The Charmed Political Life of Elk Grove City Councilman Darren Suen; The Dirty Underbelly of Appointments

October 15, 2016 |  Elk Grove City Councilman Darren Suen is living a charmed political life. Suen, who is running for a four-y...

October 15, 2016 | 

Elk Grove City Councilman Darren Suen is living a charmed political life.

Suen, who is running for a four-year term representing the District 1 seat of the Elk Grove City Council, gained his seat in the easiest possible manner - by appointment. Upon former council member Jim Cooper's ascension to the California State Assembly in 2014, Suen was appointed to fill the remaining two years of Cooper's four-year term.

Not surprisingly, once Suen entered office, he turned on his campaign fundraising machine and raised a significant amount of cash. While no elected official will come right out and say it, in Elk Grove City Council elections having a big bankroll discourages under-funded and not widely-known citizens from entering the race.

Suen currently has $110,145 for his campaign, and before the entry of his sole opponent, John Phair, had $80,535 on hand. Phair, for his part, has not reported any fundraising activities.

Furthermore, aside from a few scattered law signs, Phair has not mounted anything recognizable as an active campaign. Indeed, Phair has not shown up at two candidate forums in the past four days.

Even though Suen was undoubtedly hoping to run unopposed, Phair's candidacy changed things in an unexpected way. Once Phair, an unknown entity, announced his candidacy Suen was able to go back to contributors and raise another $30,000.

Should Suen win and seek reelection in 2020 - has there ever been an elected Elk Grove City Council Member who has not sought reelection? - He will have at a minimum maintained, or more likely enhanced his campaign funds for his next campaign. Suen will have built an almost insurmountable financial advantage and will probably be unopposed.

Given that Phair has done nothing to promote himself, his candidacy amounted to a $30,000 gift for Suen and at least eight more years on the Elk Grove City Council. Had Suen not had an opponent, it is unlikely Suen would have sought additional funds from his patrons, nor would they have felt obliged to use their resources in an uncontested race.

Say what you will about the real estate developer patrons of all Elk Grove City Councilmen, but they are pragmatic. If Suen had no opponent, they would have allocated their cash to other campaigns.

While Suen has done an admirable job and has taken his responsibilities seriously during his brief tenure as a City Councilman, his appointment does provide voters with a case study in the dirty underbelly of appointments.  

Although his opponents may not want to acknowledge it, in the race for Elk Grove Mayor, Vice Mayor Steve Ly, notwithstanding his rapidly increasing negatives, is still the presumed front-runner to replace outgoing Mayor Gary Davis. Ly has a well-tuned ground operation, image coaches for forum preparation, and most importantly, a huge financial advantage as the beneficiary of large campaign contributions from home builders and construction trade unions. 

So if Ly does win the mayoral election, how will his seat on the council be filled?

If history is any guide, do not hold your breath that there will be a special election held. As in the past, the Councilmen will cite the high cost of holding a special election as their justification for appointing a hand-picked successor.

Oh sure they will go through the motions and solicit applications, but make no mistake - the person selected will have the blessing of the council's patrons. The vote will be a consensus or near consensus appointment by the four councilmen - Steve Detrick, Pat Hume, Ly, and Suen.

From the special interests perspective, the appointment process has been like a probationary employment arrangement - let them get their feet wet and see how they do. For the outside resident who may wish to enter the City Council race, this is but another obstacle that you could consider part of the rigged game.

If you have any doubt this is how the Elk Grove City Council behaves, listen to Ly's comments at the Elk Grove-South County Democratic Club meeting in the video posted below. In essence, Ly comments were a glimpse into the souls of he and his brethren as he said interlopers to their good-old-boys' club need not apply.

"If we were to bring somebody from outside who don't [sic] understand the culture of the council, I think that may be an issue," Ly said.  

So as Suen rolls to an easy victory and Ly scratches out a win, sans a majority of voters, let's keep this in mind as we inch toward the structure of next Elk Grove City Council. The more we have appointed members gaining admittance to the City Council, the more our City will become even more of an extension of the patrons supporting the existing power structure.


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