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Sacramento Councilman Rob Fong, among the most well-known faces in local politics and a key figure in the city's ongoing struggle to build a new sports arena, says he will not seek re-election in the June primary.
Fong told The Bee on Wednesday that after eight years on the City Council and six years on the Sacramento City Unified School District board, he will leave politics when his term ends in November 2012.
Instead, Fong intends to concentrate on his new lobbying career with Sacramento-based KP Public Affairs.
"I never saw myself as a career politician," Fong said in a written statement to The Bee. "So, for the most part, I was able to do what I thought was right without giving a thought to what it would mean for a political career."
Fong, 52, entered the world of politics in 1998, when former Mayor Joe Serna Jr. urged him to run for the city school board. By 2000, Fong was the board president, a position he would hold until stepping down in 2004 in favor of a seat on the council.
Fong breezed into City Hall by winning 77 percent of the vote in the 2004 primary, taking over for former three-term Councilman Jimmie Yee in the district covering Land Park, South Land Park and part of the central city.
He then ran unopposed in 2008 and had yet to attract any competition in the upcoming election.
Now, with Fong stepping down, candidates will almost certainly emerge for a seat widely viewed as among the most attractive of the eight council districts.
As a result of new council boundaries that went into effect last week, Fong's District 4 now covers Land Park, nearly all of downtown and midtown, Old Sacramento and more than seven miles of Sacramento riverfront.
It's the site of high-profile projects such as the redevelopment of the K Street Mall and is home base to groups like the Downtown Sacramento Partnership and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
"I won't be one of those guys who try to pick their successor," Fong said. "That's the voters' job and frankly, it's their privilege. I absolutely trust them to make the best choice."
Fong may best be remembered for his role in two of the city's most serious attempts at building a new sports arena downtown: the failed 2006 ballot measures that would have funded a new facility through a sales tax increase and the current attempt in which city officials are still vetting financing options.
He was involved heavily in Measures Q and R five years ago, acting often as a campaign spokesman and lead negotiator for the city with the Sacramento Kings. The measures failed with just 20 percent of the vote.
More recently, at the request of Mayor Kevin Johnson, Fong is helping to lead the city's negotiations with the National Basketball Association and an arena development team on the current proposal. The mayor has also leaned on Fong for his institutional knowledge of the issue.
The arena will remain a focus for Fong until he leaves office. "I don't know if we'll get an arena deal done," he said. "But I'm going to give it my best shot."
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, a close friend of Fong's for nearly 30 years, said Fong would be "very hard to replace" and said he was "a little bit sad because Rob brings and has brought some very unique talents to public service."
"He has the heart and the ability to wade in and help solve difficult problems," Steinberg said. "The whole arena thing is a good example of his attitude and perspective on public service. It's an easy issue to avoid (for politicians) and he chose not to because it's important."
As for his time on the school board, Fong is remembered for his support of a controversial move in 2003 to grant control of Sacramento High School to a nonprofit operated by Johnson, before Johnson was mayor. Johnson's St. HOPE turned the school into a charter – employing nonunion teachers – a move that angered some parents and many local labor groups.
While Johnson and Fong fought side by side on the Sacramento High issue, the two have often battled over the mayor's initiatives at City Hall, most notably Johnson's attempts to grant his post more authority through "strong mayor" proposals.
Fong also was on the school board when it approved a controversial pension fund for top school district administrators that allowed them to sidestep payments to the California Public Employees' Retirement Fund and Social Security. Outrage over the pension system exploded in 2003, when it was revealed that the new plan allowed some administrators to receive retirement credits for 10 years of service they did not work.
CalPERS later declared the California Administrative Services Authority fund, or CASA, invalid and a Sacramento County grand jury condemned the plan, prompting the board to unanimously decide to dismantle it in 2004.
Fong's name was often mentioned in political circles as a potential mayoral candidate, first in 2008 and, to a lesser degree, in next year's election.
But Fong ended up endorsing then-Mayor Heather Fargo in her unsuccessful candidacy against Johnson three years ago and said he never strongly considered running against Johnson in 2012.
Beyond his lobbying career, Fong said he doesn't "have specific plans, but I am blessed to have a lot of interests such as my kids, the arts, my career and this community."
"Someone once told me that the definition of 'old' was when your memories become more important than your dreams," he said. "That's not the case for me. I dream about seeing my kids grow up, finish school, fall in love and get a job!"