City Beat

News, insight and discussion on Sacramento and its neighborhoods

December 29, 2011
Sacramento pastors are a new special interest in local politics

A phenomenon seen often in East Coast cities is developing in Sacramento politics.

Pastors and ministers of mostly African American churches have become a new special interest group in the city, endorsing two City Council candidates in the June 2012 election and Mayor Kevin Johnson's latest proposal to change how the city is governed.

I'll have more on the trend in a story printed in a few days in The Bee. But for now, I wanted to throw out some observations from the reporting I've done so far.

At the front of the movement is Bishop Sherwood Carthen of Bayside of South Sacramento and the Rev. Darryl Heath, the pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist Church. Several other pastors from Oak Park, south Sacramento and Del Paso Heights are also in the mix.

The pastors are supporting local NAACP chair Betty Williams in her campaign against south Sacramento Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell, as well as developer Allen Warren against Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy in the district covering Del Paso Heights, North Sacramento and other neighborhoods north of the American River.

It remains to be seen what influence - if any - the pastors will have over the elections. They were on the losing end of a contentious redistricting debate in the city earlier this year.

Then again, voter turnout in Pannell and Sheedy's districts is historically very low, so any mobilization by the pastors could have an impact.

"We're beginning to recognize that we want to be better stewards of the city," Carthen told me. "We want to figure out what it is going to take."

One question I get whenever I write about the pastors and politics is whether church leaders can engage in political activity and keep their organizations' tax exempt status.

Federal tax laws are very strict when it comes to faith organizations and politics. Churches are prohibited from engaging in political campaign activity in order to remain tax exempt as 501(c)(3)s, according to the IRS.

However, tax law does not place the same restrictions on church leaders. According to the IRS website, tax law "is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of churches or religious organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals."

The IRS warns church leaders that they "cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions." Candidates may list pastors who endorse their campaigns, as long they make it clear "titles and affiliations of each individual are provided for identification purposes only."

So far, all of the political literature I've seen has listed pastors' names, but not the churches they represent. And at a press conference announcing the launch of the mayor's latest charge reform campaign last week, the pastors in attendance did not mention which organizations they represent.

The pastors I've spoke with so far also insist they do not make political comments from the pulpit. They said they can spread their message outside church doors, where they argue their influence is strong.

"Whatever influence I carry, I'm grateful for that," Carthen told me. "But just because I lead a church, that does not preclude me from endorsing a candidate."

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About City Beat

Ryan Lillis has covered the city of Sacramento, its 108 neighborhoods and its politicians since 2008. Prior to that, he covered crime at The Bee. A native of upstate New York, Lillis has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Contact reporter Ryan Lillis at rlillis@sacbee.com

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