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The upcoming City Council elections will see a new candidate in the June primary – the first challenger in the race to unseat incumbent Bonnie Pannell from the District 8 council seat she has held for 14 years.
Betty Williams, a recruitment executive at a local staffing firm and the current president of the local NAACP chapter, filed intent to run papers without any fanfare last month and has been quietly building support for her campaign.
Williams, 55, does not come from a political background, rather from a small business and community activism background – something her campaign consultant, Sam Walton, said he believes will be a strength for Williams in the upcoming race.
“Betty already reaches out to the community, asks for input and brings in other leaders to answer (residents’) questions,” Walton said Wednesday. “If you want to solve problems, you have to take the time to get out in the community and be active.”
Walton is acting as a volunteer assistant in Williams’ campaign, just as he did for former City Councilman Sam Pannell in the 1990s – and Pannell’s wife, Bonnie, who stepped into the District 8 council seat after Sam died in 1998.
This time, however, he decided to get behind Williams in the upcoming race.
“I think 14 years (in a council seat) is a lot,” Walton said. “I didn’t anticipate Bonnie would want to hold the office that long.”
Walton said Williams, whose community involvement spans almost 30 years as a south area resident, is not part of “the establishment,” – that is, the political world – and she doesn’t “rub shoulders with big money.”
“I’d been planning to run for a while,” Williams said Wednesday. “I ended up being drafted by a band of community members who were ready to hit the ground running.”
Unemployment, high crime rates and underperforming schools are a few of the problems in the district that Williams said she wants to face head-on.
“There are 15 schools in my district, and only five are operating at the minimum state level,” Williams said. “I hope to work with corporations, the schools and the school district to somehow make the schools more viable.”
Williams said she is also preparing to host a series of job fairs in the district starting in February.
“I want to partner with businesses and churches to open doors for people to find work,” Williams said. “There are so many people who want a chance to get an interview.”
Williams has been the president of the local NAACP chapter for the last eight years. She is also a member of the California High Speed Rail Authority Business Advisory Committee, and she’s on Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Business Advisory Council as well as the mayor’s Crime Prevention Task Force.
Williams’ campaign is a grassroots effort, Walton said, and more than 200 people have emailed asking to be added to Williams’ “walk list” to walk the district and knock on doors with Williams in support of her effort to win the council seat.
According to Walton, Williams’ fundraising has already started, and she has raised roughly $15,000 so far – a relatively small amount for a candidate facing a longtime incumbent.
Walton said he expects Pannell will out-fundraise Williams by 4-1.
But for Williams’ campaign, Walton said, it’s not as important how much money the candidate raises – it’s much more important how the candidates reaches the community.
“If you have a weak message, or you are not really in touch with the people then you rely on a slick marketing campaign,” Walton said. “That costs money.”
In Williams’ case, Walton said, she is all about the community, and she has a very strong message. Walton said this will make it easier for Williams to connect with the community without having to raise lots of money.
“I’ve watched how she’s led in the NAACP,” local pastor Darrell Heath said Wednesday. “She has a way of speaking to people so they know she’s listening. I admire that.”
Heath has been a close associate of Williams for four years, he said.
“She’s been an advocate for the African-American community, an advocate for underprivileged people and the young people in our community,” he said. “She’s been a real blessing in reaching out to our young people.”
Heath said that, when he looks at the district, he appreciates all of the building that has been going on but feels the district needs someone with a better understanding of core issues.
“In our area, we have the highest crime rate and the highest poverty rate,” he said, “and Williams understands that. She has a heart for the people.”
Melissa Corker is a Staff Reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCorker.