when it comes to innovation and revolutionizing the way we see serious diseases, especially cancer. I would like to think about how we, as a city, so over-reliant on government jobs, can begin to diversify our city’s economy by supporting innovators. We have some tech companies that are making applications for the iPhone – and beginning to use that toehold of technological innovation to grow jobs as a synergy between the Creative Class of the arts community and really start to get all the cylinders going. So that would involve more housing downtown, more arts and cultural opportunities that draw broad audiences from outside Sacramento, as well. And you start to see a vision come into shape.
The way I think about it is that – in some ways, Sacramento has to come out of the closet as more than just a capitol city. When we let one part of our identity predominate over everything else, I think it does a disservice to us as individuals. It’s like I’m not running for city council because I’m gay. I happen to be gay and it’s really an important part of who I am. But if that were all I ever talked about, I don’t think that would make me a good candidate. And I think Sacramento is so reliant on the state capitol for its identity, I think it’s made it harder to be a city.
There is a fundraiser for Hansen tentatively planned for Los Angeles on August 23. Keep an eye on his Facebook page or tweet him @Steve4Sac.