Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson approached presidential chef Sam Kass during a White House State Dinner last month and extended an invitation.
“I’d love to get you out to Sacramento,” the mayor said he told Kass. “We’re the farm-to-fork capital.”
Earlier that night, Johnson said, he pressed Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chair of the House Budget Committee, about the need for a federal bill providing long-delayed funding for levee improvements in Sacramento.
The mayor said he also spoke with a member of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign team about de Blasio’s support of pre-kindergarten programs and his adversarial relationship with charter schools. Johnson, a staunch charter school advocate, has raised nearly $5 million for education-related causes in Sacramento since taking office.
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The dinner was part of a busy out-of-town schedule for the mayor over the past two months, which also included tours of public schools in San Antonio and an education summit hosted this week by Bill Gates in Washington, D.C.
Johnson has always spent a lot of time away from Sacramento compared with his predecessors. Now that his top local goal of building a new Kings arena may soon be achieved, he’s planning to spend even less time at City Hall.
In April, Johnson will be installed as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a post that will increase his profile on the national stage. Johnson will be the first Sacramento mayor to lead the organization in its 81-year history.
Johnson says the goal is to raise Sacramento’s national visibility and to secure private and public investment in the city.
City Council colleagues either said they supported this traveling salesman approach or declined comment, though the leader of one City Hall watchdog group pointed out that a ballot measure backed by Johnson aiming to greatly increase the mayor’s day-to-day responsibilities would potentially make his presence in town more important.
“The spotlight is going to be on our community,” Johnson said last week during an interview in his City Hall office. “This game is about relationships and knowing people, and we’re in line to capitalize on that in a big way.”
To prepare for Johnson’s expected absences this year, the City Council has named a vice mayor and, for the first time, a mayor pro tem. Councilman Jay Schenirer is serving as vice mayor for 2014; Councilwoman Angelique Ashby is the mayor pro tem and will step in to run council meetings when Johnson and Schenirer are not around.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors post is high profile, held in the past decade by the mayors of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami and Seattle, along with smaller cities such as Dearborn, Mich., and Trenton, N.J.
For 14 months, Johnson will set the political and advocacy agenda for an organization that represents more than 600 cities with populations greater than 30,000. He’ll be called on for high-level meetings in Washington and will run conferences attended by hundreds of mayors and CEOs.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa capitalized on his term as president to advocate for America Fast Forward, a national program that led to increased funding for transportation infrastructure projects. Los Angeles received millions of dollars in funding from the program.
Also during his term as president, Villaraigosa recruited a group of more than 50 mayors to Los Angeles for a tour of its revamped downtown and other neighborhoods that don’t receive much national attention. Johnson is following that model with his own tour this year in Sacramento.
“Sacramento is going to benefit if for no other reason than because of the profile (Johnson will) have,” Villaraigosa said. “He’ll be able to knock on doors (in Washington) and get his calls returned quicker.”
While there has been speculation he could eye a statewide or national elected office in the not-too-distant future – as some other mayors who have held the top Conference of Mayors post have done – Johnson has instead said he is “seriously considering” seeking a third term as mayor after his current term ends in 2016.
Johnson is scheduled to be installed as president of the mayors’ group on April 16 in Sacramento. His promotion to the leadership role from vice president is occurring two months earlier than planned because the current president – Mesa, Ariz., Mayor Scott Smith – is resigning from his mayoral post to run for governor of his home state.
Johnson said he is aiming for the new role to have a direct impact on Sacramento. He and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are planning to host a delegation of more than 50 mayors here in September for the city’s annual Farm-to-Fork Festival. Johnson said he plans to show Sacramento off to his mayoral colleagues while they’re here, with tours of the Downtown Plaza arena site and infill development projects at the downtown railyard, Curtis Park and east Sacramento.
The mayor said he also plans to use his new connections to recruit private and public investment in Sacramento, a city still recovering from difficult economic times. The agenda for the conference’s winter meetings in Washington this year included remarks by, among others, Google executive Susan Molinari, Wal-Mart CEO Bill Simon and the heads of several federal agencies.
“If I do it right,” Johnson said, “it’s going to be a big web that funnels its way back to Sacramento.”
Tom Cochran, the executive director of the organization, said Johnson’s fellow mayors will “defer to him to be the primary spokesman on the regional and national issues of the day.
“He’ll be representing us with the Obama administration, the Cabinet and the Congress,” Cochran said. “And he’s going to be marketing your city, your name all over the world. It’s a very involved job.”
The post will require Johnson to travel often, likely exposing him to some criticism in Sacramento, where he has already missed five of the 10 City Council meetings this year. Johnson said he is confident he will be able to juggle his new duties with his responsibilities back home.
“I’m going to be traveling in this position, but my job is 24-7, and when I say ‘my job,’ it’s my job as mayor,” Johnson said. “(The mayor’s job) is my No. 1 priority.”
Craig Powell, a frequent City Hall critic, said the timing of Johnson’s appointment is ironic, given his ongoing push to alter the way the city is governed.
Under the current form of government, the city manager serves as the city’s chief executive, handling most of the government’s daily responsibilities. But Johnson wants to change that, proposing in a November ballot measure to transfer many of the city manager’s duties to his office through a “strong mayor” system.
“Whether he’s gone a great deal doesn’t really have an immediate effect on the city government right now,” said Powell, a leader of the watchdog group Eye on Sacramento. “If he gets the strong-mayor initiative passed, it would be much more difficult for him to take (the Conference of Mayors role) on.”
Ashby said she wasn’t concerned about the mayor missing City Council meetings or being away from Sacramento. Other council members contacted by The Bee either said they weren’t concerned or declined to voice an opinion on Johnson’s frequent absences.
“Just because he’s not here doesn’t mean he’s not focusing on Sacramento,” Ashby said. “This is about him going where the fights are and representing us. We can’t win some of these battles (such as securing funding for levees in Natomas) by staying in Sacramento.”
Smith, the outgoing president of the mayors’ organization, said his time as president required “a few more trips,” but that most of the lobbying he did on behalf of the organization took place during the group’s annual meetings. Smith said he missed just one City Council meeting during three years of serving in the leadership ranks of the group.
“The rewards, I believe, were much greater than the burdens,” he said. “It gives you the kind of position, the notoriety and the contacts in a different venue than you otherwise would have had. You’re now the spokesperson for all cities, and there’s no doubt you take on an added focus. You are looked at more carefully.”