Oakland, Calif. - Long before Darrell Steinberg was tapped to become California’s most powerful Democrat, the labor lawyer-turned-legislator developed his political acumen in the Jewish communal world.
Steinberg, 48, is set to become the California State Senate’s president pro tem after Oakland’s Don Perata is term-limited out. Steinberg will take his position in December and start a tenure that — unless later challenged by his own caucus — could last until he’s term-limited out in 2014.
Steinberg, who has done stints on Sacramento City Council and in the State Assembly, isn’t California’s first Jewish president pro tem; that was Elcan Heydenfeldt, a Whig who had the job in 1851. But Steinberg, the second, is coming to the job after intense involvement in the Jewish communal world, including stints as chairman of Sacramento’s Jewish Community Relations Council and as a board member for local Jewish campus organizations.
The lobbyist for the California Jewish Public Affairs Committee, Cliff Berg, said he is looking forward to working more with an old friend.
“The only problem is, we now have to share him with the rest of the world,” Berg said.
Steinberg was born and raised in San Francisco. After receiving a law degree from the University of California, Davis, he ended up at a small law firm in Sacramento. He didn’t know anybody in town, so he called up the local Jewish federation to volunteer. A few years later, he was working both as a labor attorney for the state employees association and as a chair of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, spearheading projects like a community delegation’s visit to the Soviet Union where Californians met with Jewish refuseniks.
Steinberg was elected to the Sacramento City Council in 1992 and then to the State Assembly in 1998. It was in that capacity that he helped found and lead Sacramento’s nonprofit Capital Unity Council in 1999, responding to a series of hate crimes including the firebombing of three area synagogues — Steinberg’s own Reform Congregation B’nai Israel among them.
Steinberg told the Forward that his Jewish heritage heavily informs his politics, even his stance on the budget deficit.
“Government’s proper role is to be a catalyst for social change… but it also must be a backstop for people who don’t have any other choice. It’s the people who don’t have a voice who we must stand up for here,” Steinberg said. “That is the essence of tikkun olam.”
When he co-authored and campaigned for the successful 2004 ballot initiative Proposition 63, asking voters to approve a tax increase to pay for mental health services, he co-wrote an article in a Bay Area Jewish publication arguing that there’s “nothing more compelling than the pursuit of our highest Jewish ideals — to help those not in a position to help themselves.”
He convinced California to see things his way: Last year’s Proposition 63 proceeds were $1.5 billion.
Steinberg was term-limited out of the State Assembly at the end of 2004, but he came back and won his State Senate seat in 2006 with a reputation for getting things done. Among the bills he helped drive was one in 2007, divesting the state’s gigantic public-employee pension funds from companies doing business in Iran — a pet cause of pro-Israel advocates.
Steinberg’s new job will put him toe-to-toe with the larger-than-life California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger — a magnet for international attention, whatever he’s doing. Schwarzenegger congratulated Steinberg in a somewhat pro forma news release, but sources say he’s actually overjoyed because Steinberg lacks his predecessor’s temper, which once led Perata to change the locks on the offices of three moderate Democrats who had crossed him.
Indeed, the liberal Steinberg gets bipartisan plaudits. Jerry Haleva, a California lobbyist, who is active with the Republican Jewish Coalition, served with Steinberg decades ago on the JCRC board, cooperating on issues such as Soviet Jewry and church-state separation.
“Speaking from a more conservative perspective, it would be nicer if he was less likable,” Haleva said. “He really does bring the right skill sets to that job: He has a good temperament; he has an inclusive style that’s going to be very helpful.”