Mayoral Hopeful Flo Cofer Envisions a Democratic Sacramento

Flo Cofer

With an activist background and a left-wing perspective, Sacramento mayoral candidate Flo Cofer bears the markers of an outsider candidate. But backed by big unions, sitting councilmembers, and the city paper, she’s giving the Sac elite a run for their money.

Sacramento mayoral candidate Flo Cofer at a protest. (Dr. Flo Cofer for Sacramento Mayor)

Interview by
Andee Sunderland

On May 1 last year, Flojaune Cofer tweeted, “Solidarity to all workers this May Day! As the daughter of teachers and granddaughter of a coal miner and a postal worker, I’m thankful to all laborers whose work uplifts humanity, and to our unions for continuing the struggle for fair wages and safe working conditions.”

You would expect such an outspoken pro-worker mayoral candidate to be endorsed by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — and you’d be right. But DSA is far from alone. Cofer’s campaign for Sacramento mayor has won the endorsement of the editorial board of the city’s paper the Sacramento Bee, two sitting Sacramento City Council members, and the city’s health care and education unions.

An epidemiologist by trade, Cofer is affectionately known in Sacramento progressive circles as Dr. Flo. Her extensive work in public health policy made broader systemic inequality impossible to ignore, and she’s spent years pushing for policy change as a grassroots activist, an official committee appointee, and much else in between. In addition to serving as senior policy director for Public Health Advocates, Cofer is a longtime host of the local politics and current events podcast Voices: River City.

Flojaune Cofer’s campaign declines funds from corporations, law enforcement associations, and the real estate industry. Cofer spoke to Jacobin’s Andee Sunderland about Sacramento’s class and race divides, public safety and violence prevention, democratic participation in city politics, her support for a cease-fire in Gaza, and the urgent homelessness crisis in Sacramento, where nearly ten thousand people sleep outside or in their cars.

Andee Sunderland

Some might see you as an outsider candidate, but on the debate stage you communicate clearly about policy solutions in a way that your opponents struggle to. What experiences helped you develop that clarity?

Flo Cofer

Yes, I’m a public health professional, and we learn skills that really benefit the political sphere. First is knowing that people often say “no” to new things. When we first introduced seatbelts, they had the same response that they did to masks, which was, “This is tyranny!” That’s a very human response. Change is all around us, but we are notoriously bad at adapting to change quickly. So public health workers learn that “no” is an opening offer, and usually the least important thing about your response to us. We want to know why you’re a no, what your concerns are.

I have been the senior policy director at an organization called Public Health Advocates for the last eight years, and I also served on multiple city and county boards and commissions. I was appointed by the mayor to our climate commission that developed our climate action plan. I also chaired the Measure U tax advisory team. On the county side, I served on the Sheriff’s community outreach advisory board and then helped with some of the Mental Health Services Act projects specifically related to community-based mental health in black communities.

I’m not new to policy, and being an appointee to these boards and commissions allowed me to learn how these systems really work, then articulate a clear vision of change, since I’ve also been the person on the outside running up against hurdles.

Andee Sunderland

Regarding your work with the Measure U tax advisory teams, was that something like a participatory budgeting process?

Flo Cofer

That was part of it. That was what we fought for.

Measure U was this half-cent sales tax that was set to expire in 2019; the mayor and the council wanted to double it. A bunch of community members got together who were on the fence about that. We were worried that the money wasn’t going to go where it was supposed to. We came with a proposal including a community advisory board to help allocate this brand new $70 million a year for the purposes that were outlined during their campaign: inclusive economic development, the arts, and housing and homelessness.

This would be a group of fifteen people, with a seat dedicated to youth, experts in different areas like economic development, and a representative for every neighborhood. The first thing we wanted to do was build this committee, because this was how community members would have a voice in how this money was spent. But once we got in there, we learned that because this was a general fund tax, those dollars didn’t have to go to what they were promised during the campaign. All the new money went where they had promised it wasn’t going to go, which was to the police and basic spending.

So we pushed back and said, “Hold on a second, that is a lie! Legally you’re not doing anything wrong, but that doesn’t mean morally you’re not.” And they swapped out money from elsewhere in the general fund. We requested $10 million, and got $1 million. So we decided to call it a pilot, and out of that $1 million we got seventeen projects to meet immediate needs that the city had not otherwise prioritized.

We got people engaged in the process, and they got to propose and vote on programs themselves. Community members as young as fourteen got to vote, which gets them involved in a way that general electoral voting can’t. It was an amazing process we learned a lot from, and I’m very excited about expanding that kind of process to more of the budget.

Andee Sunderland

Since we’re talking about budgeting, I know you’ve talked specifically about making cuts to the police budget in order to better fund nonviolent approaches to public safety. Do you think there’s a path toward that in Sacramento?

Flo Cofer

Yeah, here’s what I understand: Measure O, or The Emergency Shelter and Enforcement Act, passed in 2022. It was a well-named initiative that was going to do nothing to address homelessness, as we have seen living through to 2024. But people were, and are, so desperate for a solution to homelessness that when they saw something on their ballot, they said, “Yes, please, someone, do something.”

From that experience, I learned that people don’t want to know what you’re not going to do. They want to know what you are going to do, especially when the problems seem hard. That’s part of why “defund” as a slogan that we were using to talk about budget realignment was so unpopular. It tells people what you want to stop doing, but it leaves people to wonder what you are going to do.

I am the only woman in the race, and I experience safety very differently than the men I’m running against. I have a vested personal interest in public safety. And I know that you, and I, and no one else in this community woke up this morning hoping to call 911! What that means for me is that I want us to have money to invest in prevention.

Right here in Sacramento, we went two years with no youth homicides. Between 2017 and the beginning of 2020, we funded a network of violence prevention and intervention specialists. That got us two years with no youth homicides, no young people hanging RIP on a banner on the fence at their high school. That is powerful.

That’s what we want, right? We want to spend our public safety dollars on what keeps us safe. And what keeps us safe is having those programs funded. A $3.2 million investment got us a 40 percent reduction in violent crime

Now say we have prevented as much as we can. When we do have an emergency, who’s the right person to respond?

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), back in March of 2023, gave their own proposal with a list of twenty-eight calls that they said do not require a uniformed officer with a gun to respond. The LAPD, the largest one in the state, is volunteering to defund themselves. They are saying, “Let us focus on the things that are in our scope; these are things that are not.”

And they were the very things that, in Sacramento, our Department of Community Response was set up in 2020 to address. I want to make sure that department has the budget to do those things.

Andee Sunderland

It’s clear how present in our minds the issue of homelessness is in Sacramento. So to be a little optimistic, what will it take for us to guarantee housing as a human right? Where do we start?

Flo Cofer

We need everybody to get mad and loud, because that’s going to be a big uphill push!

But we are closer to it than we ever have been. We have three members of our current city council who have not taken money from developers and from the apartment association. So you have some people who are able to think freely and move freely, in a values-based way, as opposed to having to be beholden to their corporate donors.

The next step is for us to address the pain points in the system. First and foremost, we need to have real rent control in the city of Sacramento. The substandard rent control that we have allows rents to go up almost 10 percent a year, and most people’s wages are not keeping pace with that. It’s also important to lower the cost of building new housing.

If we know as a region that we need to add ten thousand new units over the next decade, what if the city actually negotiated a bulk purchasing price for building materials? So that when projects are approved, they have a locked-in rate, instead of rising with inflation over time.

We can also shorten the time for projects to get approved by having the city do community benefits agreements in advance with every neighborhood. Then communities won’t be forced to use the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) just to have some teeth, to demand what they want from a project.

It would be great to do CEQA approval in advance too. We know what vacant parcels exist that might be eyed by developers. Why not go ahead and do the CEQA process, so we know what the impact of developing on that land is going to be?

Similar to what we did for blueprinting of accessory dwelling units in Sacramento, where we came up with ten blueprints, and if you chose those you could jump straight into your project. We can streamline these processes and lower costs, without lowering the developer fees that are critical to funding our parks maintenance and other city services.

Andee Sunderland

You’re talking about the city buying materials. Does that mean public development of social housing, or just working with private developers?

Flo Cofer

All of the above! I’m signed on with council members Katie Valenzuela, Mai Vang, and Caity Maple to Sacramento Forward, which would allow for the development of public housing and co-op housing.

I also support the proposal from Sacramento Area Congregations Together to establish a public bank in Sacramento. It would allow us to not be beholden to private shareholders, and actually take the interest that’s collected when people take out mortgages and other loans to reinvest in the municipality.

Andee Sunderland

These kinds of proposals are what you mean by your campaign slogan, “More is possible.”

Flo Cofer

More is possible! It’s all made up, so why do we keep choosing a reality that doesn’t work for us?

The big thing that actually inspired me to run for mayor is that we’re a city where thirty thousand people wake up early on Thanksgiving morning to do Run to Feed the Hungry, to support the food bank. This is not a community of people who do not care. This past week we had hundreds of volunteers go out, in the cold and rain, to participate in the point-in-time count, to make sure that people who are experiencing homelessness were counted and got to have their say in what their needs were and the services that would come about from that.

This is really a community of doers, people who will show up when a vision is cast. But our current city government views community members as obstacles to be navigated, not partners to be engaged.

I want to change that. Because when I say to someone, “There are ten thousand people experiencing homelessness in our city, and 15 percent of them are young people. By the end of my first term, I want to have zero young people sleeping on our streets and in cars” — that changes things. It feels tangible. I can see the gears in your head start to move, “What would that mean? How can I help?”

It changes the dynamic immediately, and now we’re thinking in a solutions-oriented way. The downside to us not having had any real goals and priorities in Sacramento is that we talk a lot about homelessness, but no one can tell you what the goal is, and you also don’t know how you can be a part of it. So the business community went off and ran an initiative that made no sense, and people voted for it because they were desperate.

Everybody is out here going, “Oh I’ll order a case of water online and give it, because it’s hot outside.” People are trying their best, but they don’t know where to plug in, because they don’t know what the goal is. They just know that what they’re seeing is painful, and they want to be helpful. We can do so much more than just housing the young people, but by setting that goal it makes people start thinking, “How can I help?”

That’s how our city can show people that more is possible. Once the goal is laid out, and we start talking about the how, people will show up to the table and say, “Have you thought about this?” and “This is what I have to offer.”

Andee Sunderland

You’ve been very present on strike lines during your campaign, in the union struggles, red hot labor summer, all of that.

Flo Cofer

Summer, fall, winter! Now we’re getting ready to go into spring!

Andee Sunderland

Have you had any meaningful experiences out on the strike lines?

Flo Cofer

I’m a third-generation union kid. Both of my grandfathers were union, a postal worker and a miner. Both of my parents were union teachers. I understand labor exists to protect workers, to make sure that they have safe working conditions, that they aren’t being exploited, and that we are taking care of our communities.

I’m seeing workers fighting to make sure that they’re making enough money to afford housing. That was really the crux of the labor negotiations happening all year: the rent is too damn high, and people can’t afford it. So if we’re not going to do something about the cost, then we have to do something about the pay. People are saying, “I can’t keep doing this if I’m not paid appropriately and if I don’t have the appropriate benefits.”

We need statewide Medicare for All, because that’s the best option for everybody, and it will help with costs tremendously. But in the meantime, we have organized labor making sure people are paid a livable wage.

Andee Sunderland

Labor action has been an exciting part of the broader political context during your campaign. But I know it’s also been a really challenging time, given world events since October 7.

One of your opponents tried to smear you right away for being endorsed by our local DSA chapter. He characterized the organization as Hamas supporters after they mobilized in Sacramento, and all over the country, to call for an end to the occupation and apartheid policies of the Israeli state.

You stood by DSA, and quickly added your voice to calls for a cease-fire in Gaza. What went into that decision?

Flo Cofer

Human rights are human rights. I’m not backing down from human rights struggles.

I always draw inspiration from historical figures. We see them so clearly in today’s light. But at the time, they were viewed in the exact same way that those of us fighting right now are: as menaces, and as far outside of what is real and what is possible.

I joke every MLK Day that nobody who has ever lived on planet Earth would be more surprised that there is a Martin Luther King Jr national holiday than Martin Luther King Jr himself. That was not his lived experience! He was more hated than Black Lives Matter and the folks protesting genocide in Gaza combined.

I think not just about what the implication is going to be for me, in the moment, but how are these things going to be viewed in the future. “What side of history do you want to be on?” It’s just so clear.

We have more than thirty thousand Palestinians in Gaza who have died now, and I am the only candidate for mayor who has called for a cease-fire.

Andee Sunderland

This has become sort of a meme: What’s your day one agenda?

Flo Cofer

Gosh, I have not thought about day one.

Andee Sunderland

Sorry, that’s the meme.

Flo Cofer

Day one, move into the office, set up my computer. Introduce myself to the staff. I like to know everyone who makes a system work, including the maintenance staff. Then I have to make sure there’s some beautiful art around and a good sound system in my office for when I need to do some deep thinking. That would be my day one.

First hundred days, I really have two goals: the first is to get the council to set some two-year priorities. Because elections happen every two years, I think it’s a great time to be able to sit down and get on one page about what we’re working toward. That allows our city staff to work on a long-term, overarching strategy instead of responding to something new every week.

Everybody in our city should know what we are working toward and if we’ve been successful. It should not take a city audit to figure that out. What were the meaningful investments we did, and what did we learn? Answering that should be an active part of how a city is run.

The second is to change the way that we do our governance. Right now there’s an agenda that comes out weekly, with a hodgepodge of things on it. You get five days’ notice of what’s going to be decided, and I don’t think that’s effective.

We need to structure things a little more like we do at the state, where there would be a period of time when the mayor, council members, and department heads for the city could introduce pieces of legislation and proposals. Then those can be organized by topic on the city’s website. So if you’re interested in climate change, you can see all the climate proposals. If you’re interested in public safety, you can see all those.

Then we can say, which ones of our boards, committees and commissions, our volunteers that we’ve asked for their help should these proposals first go to? So they can give us — wait for it — advice. In my experience, there’s nothing more frustrating than serving on a commission to give community input, and finding out after the city council has already decided on something. And I’m like, why am I here if I can’t advise before you make a decision? How is this a helpful process?

For example, if something is going to involve road closure, the disabilities commission should see that. They should be able to say, “Hey, look, this is how this is going to impact people that you’re not always thinking about.” Then we get the benefit of the staff report. When something is put on the agenda, we get to know what committees have seen it, what organizations and entities are in support and opposition, or requesting amendments, the way we do at the state level.

That would allow more people to have a voice and a say, and it would allow us to slow down and be thoughtful about the things that we’re passing into legislation. The truth is, nothing I’ve ever written in my whole life has my first draft been my best one. It’s always benefited peer review. We certainly should not be legislating based on first drafts. We should be legislating based on a lot of community review.

Andee Sunderland

Some people say our urban service boundary was drawn by a big developer, Angelo Tsakopoulos, in a city council meeting that had dragged out till midnight. People are sick of that small-town, hokey stuff.

Flo Cofer

We can also have meetings on a theme. So if we’re going to talk about public safety proposals, we can do five or six of them in one night, so that the people who are interested in that can come to one meeting instead of having to come to a meeting every single week, and sit through eighteen items that don’t really apply to them and so that they can hear the one they came for.

Andee Sunderland

This priority of yours speaks to a more democratic spirit, right? When things are transparent, and understandable, people can participate even though they also have their own jobs to do.

Flo Cofer

That’s right. And that way, more is possible.