Big Mayor, Small Town

When I first saw Chris Cabaldon speak at an event nearly six years ago, I did a mental double-take. What was the mayor of tiny, old West Sacramento (West Sac, as everyone back in California calls it) doing giving a speech in Washington, D.C.? But it didn’t take long to see why: size, schmize. This man can command a room. And what he’s saying is really important.

Fast-forward to 2019, and I was delighted when I saw that Governing had finally decided to do a feature story about Cabaldon. He’d been on our radar for years and the timing, as it turned out, couldn’t have been better: By the time I was in California reporting the story in April, the idea of a small town mayor punching above his weight had something of a national mascot in South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy for president. Cabaldon introduced Buttigieg at his historic campaign launch, and in many ways, the older mayor’s legacy set the stage for the younger mayor’s success.

A key to that success, and what strikes me most about Cabaldon, is how unpolitician-like he is, despite the fact that he’s been a mayor for two decades. He doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with his own optics or how things might play — he says what he thinks and quickly moves on. The mayor has also benefited from a like-minded city council and city manager to allow for West Sac to become a progressive policy-testing ground for the region. The little city of 54,000 has one of the most robust urban farm programs in the country and pushed its region into electric bikeshare. The city was the first to use apps to help bring services to the homeless and launch its own rideshare program. Most of these programs started with Cabaldon and leaders essentially saying, “Well that sounds neat, let’s see if it works first. Then we’ll figure out the rules.”

This sort of “Ready, fire, aim,” approach generally doesn’t work for large cities. It’s too controversial and there are too many stakeholders to slow things down. That’s why we need smaller cities and mayors like Cabaldon who are willing to push the envelope for the rest of us.