Grantland Johnson, a trailblazing Sacramento politician who rose in rank while staying in touch with his community roots as a city councilman, county supervisor and top health official in state and federal government, died Tuesday at 65.
He died at home from complications related to diabetes and congestive heart failure, said his wife, Lee.
As word of his death spread, Johnson was widely praised in the community as a thoughtful leader with keen political instincts and a passion to help people in need. Although often viewed through the prism of race – as the first African American elected to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors – he was seen as a conciliator who worked with disparate interests in search of solutions to common problems.
Appointed to the Sacramento Regional Transit board in 1976, he defeated incumbent Blaine Fisher to be elected to the Sacramento City Council in 1983. He represented disenfranchised neighborhoods across the American River from City Hall – including Del Paso Heights, where he grew up and got his start in politics as an 11-year-old handing out fliers for the first African American woman on the community’s school board.
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He won a close race for county supervisor in 1986 and was re-elected to a second term four years later. He left local government in 1993 to serve in the Clinton administration as Western regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Six years later, he was tapped by Gov. Gray Davis to be director of the California Health and Welfare Agency. He served in the state Cabinet until Davis was recalled in 2003.
Outside the halls of power, Johnson was visible on the streets of Sacramento as a politician, activist and resident. He campaigned for office door-to-door and spoke at neighborhood forums. He walked picket lines and staffed voter-registration booths.
During his years in the Clinton administration, he rose daily at 4 a.m. and met commuters who nicknamed him “Highlighter” because he read and marked policy papers on the train ride to his office in the Bay Area.
“When you’re in public service, the opportunity to make a difference is there,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 1999. “I’ve been given an opportunity that few people have had. I know it sounds like pablum, but it’s true.”
A college radical in the 1960s, Johnson tempered his social idealism with political realism as he transformed himself from a brash neophyte to a respected statesman. He was a progressive Democrat with a by-the-bootstraps background who opposed general assistance welfare payments for indigent people without restrictions.
He caused a stir as a city councilman in 1985 when he was arrested for picketing against apartheid outside the South African Embassy in Washington. The incident followed a defining moment in his political career when Johnson, as RT board chairman, defied local African American leaders by supporting the ouster of the transit agency’s black leader, Charles Thomas, because of declining bus service.
“He had to stand up to enormous pressure from his community,” said former Sacramento Mayor Phil Isenberg, who had appointed Johnson to the RT board. “That took a level of courage that damn few people ever exhibit in life.”
Johnson earned a reputation in local government as a visionary politician who could plot campaign strategy and assemble coalitions to get results on development, flood control, human services, transportation and other issues. Representing diverse communities as a county supervisor – North Highlands, South Natomas, Oak Park and Rio Linda – he often took a broad look at problems and weighed the long-term impacts of policy decisions.
He forged alliances among among racial minorities and environmentalists to support land-use policies emphasizing transit-oriented neighborhoods with mixed-income families. A 1993 editorial in The Bee praised him as a leader “who could see beyond the political moment and the latest staff report to the big picture.”
“Sometimes politicians can be too easily dismissed as amateurs in the field of public policy – but Grantland was a giant,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, who represents Johnson’s former district. “Whether on the picket line or at the speaker’s dais or testifying before a public committee, he knew public policy.”
Even at 5-foot-6, Johnson was a formidable figure in the community. Dignified in appearance, he appeared bookish behind oversized eyeglasses framing a round face with a wide smile. A former high school debater, he spoke forcefully in public with a vocabulary that often sent listeners scrambling for a dictionary.
Grantland Lee Johnson was born Sept. 29, 1948. His mother, Mae Willie Johnson, loved books and regularly took her young children to the library to read. She worked full time as a key punch operator at McClellan Air Force Base while rearing her son and two daughters alone in Del Paso Heights after her marriage to Robert Lee Johnson ended in divorce.
A small boy who read a lot and practiced the violin, Johnson fit in with other kids by playing sports. He rode his bike to Little League baseball games and other sports at Hagginwood Park – where the soccer field was dedicated in his honor in 2011. He was on the football, basketball and baseball teams at Grant High School, where he graduated in 1966.
“I wasn’t a really gifted student, but my parents never left any doubt that I would be going to college – and not just for personal success,” he said in 2004. “I was supposed to make a difference.”
Sports gave way to other priorities at American River College as he found himself wrapped up in reading political philosophy and public policy. An outspoken leader in the Black Student Union at ARC, he was skeptical of nonviolence in the civil rights movement until he heard comedian and activist Dick Gregory speak on campus about Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968
Two days later, King was assassinated. Two months later, Johnson was leading his first march at the college to protest the closing of the old Grant Technical College in Del Paso Heights to create ARC across the tracks in Foothill Farms. He read all he could about King and Malcolm X and dedicated his life to mobilizing and organizing people for change.
After taking a break to earn money as a cannery worker, substitute teacher and roofer, he enrolled at California State University, Sacramento, and earned a government degree in 1974. His professors included Joe Serna Jr., who became a mentor and political ally as a Sacramento city councilman and mayor.
Outside full-time public service, Johnson held a series of planning and policy-related jobs and was a management consultant. He was a member of the governor’s task force on public investment in 1980-81 and the lieutenant governor’s task force on postsecondary education in 1978. He worked as a consultant after leaving government and taught a graduate-level course on public policy and administration at USC’s State Capital Center in Sacramento.
Word of his death elicited condolences from officials at all levels of government who knew Johnson as a political leader and a friend. Rep. Doris Matsui issued a written statement praising him as “an unparalleled leader in our community.” Serna announced the creation of an internship and a $1,000 scholarship award in Johnson’s name for a Grant High School graduate planning to study political science or public policy in college.
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a former Sacramento City Council member who worked with Johnson in state and local politics, recalled a “revered figure” who often worked historical references into both policy discussions and casual conversations. Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, who followed Johnson on the Board of Supervisors, remembered him as “a passionate voice for those who are too often left behind” and a film buff.
“If you were looking for Grantland and could not find him, chances were that he was at the movies,” Dickinson said in a written statement. “It was his refuge and a source of inspiration.”
In addition to his wife, the former Lee Turner, Johnson is survived by a daughter, Patrice, from a marriage to Charlot Bolton that ended in divorce; and two sisters, Catherine Harris and Rose Morris.
Visitation is planned Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at Chapel of the Chimes, 4701 Marysville Blvd., Sacramento. A service is set for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Antioch Progressive Church, 7650 Amherst St., Sacramento, with a reception immediately following at the church.