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Small City, Big Goals: How an Unconventional Mayor Is Beating the System

West Sacramento, Calif.'s Christopher Cabaldon has revived his town and become a player on the national stage.

When you’re a small-city mayor, getting larger jurisdictions to stop and listen to you can be a trying experience. But it’s something that Christopher Cabaldon, the mayor of West Sacramento, Calif., has turned into a specialty. He’s willing to try almost anything to get results. And he gets them.

For years, his city of 54,000 people had been working with its more commanding regional partners, Davis and Sacramento, to create a bikeshare network that spanned the 16 miles separating the three cities. But the larger two were dragging their feet. There was always, it seemed, one more study to be done. “Like a lot of government projects, we knew everything we didn’t want to happen,” says Cabaldon. “We had all these social objectives -- but we didn’t have a project.”

By 2017, the regional bikeshare plan was almost complete, but the cities still hadn’t found a sponsor or a way to subsidize it. Then Cabaldon participated in the mayors’ track at South by Southwest, the popular innovation festival held annually in Austin. He found himself at a panel on mobility where a representative from a new electric bikeshare company was speaking. He told Cabaldon the city wouldn’t need a sponsor or a subsidy. It wouldn’t even have to build docking stations -- the bikes would be dockless. If it didn’t work out, they could just end the program without losing anything. Cabaldon didn’t wait to talk to Sacramento or Davis. He called city hall from Austin and put the electric bikeshare program on the council agenda for the following week when he was back. He’d figure out how to break the news to Davis and Sacramento after it passed, he thought.

The mayor took the same let’s-just-get-it-done approach to launching an urban farm program. While Sacramento struggled with zoning regulations across the river, Cabaldon and his city council simply told a group that wanted to start a farm on a vacant lot that the city wouldn’t enforce zoning laws while they tried it out. After concerns about traffic and an influx of vagrants proved groundless, the city marked the experiment a success and used the template to change its code. There are now five urban farms in West Sacramento, forming one of the most robust operations of its kind in the country, and they serve as a jobs and economic development magnet for agriculture industry workers and for those who want to buy their own farms.

All of this is classic Cabaldon: Why deal with lengthy task forces, endless public meetings and struggles for consensus when you can just write the rules as you go along? It’s a brash approach that’s not for everyone -- to be sure, some people in Davis and Sacramento were none too pleased Cabaldon had acted without them on the bikeshare initiative. But just as many were relieved he’d found something that wouldn’t require a $2 million investment in a system that could be obsolete in a few years. With the launch of Jump Bike in 2018, the region went from being embarrassingly behind on the bikeshare trend to hosting the largest electric bikeshare network in the country. “His moving faster was what pulled that program together,” says Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget and Policy Center. That’s what Cabaldon does. “He pushes the envelope for his community and in doing so, also pulls the region in that direction.”

West Sacramento was incorporated as a city just 32 years ago. It was still a mostly blank canvas when Cabaldon entered politics in the late 1990s. Over the past 20 years, his brashness and occasional arrogance have not only transformed his city from an industrial dumping ground to a regional phenomenon, they have helped West Sacramento gain national and even global attention. On Cabaldon’s watch, the blue-collar port town has embraced riverfront residences and communal spaces, lured a Triple-A minor league baseball franchise, and developed a whole new approach to urban agriculture. In many ways, Cabaldon has set the stage for younger small-city mayors around the country -- among them presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Ind., who frequently seeks out Cabaldon for advice -- to unapologetically punch above their weight class. 

Certainly, West Sac has its problems. Empty lots and battered single-family homes are scattered around the city. There is a visible homeless population and a tent city along the North Levee riverbank that has been cleared several times by police. There is the difficult balancing act of attracting a new and younger tax base while not neglecting and pricing out the one that’s already there. 

Still, over the past two decades, Cabaldon’s approach to leadership has meant that West Sacramento is often at the surprising forefront of municipal policy and experimentation. When he speaks, his big-city peers usually do pay attention. “When you see his hand go up,” says Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “you get off your device, you quit your Googling and you listen.”


West Sacramento's once-derelict riverfront is now thriving. (Fulcrum Property)

Almost everything about the 53-year-old mayor is a little bit distinctive. When he speaks, he doesn’t waste time worrying about how something will sound. He just says what comes to mind and moves on. He can sometimes make five points in the time it takes most people to make one. He rarely writes out a speech ahead of time -- he’d just end up going off-script anyway. 

When Cabaldon was first elected to the city council in 1996, West Sacramento was just beginning to shake off its past as a former industrial backwater with no real unifying identity. After the port opened in the early 1900s, linking West Sac by water to the San Francisco Bay, rice mills and fish canneries flourished. 

Later, rows of motels popped up along the area’s main drag, catering to Sacramento visitors. The post-World War II boom brought more development and urbanization, but the area never coalesced into anything like a real city. After the fishing and rice milling facilities shuttered, West Sacramento grew seedier and seedier. It was, as Cabaldon described it to a newspaper a couple years ago, “the other side of the tracks, the place your mom said don’t go after dark.”

It lacked a political identity, too. The first measure proposing incorporation appeared on the ballot in 1968, but the idea didn’t win voters over until 1986. West Sacramento was finally officially born on Jan. 1, 1987.

The area was still largely ignored by others in the region until the late 1990s, when it was selected as the home for a new minor league ballpark for the Sacramento River Cats, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants major league baseball team. Cabaldon, who was first selected by his fellow city council members as mayor in 1998, helped create the financing plan for what became Raley Field. The stadium opened in 2000 and began attracting more affluent residents from across the Sacramento River. In 2004, the city began electing its mayor directly, and Cabaldon easily kept his seat amid a development and population boom he had helped start. By the end of the decade, West Sac had hundreds of new housing units opened or in the works. “Someone could have looked at West Sacramento 20 years ago, seen what was there and just said it’s just going to be a warehousing district and nothing more,” says Hoene. “Instead, I think he looked at it as a blank landscape where they could try a lot of things.”


(Eyragon Eidam)

In 2006, in his State of the City speech, Cabaldon told his constituents he was gay. It was one of the few times he’s ever prepared a speech. “That changed me,” he says. “After that, there was no pressure of trying to convince people, ‘Hey I’m just like you.’ Because -- clearly -- I’m not. All that angst of fitting a very particular role -- that was not only not needed but it diminished the quality of my relationships.” Another turning point: Cabaldon twice ran for the state assembly and lost both times in the primaries. After his second loss in 2008, he decided that what he really enjoyed was focusing on his city. And that’s when his role as West Sacramento’s ambassador to the outside world really took shape.

He started making connections and more aggressively pursuing longshot experiments. “My own region had not been the hotbed for any kind of civic innovation,” he says. Turning it into one was not an easy task. A bigger city can just launch an office of innovation. That wasn’t really an option for a town the size of Cabaldon’s. So he had to get creative: In 2014, he got the Sacramento Area Council of Governments to partner with him to join Code for America, a fellowship that unleashes computer programmers into a city to solve some of its biggest technical issues. It worked -- in 2015, West Sacramento became one of the smallest CfA cities, and coders were tasked with developing programs to address food and health concerns. Cabaldon joined the innovation task force at the U.S. Conference of Mayors and became the chair of its Jobs, Education and Workforce Committee. 

“He’s one of those mayors who’s willing to try anything,” says Sly Majid, who helps produce the mayor’s track at South by Southwest. “In a community where every mayor is trying to figure out every possible approach, they look to those early adopters to make them feel comfortable and say, ‘Here’s what we learned.’” West Sacramento was the first city in its region to launch an app that maps homeless encampments. The idea is to locate homeless individuals so that social workers can find out their needs and bring them the right resources, rather than unrealistically expecting individuals to show up at the correct government building. In 2017, the city launched its Kids’ Home Run initiative in partnership with local schools, colleges and foundations to better align the local education system with workforce needs. Funded by a voter-approved sales tax increase, it includes universal preschool for every 4-year-old, a college savings account for kindergartners, guaranteed internships for high school students and a program for one year of free community college. West Sac now has its own on-demand rideshare service run by a private company that allows residents to get anywhere in the city for $3.50.

In 2015, Cabaldon gave a presentation on West Sac’s urban farm program for the U.S. Conference of Mayors Food Policy Committee. That resulted in an invitation to be one of five mayors from the United States to speak at the Milan Food Expo at the 2015 World’s Fair. Cabaldon then joined the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, a coalition of mayors working on food policy, and more global invitations to share West Sacramento’s story poured in from places as different as London and Kuala Lumpur. 


Cabaldon at South by Southwest in 2017, where he collaborated with other mayors. (David Kidd)

For all the recognition West Sacramento has received, including an award as America’s Most Livable City from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Cabaldon knows that small cities will probably always be ignored on the national stage. But he insists -- and his career seems to demonstrate -- that small size can give cities like his the nimbleness to get results faster. 

He also points out one other advantage small-city mayors have over their larger counterparts when it comes to being heard. Smaller-city politicians traditionally just aren’t seen as politically threatening. “Nobody thinks that when I engage on trade, that I’m getting ready to announce for the U.S. Senate,” Cabaldon says.

When South Bend’s Buttigieg announced his campaign for president in April, it was Cabaldon who introduced him to the stage. He mixed humor, self-deprecation and emotion. Noting that West Sacramento is half the size of South Bend, he said, “I’m here to tell you that the towns and the small cities of America, where the majority of Americans actually live … we are here for a big-city mayor like Buttigieg.” Then he turned to an experience he and Buttigieg share -- coming out as gay while in office and then being embraced and resoundingly reelected. “That Pete could do that in the Midwest, right here in South Bend,” he said, “is why being a mayor in today’s America is the key to a presidency that can heal and mend an embattled nation.”

Despite all the attention and all the praise, Cabaldon says he still suffers from impostor syndrome -- the idea that suddenly, the people he’s speaking to will realize he’s not from Sacramento, but from some small town across the river. “You have to be able to laugh,” he adds, “at the hubris of it all.” He laughs, but he keeps on pushing.

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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