When he was first elected to public office in 2008, Mayor Kevin Johnson stood before every camera he could find but wielded little power and was often tripped up by political rivals.
The man has learned much about politics since then.
Johnson is Mr. Back Room now. To get what he wants, he pushes himself to the background while operators of his liking take the lead.
He worked that way to save the Kings by attracting a team of lawyers, image-makers, policy wonks and business leaders to craft a public narrative for Sacramento to rally behind. It was called Think Big Sacramento and had many smart people who made the Kings effort about more than public subsidies for sports teams.
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Critics have said Johnson wasn’t the brain behind Think Big – that others did the big thinking. Maybe, but they did their thinking at Johnson’s pleasure.
Now, after trying and failing on his own several times to strengthen his powers as mayor, Johnson has let a group called Sacramento Tomorrow lead the effort.
Who thinks of these names? They may be bite-size declarations of civic promise, but at least they sound more inspiring than Doing KJ’s Bidding.
This is not a condemnation. On the contrary, Johnson’s transformation has been impressive.
The ubiquitous mayor of little consequence has become the stealth mayor of growing consequence.
Johnson was the outsider who blew up the plan hatched by Sacramento’s political insiders to re-elect his predecessor, Heather Fargo.
Now everyone waits to see what he is going to do next, including Sacramento’s most accomplished and decorated politician – Darrell Steinberg. Termed out soon, the leader of the state Senate could run for Sacramento mayor in 2016 – but only if KJ decides to cast his big shadow elsewhere.
In the wake of saving the Kings, Johnson is too big for anyone to run against.
If “strong mayor” is apporoved by voters next year and Johnson could hire the city manager and use a line-item veto, among other power enhancements – it seems a natural that he’ll run for a third term as mayor.
That would mean Mayor KJ until 2020, an interesting backdrop to any talk of changing Sacramento’s form of governance.
We’ve never had anyone like Johnson on the local, political level – and probably never will again.
What other homegrown politician generates as much passion, loyalty, loathing, suspicion and genuine star power that attracts other powerful people?
An argument can be made that KJ has been great for Sacramento, with plenty of checks and balances to his power. But he always wants more. It’s the nature of the man and informs every move he makes.
Should Sacramento beware? That’s too harsh. But Sacramento should be aware.