DALLAS – Kevin Johnson, the Sacramento mayor who likes to do things big, looked right at home running the show here this weekend.
As the newly installed president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Johnson acted as the official emcee for the group’s annual meeting – a four-day extravaganza of parties, concerts and networking funded by some of Dallas’ wealthiest families and corporations, including 7-Eleven, Southwest Airlines and AT&T.
The mayors were feted with cocktail hours, a fireworks display and private concerts by Kool & the Gang, Bonnie Raitt and Lyle Lovett. They dined on the field at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, one of the largest and most expensive sports venues in the country. A group of mayors that included Johnson and West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon attended a private session with former President George W. Bush at his presidential library.
Johnson also convened a discussion of race and poverty in American cities, and met with business leaders to promote Sacramento as a place to invest.
“Mayors take care of real issues, and we realize we have a responsibility to this country to get things done,” Johnson said just before he warmed up an audience of cheering mayors for a performance by 1980s pop phenomenon Kool & the Gang. “We’re striking the balance between substance, having fun and having meaningful discussions.”
Johnson, a former NBA star, was asked to pose for photographs everywhere he went at the gathering in the Omni Dallas Hotel. Other mayors referred to him adoringly as “President Johnson.”
Johnson’s national profile has steadily increased since he was elected Sacramento mayor in 2008. Last year, he received national kudos for leading Sacramento’s successful effort to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle. He grabbed the national spotlight again this spring as a spokesman for the NBA players union, calling for the dismissal from the league of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling over Sterling’s racist comments.
The Conference of Mayors post gives him another turn on the national stage. Johnson has said he will use his position to raise Sacramento’s national profile and attract public and private investment to the city.
In Dallas, Johnson organized a star-studded panel on Monday on the topic of race in sports, featuring basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin and journalist Roland Martin.
“I think sports has the potential to be a great area where people can bridge to one another,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It enables people who would not have the opportunity to get together and understand one another to say, ‘Hey, they’re just like us. We’re dealing with the same issues, we’re trying to get to the same place.’ ”
Nutter urged his fellow mayors not to shy away from discussing the issue of race.
“We have to create a safe and comfortable space for folks to talk about real issues,” he said.
On Sunday, Johnson held a one-on-one chat in front of a packed conference hall with journalist and California’s former first lady Maria Shriver, who issued a report in January concluding that 42 million women are living in or near poverty in this country. Shriver said mayors are “on the front lines of humanity” and urged them to take steps toward closing the income gap.
Johnson said he would seek to do that, announcing on Sunday that he was forming a national mayoral task force that will examine ways to tackle income inequality in America. He appointed New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to chair the task force, which will convene for the first time in New York in August.
Johnson and de Blasio were joined in their announcement by Shriver, Nutter and the mayors of Houston, Dallas and Boston. “Inequality is the core crisis of our time,” de Blasio said.
On paper, Johnson and de Blasio form an odd partnership. Johnson is a moderate Democrat whose advocacy for charter schools has drawn the anger of teachers’ unions and some progressive Democrats in Sacramento. De Blasio is an unapologetic progressive Democrat who has been critical of charter schools.
Yet there was de Blasio, the mayor of the nation’s largest city, exchanging pleasantries – and a few hugs – with Johnson.
“We are blessed to have you as our president,” de Blasio told Johnson, citing Johnson’s handling of the Sterling scandal.
Johnson showed his disdain for party politics throughout the weekend, beginning with his speech on Friday that started the conference.
“The mayor must practice what I call ‘open source leadership,’ ” Johnson said. “What does that mean? It means we look for the best solutions regardless of where they come from. We don’t care if it came from Democrats or Republicans; we don’t get caught up in partisan politics.”
Veteran mayors of much larger cities said that point of view would serve Johnson well.
“We don’t have the time for the kind of partisanship you may see at a federal level or a state level, because your constituents won’t put up with that,” Nutter said. “They want you to do stuff and not get caught up in a whole lot of nonsense.”
Johnson said Monday he met with AT&T executives here and persuaded them to consider including Sacramento in a company initiative called GigaPower, which installs high-speed fiber optic infrastructure in cities. The mayor said Sacramento had not been under consideration for the technology until the meeting.
Cabaldon, representing West Sacramento, also had a big weekend. He was on hand to see his city named the most livable small city in America by a panel of judges. The city was recognized for its initiative that seeks to make preschool available to all children in West Sacramento.
“West Sacramento has had its ups and downs,” Cabaldon said. “For much of our history, we haven’t had the highest level of respect, even among our own region, so to be selected from all the smaller cities in the country as the most livable, it’s a big boost and a big shot of pride for the community.”