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    Jonathan Rewers states his case to be mayor to the Tahoe Park Neighborhood Association.

  • Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: A stealth campaign for mayor

Published: Sunday, May. 13, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 29, 2013 - 8:52 am

It's a steamy evening in a cluttered Sacramento community center and it's time for the head of the Tahoe Park Neighborhood Association to introduce the special guest.

"I forget your name, but you're running for mayor," Eric Guerra says sheepishly.

Welcome to the Jonathan Rewers campaign.

It's so far under the radar that most voters have never heard of him. For your average politician, it would be a killer. For Rewers, it's his strategy.

On June 5, he plans to shock the political world, or at least Sacramento's corner of it. But to pull off this monumental upset, he can't have too many people take him seriously too soon, least of all Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Most everyone is assuming that Johnson scared off any serious opposition and that he will win a second term in a walk. His campaign war chest is overflowing; he has support from both business and labor; his name recognition, going back to his basketball-playing days, is sky-high.

Rewers, who filed his candidate papers on the very last day, is far less-known than another challenger, bounty hunter and four-time loser Leonard Padilla.

So Rewers is trying to tap into anti-Johnson sentiment and anger over the downtown arena deal, but do so very quietly. He's putting his faith in the belief that elections in Sacramento can still be won through the support of neighborhood association leaders, many of whom he knows through three years as chairman of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission.

In his grassroots campaign, he's speaking to neighborhood groups – three more scheduled this week. He's also walking neighborhoods – south Sacramento today. Last Monday night, Rewers took his quixotic quest to Tahoe Park.

Rewers is short, wears glasses and looks younger than his 33 years. He's a little geeky.

His spiel, though, is pretty polished: The city isn't working. Basic services are being gutted. Sacramento's special quality of life is going down the drain. That resonates in Tahoe Park, where the big topic is reopening the neighborhood's public pool.

Rewers went on: Johnson is a failed leader, unable to unify the City Council and distracted by the arena and his strong-mayor push. On his watch, the city has become stuck in a downward spiral of closing businesses and dropping home values.

Rewers says he can do better.

"I know how to make cities work," he said.

After hearing the pitch, association president Guerra wasn't completely sold. While he liked that someone younger like himself was running for mayor, he said he'd "have to wait and see."

However, Rewers had won over Bill Motmans, the association's former president and current vice president. He agrees that the city is slashing too many core services and says Rewers could help solve the huge budget problems.

"He has some excellent ideas," he told me. "I think if people play close attention to the issues, he has a chance."

Phil Pluckebaum, president of the River Park Neighborhood Association, was also impressed after a candidates forum last month by Rewers' knowledge of City Hall and his proposals for saving money, such as cutting middle management. But he's less optimistic that Rewers can win.

"He's got a lot of good ideas," Pluckebaum told me. "Too bad he doesn't have a snowball's chance."

There's the rub. Rewers needs to convince many, many more converts, but he doesn't have much money – as of mid-March, only a $1,050 loan from himself – and he's running out of time.

His game plan is to sneak up on Johnson – to parlay some last-minute endorsements and the backing of the local Republican Party to win – yes, win – on June 5. He wants to avoid a November runoff with Johnson because he knows that once the mayor unleashes his political machine against him, he's toast.

A long tenure at City Hall

Rewers may not be a political mastermind, but he does know the nuts and bolts of City Hall after 13 years working there, the final eight full time.

He started at 17, volunteering in the parks department as his community service at Jesuit High. He worked for neighborhood services while attending UC Davis, then after graduation managed grants in the parks and recreation commission.

Rewers left city government in 2009 to pursue his master's degree in urban planning at San Jose State, which he plans to finish in the fall. He also works as the long-range planning manager for San Francisco's Muni transit agency.

He lives in midtown Sacramento and commutes. He stayed involved in city affairs through the parks commission; Sandy Sheedy, Johnson's most persistent foe on the City Council, appointed him in 2009.

Under his leadership, the commission took the unprecedented step last year of rejecting the city manager's proposed budget, saying the $4.4 million in cuts to parks was too damaging to needy neighborhoods. The council kept community centers open by partnering with nonprofits and neighborhood groups.

At the council's first discussion on the 2012-13 budget earlier this month, Rewers warned of more cuts to basic services. He criticized City Hall for not culling the middle management ranks and chided employee unions for putting their retirement benefits ahead of public services.

The proposed budget would cut parks and recreation programs by another $1 million and 19 positions.

"The budget as proposed just isn't acceptable to Sacramento," Rewers told council members, whom he plans to address again Tuesday.

Rewers does have some intriguing ideas about cutting costs, restoring basic services and rebuilding the city's tax base. He has a page chock full of specific proposals – entitled "Sacramento Ideas: A solutions based plan for the people" – he gave to neighborhood groups this month.

He wants to reduce impact fees for commercial and retail development to boost sales taxes. He suggests a 5 percent parking tax to help fund public safety.

He says the city should offer a $100 monthly allowance to encourage police officers to live in Sacramento, both to make neighborhoods safer and to add middle-class taxpayers. He also proposes a stipend for officers to get paramedic training, since police can often get to the scene faster than firefighters.

To have more front-line workers, he would get rid of administrators so that there are at least 15 employees for every one manager.

Rewers boasts that he could walk into the mayor's office tomorrow and do the job.

But sometimes, it sounds like he's applying for one of the vacant assistant city manager positions he says should be eliminated, not running for mayor.

Johnson seeks to avoid runoff

Clearly, Johnson's idea of being mayor is far different. He's not all that interested in the details of policy and is easily bored by council meetings.

Instead, Johnson aspires to be a visionary leader. He definitely doesn't see himself as merely one of nine council members. He understands that, as the only one elected citywide, the mayor is the face of the city and has outsized influence over Sacramento's direction – with or without the additional powers that Johnson seeks for the office. (Rewers is against strong mayor; his campaign slogan is a not-so subtle dig: "Rewers = Strong City.")

Johnson, who won 46 percent of the vote against then-Mayor Heather Fargo (whom Rewers supported) in the primary four years ago and then beat her handily in the November runoff, wants to win outright in June this time.

He says that none of his challengers have the money, name recognition or organization to pose a serious challenge, but he's campaigning and raising money – $286,495 in cash on hand as of March 17 – as if he has credible opposition.

"I'm not taking anything for granted," he says.

Most likely, Johnson has little to worry about. Let's just say the odds of Rewers winning are even lower than those of the Maloof brothers writing a $140 million check to build the arena and repay their city loan.

Still, Rewers is making some interesting proposals and asking some important questions. Johnson could do himself – and the city – a favor by paying attention to them in a second term.

The mayor might even want to offer him a job to push those ideas. And Rewers, if he wants to serve his city, might just think about accepting.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Foon Rhee, Associate editor

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