Mayor Kevin Johnson raises big money outside Sacramento
By: By Phillip Reese and Ryan Lillis
Published: Sun, 06/03 @ 12:00AM
Media baron Rupert Murdoch. Television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz and his wife, Lisa. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. Disney CEO Robert Iger.
As Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson seeks a second term in Tuesday's election, his campaign has been bolstered by large contributions from wealthy out-of-town donors the kind of big names who often fund national political campaigns but rarely come near Sacramento city politics.
About half of the roughly $800,000 in itemized contributions to Johnson this election cycle were made by donors outside the Sacramento region, according to a Bee review of the latest campaign filings. Of that, nearly $200,000 came from outside California.
The money has flowed from coast to coast. Johnson held a fundraiser in Los Angeles last month hosted by that city's mayor and the head of AEG, the entertainment company that had agreed to operate Sacramento's proposed downtown arena. In April, a Johnson fundraiser was held at a Miami Heat basketball game.
The mayor's campaign said the donations are a result of Johnson's stature.
"He's a national figure, so it shouldn't be any surprise that he attracts contributions from leaders of other cities around the U.S.," said campaign spokesman Steve Maviglio.
Maviglio stressed that the base of Johnson's support remains small donors and local contributors. One-third of the contributions made to Johnson since Jan. 1, 2011, were for less than $100, and the mayor has raised more than $260,000 from within the Sacramento city limits, according to Johnson campaign figures.
Still, critics cited the big, out-of-town names on the mayor's donor list as evidence that he's out of touch with most city residents.
"I think Kevin Johnson, since being a famous basketball player, operates in a world of high-rollers, and this is high-roller politics," said Jonathan Rewers, one of three candidates seeking to unseat Johnson. "People just give him money because he's Kevin Johnson."
Even though Johnson is a Democrat, the city's Democratic organizations have shied away from supporting him. Kerri Asbury, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, said the mayor's significant collection of non-Sacramento donors shows his "disconnect to the local community."
"I find it ironic that the governor can walk around with Sutter (his dog) without a bodyguard, but the mayor can't go to (midtown restaurants) Ink or Cafe Bernardo without being followed by an entourage," Asbury said.
Johnson has largely dismissed his rivals on the ballot for Tuesday's primary election, opting not to take part in mayoral candidate forums. In addition to Rewers, the mayor is also being challenged by bounty hunter Leonard Padilla and insurance broker Richard Jones.
Celebrity part of appeal
It's not unusual for a Sacramento mayoral candidate to raise a significant amount of money from elsewhere in the four-county region, along with a smaller amount from beyond the Sacramento area. But Johnson's fundraising totals are in another league.
In just more than four years, Johnson has collected about $2.1 million in donations, filings show. That's double what his predecessor, former Mayor Heather Fargo, raised during her last five years in office.
"He was a celebrity coming in, much like the last governor," said Gary Dietrich, a nonpartisan political analyst and president of Citizen Voice, a Sacramento voter-education group. "That's a huge part of this. You cannot discount celebrity. He didn't have to make a name for himself as the mayor of Sacramento."
Much of Johnson's national appeal is a result of his standing in the education reform movement, Dietrich said. Johnson's wife, Michelle Rhee, is a former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools and now runs a national education advocacy organization based in Sacramento.
Johnson founded the St. HOPE nonprofit organization, which operates charter schools in Oak Park.
"Mayor Johnson is politically courageous on creating more great public charter schools in Sacramento," said John Danner, a Palo Alto resident and Johnson donor who is CEO of Rocketship Education, which seeks to close the achievement gap in high-poverty neighborhoods.
Danner said it's important for Sacramento to have a strong education system so state leaders can see "that some great nonprofits are creating schools where we would all love to send our kids."
The out-of-town money is also a sign that many feel Johnson might one day seek higher office. "A lot of people are investing in a rising star," Dietrich said. "They perceive this guy as having a political future."
Still, it would be a mistake to downplay Johnson's fundraising in Sacramento, Dietrich said. Johnson has raised about $50,000 more from Sacramentans this election cycle than Fargo had raised from city residents by this time in the last cycle. Fargo raised little from outside the region or state.
Bay Area, L.A. lucrative
About half of the out-of-town contributions to Johnson's campaign came from donors living elsewhere in California, with high concentrations around the Bay Area and Los Angeles, records show.
Donors from outside California were largely a mix of East Coast business people and their spouses; Washington, D.C., political consultants; education reform advocates; and residents of Phoenix, where Johnson played professional basketball.
Washington, D.C., resident Nathan Daschle, founder and CEO of Ruck.us, an online political engagement community, and the former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, gave $2,500 to Johnson's re-election campaign earlier this year.
Daschle said he likes Johnson because the mayor "is willing to think different and challenges convention," traits that are necessary for good governance.
"It's no surprise that some of the most promising leadership is outside the Beltway, in places like Sacramento," he said.
Everett Bellamy, a professor at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C., said he met Johnson at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting held in Baltimore. He was impressed, and decided to contribute to Johnson's campaign.
"A mayor in one town or city can serve as a positive example for the rest of the country," Bellamy said. "This is the case with Mayor Johnson."
And then there's Dr. Oz. The TV personality and his wife each donated $3,000, near the maximum contribution for individual donors.
Oz visited the state capital in April to promote his show and HealthCorps, a program he founded that supports health education in schools, including several in Sacramento. Through a spokesman, Oz declined to comment on his contribution to Johnson.