Flojaune Cofer: surprise progressive star in California capital’s mayoral race (2024)

In an election year in which California’s races have the potential to be among the most consequential in the US, one of the most fascinating contests is shaping up somewhere unexpected: Sacramento.

The leading candidate to replace the city’s mayor is a progressive public health expert running for elected office for the first time. Flojaune Cofer has pledged to reject corporate donations, cut police budgets in favor of workers trained to deal with issues such as mental health and tackle the city’s spiraling homelessness crisis.

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Cofer, a 41-year-old epidemiologist who would be the first Black woman elected as Sacramento mayor, won the most votes of any candidate in last month’s primary with an almost 8% lead over her closest competitor.

Her rise comes as political commentators have argued Californians, disheartened by crime, are growing frustrated with progressive policies. In March, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the city’s status as a longtime liberal bastion is no more after voters approved a controversial measure that will require welfare recipients to be screened for drugs.

Sacramento has struggled with many of the same issues as San Francisco and Los Angeles from a growing unhoused population and unaffordable housing to downtowns that have struggled to rebound after the pandemic. Cofer’s vision for the city, which she hopes will one day serve as a model for dealing with the most pressing problems of the era, has appealed to voters, particularly those in lower-income neighborhoods.

“I just feel we are so close to being able to do something powerful,” she said in a recent interview. “We don’t have to live in a city where people don’t have their basic needs met. This can be a city that’s affordable, prosperous, innovative, that’s connected.”

Cofer, originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, moved to Sacramento 20 years ago for a public health fellowship and decided to make her home in the city after finding a deep-rooted sense of community. “It reminded me a lot of Pittsburgh, with the tight neighborhoods and rivers flowing through it and being a midsize city in a state with larger cities that often get more of the attention,” she said.

She worked for the state’s public health department before becoming a senior public policy director for a public health non-profit. In recent years, Cofer served on several city committees and was a visible presence in Sacramento politics before she decided to run for office.

She faced a crowded field with well-known and high-profile candidates, including two former state lawmakers, vying for the role and arguing they were best equipped to address the problems ailing the city.

Sacramento has changed considerably in recent years with the redevelopment of its downtown, growing population and a seemingly ever worsening housing shortage.

Homelessness has been the defining issue in city politics in recent years. The capital is in the midst of a growing emergency as the number of unhoused residents climbed almost 70% from 2019 to 2022.

At least 9,278 people in the county are estimated to be without a home, the majority of whom sleep outdoors or in vehicles. Encampments have developed on levees, near schools and next to busy roads, while advocates have said the city has failed to create meaningful solutions to match the scale of the massive problem.

“I think one of the things that we’re already in agreement on is that what we’re doing right now is not working,” she said. The crisis is affecting everyone in the community, she said, from unhoused people who say they are being harassed and targeted without receiving the support they need to business owners who say people don’t want to go downtown.

The city can create change “if we do right by the people who are experiencing homelessness, and we actually make sure people have a place to go, instead of just moving them block to block without a clear destination, and we make sure that they have the facilities and things that they need, like showers and bathrooms”, she said.

“There’s data to show us that these things can work. Instead, it seems like we are insistent upon trying to do things expediently that don’t work and that make the problem worse.”

Cofer has backed greater protections for renters as well as managed encampments. She has also advocated cutting $70m from the police budget and redirecting that funding to hire trained workers who can respond to calls about mental health and homelessness while police prioritize violent crime.

She wants to invest in programs from non-profits and community groups that have a track record of reducing violence in the city – pointing to the city’s investment in similar initiatives that led to a two-year period with zero youth homicides before that funding was cut.

“That’s the kind of thing that you can feel in a community when you’re not worried about being shot, when your young people aren’t worried about it, when nobody is in the active stage of grieving and hanging up RIP banners on their high schools,” she said.

“I’m looking at what will save us money, what will save us lives, and will allow us all to be able to experience safety, not just the performance of safety.”

Despite the so-called backlash against progressive policies in other parts of the state, Cofer’s message appears to have won over voters across the city. Her campaign knocked on 30,000 doors, she said, and she engages directly with voters on Twitter, even those who are frequently critical of her.

She saw support from all income levels, but particularly in the lowest-income neighborhoods in the city, according to an analysis from the Sacramento Bee.

“Our message resonates,” Cofer said. “We’re talking about people who have largely not felt seen, heard and represented. When we change the narrative, invite people into the conversation, they see things differently and they’re hopeful in a different way and they’re reaching out in a different way.”

She was endorsed by the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, which described her agenda as “[in] some ways fiscally conservative and in other ways socially and economically progressive”.

“She has the most potential to dramatically transform the Sacramento political landscape in the next four years, and that landscape desperately needs transformation,” the board wrote.

In November, Sacramento voters will choose between Cofer and Kevin McCarty, a Democratic state lawmaker. Some political analysts have argued Cofer faces long odds with votes no longer divided among multiple candidates, but Cofer remains hopeful about her candidacy and the progressive movement in the city.

“Sacramento is in a different position than some of the other places where we haven’t actually had an opportunity to try these progressive ideas out here,” she said. “We have the benefit of having watched what did and did not work in places in the Bay Area and southern California and to really learn from that.”

Flojaune Cofer: surprise progressive star in California capital’s mayoral race (2024)
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