By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Following the recent announcement that she plans to run for Sacramento mayor, local epidemiologist Dr. Flojaune Cofer sat down with The OBSERVER, sharing her vision for the city and how she plans to change things by listening and being more inclusive.
Q: How does day one of your campaign feel?
A. Day one feels energetic. A few people said, “I have been to City Hall a lot and I’ve never felt good when I’ve been here.” That really warmed my heart because I do find local government exciting. I know that we’re making decisions and we don’t always agree, but I don’t think it has to feel the way that it feels.
Q. You’ve never held an elected position. Is that an advantage or disadvantage?
A. Every position has a balcony and a basement. That’s language from the Clifton StrengthsFinder; they talk about how you have your strengths. I get things done. That’s the balcony of it, but the basement of it is that there can be a tendency to be impulsive. Luckily for me, I also have analytical [skills]. I can think things through and that helps to counterbalance the impulsiveness.
I wasn’t walking around town wanting to run for office. I’ve been living my life authentically. I have been making real relationships. I have been showing up in the community because I wanted to and really, really doing work that I believe in. I wasn’t doing that in a transactional or thought-out way, I was just showing up in the way that I wanted to in the moment. I think that has allowed people to get to know me and to get to trust me.
There will also be a learning curve for me because I’ve not been in the role before, but I know the city well. I chaired the Measure U Committee for four years. I served on two other commissions including the Mayor’s Commission on Climate Change and the Active Transportation Commission. I’ve worked at the California Department of Public Health and then my day job is working on state and local policy, so I know the process pretty well. I’ve worked on a number of policy campaigns, measures and propositions. I work on candidate campaigns. I have supported people who are in office and worked with their offices on legislation. I know there’s nothing like having firsthand experience of doing something and sometimes when things aren’t working, it’s really helpful to have a fresh perspective on things. I think my fresh perspective comes with a lot of knowledge and experience on how things work and who the players are because I have been involved in so many things with the city.
Q. You’ve called out things, and people, that you feel need to be checked. How do you assure folks that you won’t become part of the status quo?
A. My biggest fear in doing this is the process turning me into someone that I don’t recognize, or the process undermining the very thing about me that made [the public] want me to run. I have set up accountability partners for that. I don’t want a culture of “yes people” around me. In fact, I want a bunch of people around me who are smarter than me, who have different lived experience than me, but who have the same goals as me. I want people who believe in affordable housing, who believe in clean air and clean water. People who believe in living in a safe environment and who believe in living in a thriving environment where people’s voices are included and they feel seen and heard. If you agree with me on that, I want you to give me the best possible advice on how we get there.
Q. Are you ready for all eyes to be on you?
A. Yes. The beauty of being a real person who’s been living my life is that you’ll get a chance to see and know me. You’ll have years of consistency to go back and look through and say, “Yeah, she’s been saying this,” and to hold me accountable. Learning and admitting your mistakes is important, but my values are not going to change. The way I see the world is really firm. I can’t just become a chameleon that shapeshifts because it’s politically convenient. I am firmly anchored in who I am; I’ve been loud and proud, and unabashed about that. It offers the community an opportunity to really see me, but also to be able to say, “Hey, Flo, this is what we signed up for, and we’re behind you.” I think I get authentic support because people know that I mean what I say and I say what I mean, and that I’m going to show up in ways that matter even when it’s hard.”
Q. When asked why you’re running now, you mentioned taking time to get your head right. Can you expand on that?
A. We were in a global pandemic and I’m a Black epidemiologist, so what was already a full-time job became a full-time-plus job. I needed to take some time to really rest. I didn’t get that for many months while a lot of other people were working from home and maybe having lighter loads. I was working sometimes 16- to 18-hour days, putting my head down on my desk and then getting up, taking a shower and starting over again. I know burnout is real and I know I’m not a superwoman.
I also had my family back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I had an aunt who was diagnosed with cancer. I was back in Pittsburgh for six or eight weeks to help her through her first rounds of chemo and help support her. She’s going to be turning 80 this May. So that was 2021. During that time, my uncle, her brother, was in a car accident and was paralyzed and then a few months later, succumbed to his injuries. I was grieving and I was back at home helping my aging relatives through some really difficult life transitions. The worst of the pandemic was kind of moving on and then I also needed some rest from some other things that were happening. As we say, “life be lifing.”
Q. What lessons did that teach you?
A. I learned some things about boundaries, about routine and consistency. [I’m ready now] to put the structure in place in my life, with friends, with my family, with other things to be able to show up where I’m needed and also rely on my support network and also not overly overburden myself. This job takes a lot; it’s a lot of energy, emotional and physical bandwidth. I’ll be holding space for a lot of people’s institutional pain and the institutional harms that have taken place. You have to walk into that knowing what role you’re playing and being emotionally prepared to play that role.
Q. If elected, you would be the first Black woman mayor of Sacramento. Your thoughts on that?
A. Being a Black woman, being a woman is different than being a man. And being Black is different from being any other racial or ethnic designation. I have the good fortune of knowing Kellie Todd Griffith from her time in Sacramento, who’s over the California Black Women’s Collective. She’s always been great about bringing Black women, especially Black women electeds and in political spaces, together. She has connected me with some of the Black mayors across the state of California to be able to talk to. I believe we have nine and so she’s connected me with some of them.
That has been just a really wonderful mentoring experience. They know firsthand what my experience is going to be like in some ways. That has been really helpful. I also happen to know a few mayors and former mayors that I can reach out to. I think part of the reason why I’m uniquely qualified for this position is because I have friends who have been, or are right now unhoused and I have friends who have been, or are right now, working in the White House, and everything in between. That diversity allows me to be able to tap into how people are thinking about things and are experiencing things. It also allows me to be able to get insight and information when I need good counsel.
Q. There has only been a handful of Black women who have served on the Sacramento City Council. Why is diversity important?
A. I am certainly reminded of the shoulders that I stand on in terms of there being very few Black women who have served on the City Council before. I look at people like Bonnie Pannell, Lauren Hammond and Callie Carney as really being pillars of this community. Having stepped into play at a time when people were really saying, “No; wait your turn”; “No, it’s not your time”; or “You’re not the right one.” I know that none of this is possible without the people who took those risks.
It’s so nice to be able to see someone who looks like us in a role, but there’s also the lived experience that we have that we bring into the role. I think the value of having diverse perspectives on the Council is that the conversation can be richer. And in the mayor’s seat, the chairing of a meeting and the structuring of a meeting and the way in which the Council does its business really has the potential to be able to shape its outcomes. I have some ideas about that, because I have a lot of experience in that role.
Q. How will you address Sacramento’s issues around race and equity?
A. I’m going to encourage us to think differently about things. I’m going to encourage us to really kick the tires on how we’re doing and the work that we’re doing. I see Sacramento really needing to address climate change. [It is] a major inequity issue and it’s going to get worse if we don’t meet our climate goals. Everything else in my platform becomes null and void if we won’t address the climate crisis because we won’t have a habitable place to be able to do any of the good work.
Then from the city’s perspective, there are some deep tensions because of the way that some of our traumas or collective traumas have been addressed, or have not been addressed. What I see as a need is the ability for people to meet up with a government that is welcoming them and that is willing to hear their pain — that is willing to say, “I’m sorry. I see you. How can we make this right?”
A good example of this is we have all this marijuana money coming into the city. We’re going to spend some of it on Measure L, which was the youth funding. We’re going to spend an equivalent amount, but Sacramento has the distinction of being the place in California that had the worst racial disparities when it came to marijuana arrests when it was illegal. Black Sacramentans were 27 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. Yes, the district attorney has worked to be able to do some record expungements and things like that, but there’s also harm that’s been created in the community. What would it look like if some of those marijuana revenue dollars were actually spent to invest right now in communities that were actively harmed? That’s the kind of thing we should be doing right now. What I don’t want to set us up for is 130 years from now having the same conversations we’re now having about reparations for slavery for Black people who are alive right now. The communities have been mapped out and we can do something about it. If we can’t start there, then, wow, we are really in trouble for righting more historic wrongs.