Even though the time for declaring candidacies and filing papers is more than a year away, it’s already election season to pick the next mayor of Sacramento.
Last week, business and trade groups began endorsing a measure to strengthen mayoral powers even as other groups stand in opposition.
The vote in November to shift more authority to the mayor will have a big impact on who runs for the job in June 2016.
A few months ago, when he was basking in the national spotlight on several fronts, the assumption was that Mayor Kevin Johnson would step aside to seek something bigger.
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But recent events have created only more reasons for a Johnson bid to become Sacramento’s first three-term mayor since the city was incorporated in 1850.
Johnson has a special skill set that lends itself to his current his job – but not many others in politics. A private-sector post could be satisfying, but Johnson’s current job puts him at the center of newsworthy events.
When he showed up in Portland last week to pitch the leaders of Major League Soccer on Sacramento as a place for the next MLS franchise, the verdict was unanimous from those in attendance: “The mayor was a rock star,” said Warren Smith, owner of Sacramento Republic FC, the minor-league soccer team seeking a berth in MLS with a boost from Johnson.
It’s what Johnson does. He impresses. He sells influential people on himself, his city and his causes.
The NBA – the ultimate “star” league – is still in Sacramento because Johnson’s force of personality could match the attraction of high-tech billionaires and neutralize the power of NBA executives accustomed to slapping city officials around.
Johnson’s MLS pitch is a second act to his triumphant wooing of NBA owners. Keeping the Kings is his crowning achievement as mayor, but it’s important to remember that it came in the fifth year of his tenure.
It came after a first term marked by stumbles, public scrapes with now-departed political rivals and a horrible economy where all Johnson and council colleagues did was cut services.
Look at Sacramento now: Demolition has finally begun on the Downtown Plaza to clear the way for a new arena. The downtown railyard, for decades a big empty hole adjacent to the urban core, is now locally owned and poised for development. Investment in downtown properties is finally happening after a decade of hibernation. Business groups are flexing new political muscle with Johnson’s encouragement.
Look at Johnson now: He is cruising as a Sacramento mayor with a new council packed with colleagues he endorsed. As the new leader of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he is scheduled to be in New York on Monday to join New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and others to talk about dramatic disparities in income distribution in American cities.
Johnson is a frequent guest at the White House. He’s only 48 and ascending within worlds not normally frequented by former professional basketball players.
Higher political office would seem to be a natural fit, until one considers the limited possibilities.
Johnson is no policy wonk or a face in the crowd, so junior seats in the state Legislature or Congress are out. All roads are blocked to glamour jobs like California governor or U.S. senator, at least for years to come.
There doesn’t appear to be anything the NBA could offer the Basketball Hall of Fame candidate. Johnson gained accolades a few months ago as the de facto head of the NBA players union when he led a player revolt resulting in the ouster of racist NBA owner Donald Sterling.
But once the cameras went away and mundane politics returned to the task, Johnson left the player union business to others.
It’s true that KJ, the city’s first African American mayor, could still go the Magic Johnson route – using his name and stature to promote business or African American advancement.
The mayor isn’t an accomplished politician like outgoing state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. But Johnson’s skill as alchemist mayor is undeniable.
He said he wanted to enhance Sacramento’s self-image, and he’s doing it. He said he wanted to make Sacramento a city where there is more to do, and he’s doing it. He’s supporting public education as he said he would, though his charter schools enrage a town of teacher union activists.
He’s got skillful, powerful people around him. He is poised to get more power with the help of Sacramento voters this November. Sacramento seems ready for a building cycle that could reach full flower in his third term.
Don’t be surprised if Johnson sticks around to enjoy it.