Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is working to place allies on City Council

From the Sacramento Bee - May 18, 2012

"He has this desire for a big city vision, but Sacramento just cannot shake that small-town feel," said political consultant Doug Elmets. "Maybe he's ahead of his time and his time will come in the second or third term. Or conceivably a better opportunity might come about, and that might be running for statewide office.

"This city, by virtue of its electorate, clearly appreciates the small-town feel and yet they have a mayor who's got a vision for being a big-city mayor."


Just three months ago, Kevin Johnson wasn't sure he wanted to be mayor of Sacramento anymore.

The political prize he sought most had been swiped away, following another City Council rebuke of the latest proposal to increase his mayoral power. Adding to the sting was that Johnson thought he had the votes he needed on the council to place his "strong mayor" plan on the ballot, only to see the proposal narrowly defeated.

He pondered his future for days. City Hall insiders wondered whether he would drop out of politics. Well-positioned opponents began circling, contemplating their own mayoral aspirations. 

Now, on the cusp of likely re-election next month, Johnson is talking like a guy who wants to stick around for awhile.

Despite its collapse, the mayor considers his failed arena effort a rare success for a city that tried for years to develop a financing mechanism for a downtown NBA arena. He said he believes a plan to wring $250 million from the city's parking operations is still viable and could be used for other large downtown projects.

At the same time, Johnson sees himself as the leader of a new political alliance seeking to further change the face of Sacramento politics. He wants more clout and a higher profile for his city. He says he'll raise millions of dollars to make it happen.

Sacramento, meet the boss.

"My job is not done," Johnson said this week, as he leaned back on a couch inside a City Hall library.
His first order of business now is to build his power base by getting supporters elected to council seats.
Johnson and his allies in the business and faith communities are campaigning intensely in south Sacramento, trying to elect former NAACP branch president Betty Williams to a City Council seat. Including that race, Johnson is hopeful he'll gain two - maybe three - allies in this year's council elections.

If the elections go Johnson's way, he could gain a majority of support on the council for a strong mayor ballot measure in 2014.

"Without it, I'm limited in what I can do," he said. 

With so much invested, political experts said, this year's council elections will serve not only as a referendum on Johnson's popularity, but also on his quest to build something big downtown and bring some big-city swagger to his office.

It's a vision that faces obstacles. Johnson's approach collides with the ideals of a city where neighborhood activists and policy wonks have made up the ruling class for years.

"He has this desire for a big city vision, but Sacramento just cannot shake that small-town feel," said political consultant Doug Elmets. "Maybe he's ahead of his time and his time will come in the second or third term. Or conceivably a better opportunity might come about, and that might be running for statewide office.

"This city, by virtue of its electorate, clearly appreciates the small-town feel and yet they have a mayor who's got a vision for being a big-city mayor."

Priorities questioned

Johnson has operated for more than three years within a combative political landscape at City Hall, where opponents have celebrated his defeats. Along the way, he said he's learned two important lessons: patience pays and relationships take time.

"I came into a world where I didn't have a lot of existing relationships, and it just takes time," he said.

But while Johnson chases his big-city dream, his critics say he is ignoring vital threads of Sacramento's fabric.
"People do not question his passion about the city, but they do question his priorities and tactics," said political consultant Andrew Acosta, who has worked for candidates the mayor has opposed. "He campaigned against Heather Fargo on a platform that included fixing the city budget and making our schools world class, but four years later these problems have worsened."

Johnson has been criticized in recent days for skipping campaign and community events that were regular stops for his predecessors. The mayor was absent at last weekend's League of Women Voters debate - his campaign spokesman said the competition was unworthy of a Johnson appearance - and he did not attend a forum in the North Laguna Creek neighborhood of south Sacramento on Wednesday.

"If for nothing else, look like you care," said Pat Shelby, a long-time south Sacramento activist and head of the North Laguna Creek group. "There's something to feeling that the mayor is accessible. And it's not that I dislike Kevin. I don't know him well enough to dislike him."

Some local interest groups have also disapproved of his focus on a new arena, arguing he has not spent enough energy on nitty-gritty issues such as the budget or the city's aging sewer system. Johnson insisted his plans for a second term are about more than an arena or winning more authority for his office.

"You still need a city that runs well and meets the needs of the people," he said. "That's filling potholes, making sure the sewers work, picking up garbage."

Johnson said creating a more business-friendly climate in Sacramento is his priority for the next four years. While most of the city's large developers and business owners endorsed former Mayor Heather Fargo, his opponent four years ago, Johnson quickly won over their support. Better Sacramento, a coalition of some of the city's business leaders, is now a staunch ally.

The mayor said just taking some small steps could make a big difference in energizing the economy: reducing business and development fees, easing the permitting process at City Hall, offering incentives.

"We've talked a lot about (changing the city's anti-business perception) and it hasn't changed," he said. "The reputation is warranted, but it doesn't take a whole lot to dispel it or turn it around."

Baseball or hockey?
Much of Johnson's focus is on elevating his own profile and, with it, the city's.

He said he has raised between $10 million and $12 million in private donations for various initiatives, including $6.5 million to attract educational programs such as City Year and Teach for America to Sacramento schools. His fundraising total does not include the millions in corporate sponsorships the mayor helped generate for the Sacramento Kings in the past year.

Still, the perception that many of his initiatives have gone nowhere persists.

At an awards banquet Wednesday for Valley Vision, a regional planning group, an actor impersonating David Letterman riffed on Johnson and other city officials. His roast on the mayor was met with thunderous laughter from the crowd of movers and shakers.

"Kevin Johnson, that is my kinda guy," the actor said. "He's a real roll up your sleeves, get things started kinda guy. He doesn't finish anything, but he gets things started!"

Johnson said there are signs of progress downtown, especially on K Street and along the riverfront, where the Crocker Art Museum has undergone a major expansion and a new science center is planned. 

For months, the mayor made building a new sports arena in the downtown railyard for the Sacramento Kings his priority. A plan for that $391 million facility eventually collapsed after the Kings' owners withdrew, citing what they considered unacceptable terms.

Johnson does not consider the arena effort a failure. Out of that work emerged a plan for the city to raise $250 million through either the leasing of downtown parking or by creating a parking authority operated by City Hall. The mayor still considers both proposals to be viable revenue options for a downtown project.

He said he has spoken to the National Hockey League, as the city continues exploring whether an arena could be built without the Kings' involvement. Johnson also said "it's probably time for us to accelerate some of those conversations around baseball."

"You can rest assured that we're talking to other sports, that we're talking about other uses (for the parking money)," he said. "What the city proved is that we can get something done, we can make something happen."

It would be easier to make things happen, Johnson said, if he weren't met regularly with opposition in the council chambers. Seat by seat, he's trying to build a cast of colleagues more in line with his views.

"We're winning the game," he said. "It's just taking longer than we thought."

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