On a gray, foggy morning last week, Kevin Johnson visited a place he doesn't plan on seeing very often the next four years: his desk at Sacramento City Hall.
It has been a busy few months for the city's mayor. Johnson spent much of the fall campaigning for President Barack Obama outside California. He attended both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, and addressed various panels from Atlanta to Denver to Tacoma, Wash.
Less than two weeks into his second term, Johnson said he is seeking to redefine his job description. And that means being his city's chief promoter and cheerleader, sometimes to people who live thousands of miles away.
"Who in the world was going to be out marketing and selling and promoting and creating a vision?" the mayor asked, sitting in his fifth-floor office. "We didn't have that component. And that's what I believe the mayor's role should be in Sacramento, and it is in most major cities. The mayor is out and about doing all sorts of things."
It has taken four years, but City Hall veterans and top officials said that with his decision to focus on being a voice for the city, Johnson may finally have hit upon a role that suits him.
Johnson, they said, is embracing the duties of a celebrity mayor operating in a form of government in which he has the same limited powers as eight other council members, and many major decisions are handled by an unelected city manager. That role is about more than running City Council meetings; it's about taking advantage of the job's bully pulpit to drive an agenda for the city.
Bill Edgar, who was city manager under another vibrant personality in the late Mayor Joe Serna Jr., said understanding that balance is "what makes this government work."
Serna was a boisterous booster of his city, although not on the same national stage as Johnson. Former Mayor Heather Fargo, whom Johnson defeated in 2008, was a student of policy and government process, two things that bore Johnson.
"There's nothing tangible you can see from (the travel and promotion), it comes back in funny ways," said Edgar, who served as interim city manager for five months last year with Johnson. "But it's very important. And (Johnson) has a lot of charisma, speaks well, promotes the city and has a lot of connections nationwide."
Those who have followed Johnson's first term said his desire to market the city is important, as long as it comes with an equal focus on issues vital to Sacramentans, topics such as balancing the budget, promoting economic development downtown and bolstering public safety.
With politics at the neighborhood level still a driving force in the city, local leaders want to make sure their interests are given as much attention as Johnson might pay, say, to arranging travel plans to attend Obama's inauguration next month.
"I guess it's an easy response that he should be spending more time at home and focusing on our problems," said Alan LoFaso, a neighborhood leader from the Newton Booth section of midtown and the controller of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County. "But I think people care more about results. If the problems of the city are attended to while he's performing a role he's outlined for himself, that's OK."
On his own dime
Johnson, 46, is upfront about his travels, often posting photographs and commentary on Twitter. He also pays for the travel himself rather than using taxpayer funds.
Last month, he gave a speech on education at the University of Washington, Tacoma. A few days later he was in Cleveland, campaigning for the president with singer John Legend. He also stumped for Obama in North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada.
In recent months he served on a panel in Atlanta addressing the role faith leaders play in education and met with Denver's mayor to discuss economic development. Johnson's Twitter photo album includes shots of him schmoozing with former President Bill Clinton, NFL stars and filmmaker George Lucas.
The impacts of his travels are often hard to define. But Johnson and his supporters contend it has paid off.
City Manager John Shirey credited a $15 million federal grant to renovate Sacramento's historic train depot to the mayor's relationship with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Johnson said Westfield's sale of the Downtown Plaza and the involvement of entertainment venue operator AEG in the city's failed arena bid were a direct result of his networking.
In June 2014, Johnson will be the first Sacramento mayor to ascend to the president's post of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a national organization that plays a high-profile role in lobbying the federal government on behalf of cities.
Being out of town also leaves Johnson open to criticism. He has missed seven City Council meetings since July although he said he has not missed any vital votes and his weekly sessions with the media have tapered off.
"We don't expect people to drop everything, but it is real when people are concerned that they see you more in photo ops and other places as opposed to behind the dais at City Council," said Pat Shelby, a south Sacramento activist and head of the North Laguna Creek Neighborhood Association.
"I know he has to do work out of town. But we are still a city of neighborhoods and we want to know our elected officials care about us here and are responsive."
City officials defend the mayor's decision to play the jet-setting cheerleader role, especially for a city short on celebrities.
"My image of the mayor is a person who plays on that intergovernmental stage," Shirey said. "He doesn't need to run the city. I do that. Being in City Hall all the time is not the best use of his time."
Even as Johnson devotes more time to travel, he maintains he also is focused on cleaning up matters at home.
His office has been shaken by controversies in recent months. Two former aides are under criminal investigation for their alleged misuse of city-issued credit cards. Last week, Johnson was ordered to pay a $37,500 fine for failing to properly report more than $3.5 million in donations he secured for various nonprofits.
Johnson said in order to address those issues, and help him navigate the politics of City Hall, he recently hired two former assistant city managers with years of experience to act as advisers. Another new staff member was a longtime district director for a former city councilwoman.
These new hires are different from the staffers Johnson brought to City Hall in his first term, most of whom were young and had no experience in Sacramento politics.
"You're not going to see my office do something that's not in compliance, or not cross a 't' or dot an 'i' in terms of paperwork," Johnson said. "The simple things, the smart things, are going to be really clear."
A peaceful sandbox
Johnson may not plan to spend much time in City Hall over the next four years, but when he is there, he promises to play nice.
The former basketball star entered City Hall in 2008 as an unfiltered, ambitious newcomer, promising to dismantle the status quo in a city where elected officials often faced few challengers. Along the way, the mayor generated discord at City Hall, most of it a result of his attempts to wrestle more power for his office through a series of "strong mayor" proposals.
A revival of those plans is not on his immediate list of priorities, he said.
"Today, it's about getting council on the same page and collectively talking about where our priorities are," he said. "And to do things (such as strong mayor) that don't make sense to everybody or become distractions, that's not where my head is right now."
When first elected, Johnson was a rookie surrounded by political veterans, some of whom had been at City Hall since the days Johnson was a point guard for the NBA's Phoenix Suns.
Now, he's suddenly part of the old guard. Since he took office, five of the eight City Council seats have changed hands.
Two council members stepped down this fall, Rob Fong and Sandy Sheedy, both of whom sided against the mayor on several high-profile votes. Sheedy was replaced by north Sacramento developer Allen Warren, a friend of the mayor's for 30 years, giving Johnson hope that he is close to building a consensus on the City Council.
"This has been the only place in my existence that I have been called a bad teammate," Johnson said. "For four years, I have been at the center of a lot of the controversy that went on.
"When I ran (in 2008), one of the things I wanted to make sure was that council was not dysfunctional. And when you look back in four years, I don't think people are going to say council was dysfunctional. That's not going to be the case."
A good start, his critics said, would be to set aside his "strong mayor" platform, one that would grant his office increased powers afforded many mayors in larger cities. Councilman Kevin McCarty, the mayor's most vocal critic on the council, said he appreciated Johnson's call for harmony and "hopes we can solely focus on critical common-ground issues."
Whether Johnson will permanently shelve his strong-mayor plan is another matter many expect the proposal to reappear in time for a 2014 election. Critics are hopeful it doesn't re-emerge. The strife it created is widely blamed for the high turnover in the job of city manager, occupied by four people in just three years.
Gus Vina, who served as interim city manager for 13 months before stepping down in April 2011, said Johnson's quest for harmony is possible but only if he follows through.
"If he's sincere and he sees the writing on the wall that strong mayor is not the right approach right now, then with the changes on the council he may be able to build consensus," said Vina, now city manager in Encinitas, near San Diego.
"But you have to practice what you preach and demonstrate that to the rest of the council so they'll follow the lead. Only time will tell if he can do that."