Kevin Johnson rolled into Sacramento City Hall a superstar. A son of Oak Park, he was the first African American to serve as his hometown’s mayor. He was a charismatic celebrity, a former NBA star trailed around town by an entourage of intensely loyal aides and greeted by high-fiving supporters nearly everywhere he went.
He won his first campaign, in 2008, by a landslide. Even before the results of that election were official, Johnson threw himself an inauguration party at Memorial Auditorium. Dance troupes and gospel choirs performed. Confetti fell from the ceiling. Television personality Lisa Ling was the evening’s emcee.
Eight years later, the party is over. Johnson will preside over his final full City Council meeting on Tuesday night, ending what was one of the most tumultuous and consequential political runs in city history. There won’t be any choirs to send him off; there will be no confetti. Instead, the city is planning a one-hour reception in Johnson’s honor before the City Council meeting and the mayor’s staff is throwing him an invite-only farewell dinner next week at La Venadita, a hip but modest restaurant in Oak Park.
Never miss a local story.
Johnson’s mayoral career, like his pro basketball career, has been an arc. He was among the NBA’s best point guards with the Phoenix Suns, only to hobble into retirement with a list of injuries. Johnson, 50, left his mark on Sacramento as well, but is leaving office with wounds that have dimmed his chances of a political future.
The mayor has largely retreated from public view in his final months, rarely holding news conferences or attending City Council meetings (he declined an interview request for this story). Most power brokers in town have for months dealt directly with Johnson’s successor, former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, who doesn’t take office until Dec. 13. Johnson did make national headlines this fall – but it was for slugging a protester who had just shoved a pie in his face.
Johnson’s final years in office were consumed by the type of sexual abuse allegations that dogged him for two decades. For much of 2015, Johnson was the focus of ongoing critical coverage by the sports website Deadspin, which interviewed a woman who accused Johnson of sexual misconduct 20 years ago when she was a teenager in Phoenix. While the details of that case had been widely reported in Sacramento when Johnson first ran for office, Deadspin’s posting of a video of the girl being interviewed by Phoenix police upset those close to the mayor and led ESPN to shelve a documentary on Johnson and Sacramento’s fight to keep the Kings.
Johnson was also accused in 2015 of sexual harassment by a former aide to City Manager John Shirey. Johnson denied the allegation and the city rejected the woman’s claim for damages. Following that episode, a law firm hired by the city advised Johnson against “hugging or touching” anyone at City Hall.
The sexual allegations have cast a shadow on Johnson’s achievements, perhaps the biggest of which was his role in keeping the Kings in Sacramento and pushing through the deal to build the team a new downtown arena. The $558 million Golden 1 Center, which opened in October, has already shifted how city residents perceive and experience their urban core, drawing large crowds and investment by developers to a once decaying part of the city.
Johnson also changed the political dynamics of Sacramento, despite his initial inattentiveness to the political side of his job. He entered office losing every meaningful council vote by wide margins; by 2014, he had assembled a loyal coalition on the City Council. In the process, there was a shift in City Hall’s political elite, away from candidates backed solely by Democratic Party clubs and unions, and toward politicians with broader, more business-friendly support. During his tenure, the Kings and their billionaire owners emerged as the most powerful interest group in town.
“He obviously had a few victories, but he had some very notable losses,” said Andrew Acosta, a political consultant who has been involved in several Sacramento campaigns. “As with a lot of politicians, you don’t judge their legacy the day they leave – it’s yet to be determined. It’s complicated. But he’s probably doing what other politicians probably should have done and that’s fade into the background for a while.”
Johnson came from outside the city’s traditional political pipeline of union-supported Democrats. Instead of settling into a mansion on a golf course after retiring from the NBA, he moved back to Sacramento. He focused on St. Hope, a nonprofit he founded in Oak Park. He redeveloped part of Broadway, launched education initiatives and, in a move that still angers local teachers unions, was granted control of Sacramento High School, which he operated as a charter school with nonunion teachers. The school’s test scores and graduation rates have improved since St. Hope took over.
He was backed in his education endeavors by some of the city’s most wealthy and influential businessmen, including developers Buzz Oates and Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, who eventually urged Johnson to run for mayor. In 2008, with the city facing high crime rates and historic budget woes, Johnson jumped into the race, taking on two-term incumbent Heather Fargo in what would become an expensive, hostile campaign.
‘What would KJ do?’
Johnson relished playing the role of the outsider as he settled into his new life in politics. Most of his aides – and an army of volunteers – set up residence on City Hall’s third floor, two floors down from the offices of the eight City Council members. His staff and some volunteers eventually relied on private email accounts for correspondence, shielding them from public records requests and opening Johnson up to criticism.
Johnson set up a space at City Hall more akin to a business headquarters than a government office. There were whiteboards filled with notes, framed photos of Johnson from his NBA days and young Ivy League interns researching how the city could combat homelessness and increase funding for the arts. A lot of reports were issued, but not much progress was made, in part because of Johnson’s disconnection from the traditional City Hall bureaucracy.
“There was a learning curve that needed to happen about how to be successful in an environment that he had never participated in before,” said Councilman Jay Schenirer, one of Johnson’s close political allies. “He’s still got the perspective of an Oak Park kid in a lot of ways. He could never have imagined himself where he is today.”
Johnson’s personality is a bit of a paradox. He appears at ease hobnobbing with billionaires, pro athletes and other mayors, but still exudes the qualities of a kid from Oak Park. Former aides say he went through a phase of ordering grilled cheese sandwiches every time he went out for lunch – even at the nicest restaurants in town where grilled cheese sandwiches aren’t a menu option.
Johnson is also fiercely private, maintaining a small inner circle of close acquaintances, some of whom he has known since childhood. He spoke often in 2008 about his desire to raise a family in Sacramento. But when a Bee reporter asked him at the time if he was in a relationship, he responded, “Nice try.”
After months of rumors, Johnson and former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee announced in 2009 they were engaged. They first planned to get married in 2010 at Tsakopoulos’ Sacramento estate, but delayed that wedding after the event received much publicity. They quietly got married in 2011 at a resort in Tennessee.
Former and current advisers, some of whom declined to speak about Johnson publicly because of his fiercely private nature, described a cultish environment surrounding the mayor. He would lead small groups on runs through Oak Park at 4:30 a.m., barking out demands that the other joggers immediately followed. Some aides joked they should stick to the guideline: “WWKJD? (What Would KJ Do?),” a reference to the religious refrain, “What Would Jesus Do?”
As mayor, Johnson was a man in constant, almost frantic motion. He juggled multiple Blackberries, sent emails at 1 a.m. and never took vacations. He presided over staff meetings every morning at 7:30 and would often work 12-hour days at City Hall before heading home to work some more.
“He would always be the first guy in the office and the last guy to leave,” said Ben Sosenko, the mayor’s former spokesman. “His entire focus was on his job as mayor, and I’m sure he’s going to turn that full attention to whatever he’s doing next.”
‘World class’ aspirations
One of the issues that most consumed Johnson when he entered office was Sacramento’s cow town image. Johnson talked about his desire to make Sacramento “cool.” One of his campaign promises in 2008 was to turn Sacramento into a “world class destination city.”
“He was frustrated by what he saw as a small town attitude at City Hall, and he wanted to bring star power and bright lights,” said political consultant Steve Maviglio, a long-time adviser of Johnson’s who helped run his 2008 campaign. “It was the little town that couldn’t instead of the big city that could.”
Johnson was convinced the only way he could shake things up was by becoming a “strong mayor.” Sacramento’s governing structure places most of the day-to-day decision making in the hands of an unelected city manager, who answers to the nine-member City Council. In most big cities, the mayor calls the shots – and Johnson wanted to call the shots.
Johnson was so focused on beefing up his power, he launched his first strong-mayor ballot campaign less than two weeks after taking office. The move angered the City Council, and a judge eventually tossed the proposal off the ballot.
After years of trying, Johnson finally got a strong-mayor proposal on the November 2014 ballot. He raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and campaigned seven days a week. The city’s wealthy elite and many of its powerful special interests lined up behind the cause.
The ballot measure got crushed. A distraught Johnson briefly entertained the notion of resigning, but was quickly talked down by advisers. It was at that moment, Maviglio said, that Johnson decided he would not seek a third term in 2016.
“Mayor Johnson saw the strong-mayor vote as a referendum on the future of the city: were we going to be forward-thinking with an accountable government, or stuck with a system that was designed for small villages?” Maviglio said. “The mayor didn’t have any interest in continuing to serve without the ability to shape change the way that mayors of most California cities do.”
The defeat of his strong-mayor initiative marked an end to Johnson’s most heady stretch as mayor.
Johnson’s run of high-profile wins started in April 2014, when Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul called Johnson with an urgent request: help guide the NBA players’ response to racist comments made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Johnson, acting as an adviser to the players’ union as it searched for a permanent leader, quickly emerged as the chief negotiator between the players and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on developing a punishment. Johnson urged Silver to hand down a harsh penalty, and the commissioner banned Sterling for life.
Johnson took center stage at a news conference outside Los Angeles City Hall the day Silver announced Sterling’s ban. Reporters swarmed him as he overshadowed the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Getting ready to board a flight home, Johnson told The Sacramento Bee that his work on the Sterling affair “feels like the most important thing I’ve done since I’ve been mayor.”
The following month, Johnson brought a financing plan for a new downtown arena to his City Council colleagues for a vote. The deal included the kind of massive public investment – $255 million – that had scared Johnson’s predecessors in the mayor’s chair. Johnson won his vote 7-2.
And in June 2014, his national profile took another leap. Johnson chaired the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Dallas. Serving as the first Sacramento mayor to run the prestigious organization, Johnson spent the weekend directing the mayors of the nation’s largest cities and executives from some of the nation’s largest corporations.
More federal money
Midway through his second term, Johnson was riding high. There was speculation he might run for governor or for an unprecedented third term as mayor.
Five months later, after the defeat of his strong-mayor plan, he began to largely withdraw from public view. That retreat accelerated as the allegations of sexual abuse from years earlier resurfaced in the Sacramento and national media. His already spotty attendance record at City Council meetings grew even worse.
Still, he continued his focus on a full list of initiatives.
With Johnson leading the charge, Sacramento is in line to secure an expansion franchise with Major League Soccer and build a new stadium in the downtown railyard. Johnson also drove a new city initiative to construct 10,000 housing units in the central city over the next decade.
In 2015, Johnson advocated for and won a “Promise Zone” designation for parts of Sacramento from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, giving Sacramento an edge in receiving federal grants. The city won $30 million in Choice Neighborhoods money for a development project north of downtown called The Dos and is currently in the running for a $25 million Promise Neighborhood grant from the Department of Education which would assist Oak Park.
Following the police killing of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, Johnson scheduled a series of community meetings and called for police reforms in Sacramento. Then police shot and killed Joseph Mann, a mentally ill man in North Sacramento, igniting a fierce community protest. The City Council unanimously approved a series of reforms last week, including measures to increase access to videos of officer-involved shootings.
Johnson also started the city’s $10 million Innovation and Growth Fund in 2015. That effort took leftover redevelopment money and put it in a fund to promote high-tech industry in Sacramento, including providing seed grants for local startups. The first round of grants totaling nearly $1 million was announced in October.
It’s anyone’s guess what Johnson will do next. He isn’t saying, at least not publicly. Many close to him speculate that given his championing of the innovation fund, he will go into venture capital, investing the money of wealthy individuals into local startups.
In the meantime, Johnson has started stepping out of the spotlight, the way he did when he left the NBA and returned to Sacramento. But the physical signs of his legacy will never be hard to find.
There’s a monument of sorts to Johnson on a wall inside Golden 1 Center. His name is sketched onto a silver crown-shaped plaque, next to eight smaller signs featuring the names of the members of the City Council when the arena deal was finalized.
Above the plaques, there is a quote by Johnson from the night the deal was approved. It sums up the optimistic nature of Sacramento’s complicated cheerleader-in-chief of the last eight years.
“Let’s do this, Sacramento.”