By Kimberly Gomez Santos, Samin Vafaee, Chris Woodard, Trevor Harris, William Duvall and Collin Houck | Special to The OBSERVER
Former state Sen. Dr. Richard Pan says he hopes to build a safer and healthier Sacramento as the city’s next mayor.
Pan served as senator for the 6th District from 2014 to 2022. He served as an assemblymember from 2010 to 2014.
Pan said his background as a pediatrician and as a professor at UC Davis illustrates a “career dedicated to solving problems,” positioning him as a mayor who can lead with efficient judgment.
Pan recently spoke to students in a journalism class at Sacramento State who asked him on behalf of The OBSERVER about homelessness, police misconduct, public safety, climate, diversity and other issues.
Q. What is your solution for homeless encampments in the Sacramento region that are creating safety and health problems for businesses and residents?
A. First of all, we have a tremendous problem with a shortage in housing and that’s not just Sacramento, that’s not just California, although it’s worse in California. It’s across the whole country. We haven’t been able to keep up with building enough housing. Housing prices are very high so people have trouble affording housing. When your rent goes up and your income doesn’t or you have a basic financial crisis – let’s say health care problem or your car breaks down or something – people then fall behind on the rent and then they may lose their housing.
Eighty percent of people who are currently chronically homeless do have mental health or substance use problems. So we do need to help them with that. Otherwise we can’t get them off the street.
On one hand, the encampments and so forth are causing challenges for residents who may find trash or feces or needles or whatever on the streets. At the same time, you have people who are unhoused on the streets who have been victims of crime and a variety of others suffering from mental health, substance use, being targeted, etc. So we’ve got to address both sides of that coin. That includes not only more permanent housing, but we also need to find places where it’s safer for them and also where we can provide them more services – so things like safe ground sites and shelters.
Q. Given the national conversations around police misconduct and its effect on community trust, how do you plan on strengthening the relationship between Sacramento’s law enforcement and its residents?
A. One thing that’s really important is that our officers actually know the communities they’re in and the communities know them. We often talk about community policing and one of the challenges we have in Sacramento is that we have a shortage of police officers. We have a lot of vacancies. We have one of the lowest ratios of officers to community members. So what does that mean? Well, most of the time the officers spend is going into communities and arresting people or whatever else. They’re not spending a lot of time getting to know people.
And vice versa, the community looks at police officers and says, “The only thing you do is you come around and you arrest people, right? You’re not helping anybody.” We need officers on the streets, not just essentially doing negative things. I mean it’s not negative in the sense that we want them to address criminals, but we also want them to build relationships and also view communities as places that basically for the most part are places that are full of good people.
Q. A lot of K Street storefronts are shuttered right now. Do you have any ideas or plans to improve the overall appearance of the street while we try to bring back business?
A. I’m a small business owner. In order for business to succeed, we need to have customers. So for K Street, part of it is that people have to feel safe on K Street at all times of the day, not just at certain times.
We have a downtown that’s very much driven by employers who have their offices downtown; then, it’s a lunch crowd. And that’s a challenge for Sacramento because, especially post-COVID, a lot of people are working remotely. Most of those offices are not very full, and so that means there’s not a lot of customers going around.
We need more resident housing. We need people to actually live there. People have to feel safe, especially going downtown, and then we need more people. You want to create that sort of density down there, hopefully not just during lunch, but during the rest of the time of the day.
Q. In the last two years after the pandemic, workers and unions across the country have been demanding better wages and better working conditions. What can local unions here in Sacramento expect from you if you were elected?
A. I’d like to point out I’m the only person running for mayor who is actually an active union member, AFSCME Local 206. So I think it’s important that workers have a say.
We can have better wages, better income for workers. That’s something that’s going to be very important for the prosperity of the city. We need to build a stronger middle class.
The places with the greatest income inequality – even the richest people do worse than in a place where there’s income inequality. Think about that and so hopefully we can make the case to everyone.
Q. How can you ensure that affordable housing is built for low-income residents?
A. If the city is financing it, we certainly can put conditions on the construction. Actually, what we want to do is try to do mixed housing but of course the subsidies should be directed toward affordable units.
One of the challenges we’re having now, though, with trying to build more housing is that interest rates are up and so that’s making it harder for things to pencil out. So in addition to direct subsidies, one of the things we should also look at – usually governments can get a slightly lower interest rate. So we may also think about how we can help finance as a way to lower the cost, as well as any sort of direct subsidies that we may give.
Q. In case of another drought here in Sacramento, would you put measures in place to help save more water and if so, what would some of those things be?
A. Especially with the climate crisis, even in Sacramento where we’re at two rivers, we need to be sure that we are using our water wisely.
We should be looking at our piping infrastructure. Our city’s been around since the gold rush era and so to identify leakages and so forth. We should also be thinking about whether there’s opportunities to use – some people call it gray water for toilets and other types of things in those systems as well.
This story was produced by Professor Philip Reese’s Sacramento State journalism students.