(Photo by Wes Davis)

Dennis Mangers Has Had 8 Careers — and Says He May Be Ready for Another Chapter

An audience with Sacramento’s go-to advocate for the arts, government, education and LGBT equality

Back Article May 14, 2024 By Ed Goldman

This story is part of our May 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Dennis Mangers is fond of introducing or concluding many of his anecdotes — all of which are compelling, entertaining or revelatory — with the phrase “true story.”

No need. Mangers, who says, “I’ve had eight careers in 83 years,” is known for unimpeachable credibility. This means if you’re a politician, educator, arts administrator or gay-rights group seeking him out for his considered opinions on how to advance or defend your cause, he’ll tell you (graciously) the truth (unvarnished).  

“I’ve got myself in trouble from time to time by being direct,” he says during a recent, wide-ranging lunch interview at the Sutter Club in downtown Sacramento, across the street from the Capitol where he’s worked as both a twice-elected state assemblyman from Southern California (1976-1980) and later as a senior adviser to then-State Senator and Senate President Pro Tem, now-Mayor Darrell Steinberg (2008-2009). 

In the years between those two gigs, he was the principal lobbyist, senior vice president, and finally, president of the California Cable & Telecommunications Association. In the years thereafter, he served two three-year terms as the Senate’s public member on the California State Bar’s board of directors. 

And we haven’t even talked about his earlier, long and distinguished years as a teacher, school principal and professional singer. “To be honest,” he says of the latter, “an opera professor at USC once took me aside and told me, ‘If there’s a potential for you to be great at something other than singing, go do it.’” He beams mischievously, belying his 83 years — as do his near-military posture, trim build and undeniable vitality.

Mangers smiles easily and likes to laugh. With an almost Southern gentility, he asks enough questions to make his listener feel like the more important person at the table. It’s not surprising to learn he performed on stage, where he concedes he developed the empathetic skills of a storyteller that would inform his years as a leader, mentor and relentless supporter of the arts. 

“Being on stage definitely gave me courage,” he says. “And teaching kids who lived in poverty taught me to pay attention.” At one point, he recalls teaching in a poor section of a Southern California city “just blocks from the Pacific Ocean. But these kids had never seen it or even been to a beach.”

Mangers was born in Inglewood and raised in the nearby city of Lawndale. At El Camino Community College, he was president of both his freshman class and the student body. To this day, he remains committed to the mission and survival of community colleges. “Neither my parents nor I had the money to send me to a four-year college,” he says. But attending what was then called a junior college first gave him a leg up: He holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Cal State Long Beach and a master’s in educational administration from USC. 

His teaching career began in the Long Beach Unified School District in 1964 where he taught first, second, third and sixth grades. “I loved the kids,” he says, “and because I was somewhat innovative with them, using dance and drama and other art forms to get them out of their shells, I got tapped to teach kids who couldn’t otherwise be reached in special programs.”

Meanwhile, another side of Mangers was tapped in his mid-20s. The Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company chose him and 17 young performers from a national talent search for full scholarships in its training program at USC. “I played featured roles in Civic Light Opera productions of ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘The Sound of Music,’” he says. This is also where and when he had that fateful chat with the professor who suggested, Mangers recalls, “that I could have had a decent journeyman career in traveling shows, but I’d never be the leading man.”

Instead, he threw himself into being a leading man in government and society. In addition to serving as Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s senior advisor in the state legislature, until four years ago he was Steinberg’s strategic advisor for arts, culture and the creative economy. “Darrell wanted to be an arts mayor,” Mangers says, “and knew to reach out to those who were maybe more deeply involved in them than he’d had the time to be. People like me.”

Steinberg agrees wholeheartedly. He’s only half-joking when he proclaims in a stentorian tone, “Denny was the most valuable intern in the entire history of the City of Sacramento.” It’s half a joke because Mangers took the job for no pay. “We really had no money in the budget,” says Steinberg. 

Not many people know that Mangers was “the driving force behind the Community Center Theater coming back to life,” Steinberg says. “The elected officials, like (then-Councilmember) Steve Hansen, were certainly part of it (the remodel and pursuit of naming rights,) but Denny’s the one who saw what (UC) Davis had done with the Mondavi Center” — creating a national and regional performing arts magnet — “and thought, ‘Why not Sacramento? Why do people have to drive over the causeway to see something great?’”

“Let me add something,” Steinberg says. “Denny may be a big-picture guy, but he also gets in on all the nitty-gritty details. Look at our ‘Creative Edge Plan.’ That’s pure Denny.” The plan, adopted in 2018, has introduced a variety of initiatives to pump life into the city’s core, including the hiring of a nighttime city manager and assisting arts groups with funding and visibility.

David Heitstuman, chief executive officer of the Sacramento LGBT Center, met Mangers when he was working in the legislature. “We worked closely together most recently on the Center’s Welcome Home Campaign to purchase and renovate a permanent home” for the facility. 

Mangers, says Heitstuman, has “a wealth of knowledge and experience in a variety of arenas. His wisdom and perspective are well respected amongst diverse leaders in the region. He understands the value of compromise and that your adversary today may be someone who you will need as an ally tomorrow, so it’s best not to take conflict over (an) issue too personally.” 

Heitstuman also marvels at Mangers’ lack of ego when it comes to strategizing over issues. “If ever I’m dealing with a sensitive or politically complex situation, Denny is one of the first to offer sage advice — and doesn’t hold it against me if I decide to go another way. We’ll still be friends, even if we disagree.”

“I met Denny on December 2, 2017, one day after I officially moved to Sacramento. He came to the ballet to welcome me to town,” recalls Anthony Krutzcamp, executive director of the Sacramento Ballet.

Mangers, Krutzcamp says, “has the ability to connect the correct individuals at the correct time. He has the foresight to know when these introductions are needed — even if the recipients are unaware why! He also can be one of the most supportive human beings I have ever met.

“Denny knows how to cut through all the red tape and go directly to a person or organization that can help with a solution,” Krutzcamp continues. “He’s a strategist. He can see through the little problems and envision the correct steps to take to the quickest solution that is correct.”

Asked to cite a noted example of Mangers’ ability to move bureaucratic mountains, Krutzcamp doesn’t hesitate. During the worst of the COVID pandemic, he says, “Denny connected via phone and Zoom with all the right people to establish funding for the arts via the CARES ACT (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act).” California received $15 billion in federal funding. Sacramento County received $181 million from the U.S. Treasury on March 27, 2020, while three months later, the county received a $25 million allocation from the State of California. Mangers tirelessly made the case to local government leaders to provide some of that funding to performing arts groups, which were sidelined by the ban of public activities. 

Mangers, says Krutzcamp, “gathered support from the city council and the mayor. He helped save the arts.” Need we add “true story?”  

Married with Children (and Grandchildren)

- Dennis Mangers married his partner of 30 years, Michael Sestak, an award-winning lighting designer, on June 17, 2008. It was the first day same-sex marriage became legal in the state of California. He has two children from his former and “very loving” marriage with a woman: Kirsten, the chief operating officer of a software company, and Jeff, a community college operations manager. He also has two grandchildren, Kaitlyn Beaudine, an attorney with Gibson Dunne, and Zachary, a history teacher. “People find it hard to believe that I didn’t know I was gay for years and throughout my marriage,” he says. “But I finally got it.” For the past several years, he’s mentored young men and women on a variety of career, emotional and lifestyle choices.

- “Denny has total empathy for young people needing to discover who they are,” says his longtime friend, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

- Mangers is known as a fashionably impeccable dresser. At the beginning of this interview he apologized for his outfit, knowing the private club where it was taking place has a dress code. “I have a physical therapy session right after lunch,” he explains, having recently endured some back surgery. Yet he’s garbed in what appears to be a fitted black mock turtleneck sweater, matching black sweatpants and black running shoes. Looking more like the owner of a bohemian art gallery, he’s better dressed than many of the men in the room despite their crisp white shirts, Brooks Brothers suits and signature neckties. “Well,” he admits, a bit shyly, “I like to look okay.”

- Mangers says that despite a full life’s worth of experiences, including having been a sailor during the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962, he may not be done working. He’d love to get more involved with community colleges, for example, which he praises for their mission. “Oh, I may have another chapter in me,” he says.

–Ed Goldman

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