Phillip L. Isenberg, a former mayor of Sacramento and California Assemblymember, died Thursday after a short illness, according to his former legislative chief of staff. He was 84.
During his decades in public service, Isenberg was a champion of the arts and music and outdoor recreation, according to Alison Harvey, who served as his chief of staff while he was in the Assembly.
Between 1975 and 1982, Isenberg served on Sacramento’s City Council and as mayor.
When he served in Sacramento’s city government, Isenberg established the Office of Arts and Culture.
He went on to serve in the state Assembly from 1982 until 1996, representing the city of Sacramento and surrounding areas, including parts of the California Delta, in two different Assembly districts.
Harvey, who worked with Isenberg during those 14 years in the Assembly, said, “Those years flew by because his engagement, delight, and enjoyment were infectious, and every day of work was sheer fun.”
Former state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who employed Isenberg at his San Francisco law firm and later worked alongside him in the Legislature, said in a statement provided by Harvey, “In more than 60 years of public life, I’ve gotten to know a great many smart people. But Phil Isenberg may have been the smartest.”
“He was the quarterback of my Ways & Means Dream Team, and he was an extraordinary thinker. He was also insufferably upbeat, and witty. Phil was someone you could give almost any task to, and he would deliver.”
While in the Assembly, Isenberg helped get funding for a Sandhill Crane Preserve near Lodi that was later named after him and his wife.
According to Harvey, he also worked on legislation that helped people with medical conditions obtain health insurance, helped unify the various state court systems, and helped reform local government redevelopment projects that impacted low-income neighborhoods.
After his career in politics, Isenberg was a professor at several universities, including Sacramento State, McGeorge School of Public Policy and the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy.
“Sacramento lost an iconic figure,” said Michael Hunter Schwartz, dean of McGeorge School of Law. “McGeorge School of Law students benefited from Mayor Phil Isenberg’s expertise, and the entire Sacramento community benefited from his leadership. I extend heartfelt condolences to Mayor Isenberg’s family and loved ones.”
Isenberg also served on several local and state boards and was a “generous patron of the arts and music,” according to Harvey.
He joined the Board of Directors for the Public Policy of Institue of California in 2013 and served up until September of this year, according to a statement from the PPIC.
Current Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg issued a statement after Isenberg’s death, saying, “Phil Isenberg was a giant and a mentor to a generation of elected officials including myself. His accomplishments are enormous, from being the leader on California water policy to an unparalleled environmental legacy and so much more.”
“He taught me and many others a great lesson. I will always remember his advice when I was elected to the Assembly: Focus on one or two things that really matter. Make sure what you choose is not the popular issue of the moment. Breathe life into something no one else will. Phil did public service in all the right ways. He and Marilyn were a beautiful pair. Our love and heart go out to her,“ the statement continued.
Isenberg was born in Gary, Indiana in 1939 and his family moved to Sacramento when he was 4.
He went on to graduate from El Camino High School in 1956 and later obtained a social sciences degree.
He is survived by his wife, Marilyn Araki Isenberg.
According to Harvey, services are not currently planned, but the public can make contributions in his honor to the Verge Center for the Arts, located at 625 S St. in Sacramento.