Christopher Cabaldon served as the mayor of West Sacramento for 11 terms, beginning in 1998; in November 2020, he lost his bid for reelection to a 12th term. Before joining a Zócalo/California Wellness Foundation event, “What Makes a Good Small Town?,” he called into the virtual green room to chat about playing the oboe, experiencing culture shock in Japan, and the time President Obama called him the best-dressed mayor in America.
What is your media diet?
After the election, I realized I could now read the New York Times every day, and all the major California media outlets, which I couldn’t really do before. Now I spend the first 45 minutes of the day with breakfast actually getting to know what's going on in the world and reading longer pieces than I did before.
I really dived back into being curious. When you’re in public office, there’s definitely a policy curiosity, but I’m already dealing with so much—I have to pick up the trash and put out the fires and also think about the future of work and what’s going on with my city’s relationship with Singapore and whatever.
What was one of your most important coping strategies for handling that kind of pressure for such a long time?
To remember and appreciate that it’s all hubris. It’s not imposter syndrome, but there’s no rational reason why I should have the opportunity to take on these things and to have this kind of impact and to work with [my] heroes. It’s just crazy. And it might not be there tomorrow. It’s like, look beyond the stress of the moment and just really be grateful for the chance to live a meaningful life.
You got into politics and government when you were in the seventh grade. Did you ever consider a different career path?
Off and on in junior high school or middle school, I wanted to be the Speaker of the California Assembly—which, growing up in L.A., nobody knows what the state government is, at all. But that wasn’t my main trajectory. I was an oboist in high school, and I played in the L.A. Junior Philharmonic, and my intention was to be a symphony orchestra oboist.
Have you kept it up through the years or gone back to it?
I’ve gone back to it many times, but oboe is not really the best solo. And the joy of music making is best felt, for me at least, in the moments when you are creating and in sync with other people.
What is your favorite household chore?
Laundry. There's something about the time-delimited nature of doing the laundry. The pressure is lower and nobody’s going to die of botulism. If I don’t clean the kitchen or the bathroom, something horrible could happen, but with laundry, the stress is lower and the machine is doing all the work.
What smell evokes the strongest memories for you?
The smell of the Santa Monica mountains. I grew up in Los Angeles, and most of my life, I lived up in the mountains just off Mulholland. So I hiked and built tree houses and played in the mountains. There’s something about those mountains in particular that have a distinct olfactory experience for me that really brings me back to the favorite parts of my childhood.
When in your life have you experienced the most culture shock?
I went to Japan, and I thought I’d be fine. I’ve traveled quite a bit, and I’m Asian American, so I thought, “Oh, no problem.” And I didn’t eat for two and a half days because I couldn’t find an ATM. Not just that, the ATMs didn’t look anything like our ATMs. Everything was in English, but nobody spoke it.
I’m otherwise very used to pluralistic multicultural places, and Japan is so ridiculously Japanese, it’s amazing. But I love being pulled out of my comfort zone. I liked the culture shock. [Being] in public office for a really long time, I often thought, I need to go and I need to challenge my myself in places where I can’t just give a speech or call the police chief—I have to actually survive and thrive as a human being. I did eventually eat.
What’s been the best part of your transition from 24 years of public service to, as you say on your Twitter, “realizing the sweet enjoyment” of normal life?
I’ve been home, both in my house but also in the community, and at a pace that allows me to get up and hop on my bike and go get coffee. Or I can go meet a friend at one of the local places for more than 15 minutes and have a real conversation that’s authentic where I’m actually listening and hearing them.
I couldn’t do that before. Those things matter a lot and I’ve always missed them, but also it’s in the context of my own city. So it’s not like, “Was that a dream? Was that real, what I did for a quarter of a century?” It’s not like that because everywhere I go in town, some building or some program or some grandma is reminding me of what we accomplished together. In some ways that’s the best of it all.
What failure in your life have you learned the most from?
When I first came into office, I was under 30, and I was a Berkeley-trained economist, and I had all these grand ideas and really insightful analyses about the root causes of everything and giant plans. And I got none of them accomplished.
So everything failed for that first year or two. And I learned that policy and action are so much more than policy ideas and analysis.
What's your best Obama story?
We were in Detroit, and Obama was announcing the College Promise campaign with Jill Biden as the head of it. He was appointing me to the board, and I was super excited, and we were about to go onstage to make the announcement.
So we shake hands, and he steps back and says, “Where did you get that suit? I love that suit. Hey, I need one of these suits.” The suit was by a local suit designer who was based in Sacramento but lived in my city.
And he said, “You must be the best-dressed mayor in America,” which then started to follow me around in the [United States] Conference of Mayors as a thing. I promised I would get him one later—which I didn’t. It was supposed to be after he was out of office.
What Filipino tradition do you should be widely adopted in the U.S.?
We sing all the time. My family in the Philippines actually has a karaoke machine that’s on a pedestal as though it were some sort of religious icon in the middle of the rural village that they’re in. There is just a constant joy and optimism in Filipino culture that is reinforced by singing. It is the process of lifting our voices together and with some synchronicity that is a subtle but important constant reminder that we are in this together.