City Beat

Mayor Kevin Johnson’s 2016 departure sets up competitive battle to fill open seat

Video: Mayor Kevin Johnson announces he will not seek a 3rd term

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson addresses reporters during a press conference Wednesday, October 21, 2015 in Oak Park.
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Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson addresses reporters during a press conference Wednesday, October 21, 2015 in Oak Park.

Kevin Johnson flew to Phoenix on Sunday, seeking an answer. For two days, he said he prayed and walked around the city where he became a legendary professional basketball player. By Tuesday, his mind was settled.

“I got the clarity I needed,” Johnson said Wednesday morning.

After weeks of speculation, Sacramento also has clarity: Johnson will not seek an unprecedented third term as the city’s mayor. Despite talk that he might seek higher office, Johnson insisted during a brief news conference in his native Oak Park neighborhood that he has no job lined up after his current term ends next November. And he was even more adamant that recent scrutiny of sexual misconduct allegations against him from the past two decades played no role in his decision.

“I’ve never made a life decision (based on the allegations),” the mayor said, surrounded by former staffers, Oak Park residents and business leaders. “When it was time to run for office in the first place (in 2008), I would have never run if those allegations were something that concerned me.”

The mayor’s decision has set the stage for what will likely be the most expensive city campaign since Johnson defeated former Mayor Heather Fargo in 2008.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who has represented North Natomas at City Hall since 2010, formally announced Wednesday that she is running for mayor. Ashby made the announcement outside the East Sacramento headquarters of the influential – and deep-pocketed – firefighters union. The union endorsed her campaign, as did state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento.

“I’ve given all that I have for five years,” Ashby said, “and I am ready to give some more.”

Ashby will likely face serious competition in Sacramento’s first open mayoral race since 2000.

Darrell Steinberg, the former state Senate president, assemblyman and Sacramento councilman, told The Sacramento Bee he would meet “with a broad group of friends and community leaders over the next several days” as he explores his own potential campaign. He said he would announce his plans soon.

“I have been privileged to serve Sacramento for 20 years and I love my city,” Steinberg said. “I look forward to our great future.”

Both Ashby and Steinberg have, for the most part, been allies of Johnson. Both supported Johnson’s failed strong-mayor ballot measure last year and both were vocal advocates for the construction of the $507 million Sacramento Kings arena under construction in downtown Sacramento.

Former Assemblyman and Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson also said he was being encouraged by people to run and that he is “continuing to talk with family and friends about this opportunity.”

Johnson has not indicated whom he will support.

“I leave the position knowing there is ample leadership ahead of us to fill my shoes as I tried to fill the shoes of those who came before me,” Johnson said. “I leave this job humbled by the opportunity this community has given me.”

Johnson has been the most polarizing figure in local politics the past seven years.

He entered City Hall as an outsider, beating someone who had been in Sacramento politics for two decades. A majority of the City Council quickly organized against him as he pushed multiple attempts to strengthen his office’s powers through a series of proposed ballot measures.

Every seat on the City Council eventually changed hands and by this year, most of the council was aligned with Johnson. His efforts to keep the Kings from leaving town, build a new arena and advocate for downtown’s revitalization will serve as his legacy.

But as his second term neared its final year, allegations of sexual misconduct also began resurfacing.

In April, a former staff aide to City Manager John Shirey accused Johnson of sexual harassment. The claim was denied by Johnson and determined to be unsubstantiated by the city attorney and a third-party law firm. The case prompted that law firm to advise Johnson in a confidential memo to “refrain from hugging or touching anyone” at City Hall or at city-related events, The Bee reported last week.

The national website Deadspin took aim at Johnson this year, reviving accusations from 1996 that Johnson had molested a 16-year-old girl inside his Phoenix home. The allegations had been widely reported in Sacramento during the 2008 mayoral campaign, including in a report by The Bee detailing a draft settlement agreement Johnson and the girl had signed worth $230,000.

Deadspin interviewed Johnson’s accuser and, earlier this month, posted a video of her being interviewed by Phoenix police. The video’s release prompted ESPN to indefinitely delay the release of a documentary the network produced on Johnson and the city’s efforts to block the Kings’ move to Seattle in 2013.

Ashby, 40, said the national attention generated by the resurfaced allegations against Johnson had nothing to do with her decision to run. “There is nothing to tarnish the years that he has done,” she said. “He’s done a great job.”

Ashby won a seat at City Hall in 2010 by capitalizing on the same voter unrest that had helped Johnson two years earlier. A North Natomas advocate with a focus on public safety, she quickly became a popular figure in a part of the city where many residents were angered by a perceived lack of city investment in their neighborhood. She ran unopposed last year in her re-election bid.

A mother of three children, Ashby has a law degree from McGeorge School of Law, a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UC Davis and is a graduate of Sacramento High School. She put herself through UC Davis and McGeorge as a single mother.

“That kind of grit, that kind of courage is something that is going to serve the city well,” Pan said. “Her ability to work with a variety of different people from different parts of our city is going to be something that is a very important strength.”

If Steinberg enters the race, Ashby will face a competitor with a longer history in the city and a much larger campaign war chest.

Steinberg has more than $1.4 million in a campaign account he opened for a possible run for lieutenant governor, and City Clerk Shirley Concolino said most of that can be transferred to a mayoral campaign. Ashby, according to records kept by the city clerk’s office, has $67,711 available in two campaign accounts and has raised $203,106 during her six years in politics.

“(Steinberg) had a time on the City Council and it was a while back, but I think Sacramento wants to move forward and I want to be part of that trajectory,” Ashby said.

Sacramento political consultant Brian Brokaw said Ashby’s political pedigree gives her “instant credibility.”

“She’s widely viewed as intelligent, hardworking, pragmatic and a rising star locally,” he said, adding Ashby will be able to connect her campaign to the city’s progress and capitalize from her community activist background to run a “well-organized, grass-roots campaign.”

However, Brokaw said Ashby will also face the challenge of expanding her support beyond North Natomas. And, if Steinberg is her opponent with his well-funded campaign account, “he becomes the instant front-runner.”

“He’s arguably the best-known Sacramento political figure at any level of government, and he has been a fixture in Sacramento for decades with a record of accomplishments in state and local government that most candidates could only dream of,” Brokaw said.

Steinberg, 56, is an attorney with a law degree from UC Davis who has spent most of the past 23 years in public office.

He served on the City Council through much of the 1990s, was an Assembly member from 1998 to 2004 and a state senator from 2006 to 2014. He was the Senate’s president pro tem from 2008 to 2014, a period that began with deep cuts in state services as California weathered the recession but ended with an economic recovery and new voter-approved taxes that allowed for more spending on education.

Steinberg used his leverage at the Capitol to champion Sacramento’s successful efforts to keep the Kings and to get an arena built, and is credited with landmark environmental laws that focus urban development on infill and seek to reduce pollution.

He also helped write Proposition 63, a 2004 initiative that increased taxes on millionaires to pay for mental health services. Though mental health care advocates have hailed the proposition, it has drawn criticism in recent years for a lack of sufficient oversight and some funds being spent on yoga and horseback riding.

After leaving the Senate last year, Steinberg founded the Steinberg Institute, which advocates for improving mental health policy-making in California.

Word of Steinberg’s possible run spread quickly Wednesday. Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, Sacramento Councilman Steve Hansen and Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna all said they would support his campaign.

Former Sacramento Mayor Phil Isenberg said Steinberg is a likely mayoral candidate – and, he believes, a good one.

“Darrell is at the top of his governmental game these days,” Isenberg said. “He’s the best person I know who has a history of doing things like this, and the ability to earn the respect of the colleagues he works with, including the colleagues he battled with.”

And who wins in 2016?

“You can’t say how it plays out,” Isenberg said.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

The mayor’s race

This list includes potential and declared candidates in the race to replace Mayor Kevin Johnson next year.

Announced Wednesday

  • Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby

Other potential candidates

  • Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg
  • Former Assemblyman and Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson
  • Sacramento City Councilman Allen Warren
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