Marcos Bretón

I tried to understand Kevin Johnson, but Kevin Johnson always got in the way

Mayor Kevin Johnson changed downtown Sacramento by keeping the Kings in town and getting an arena built. Sexual allegations changed the way he communicated.
Mayor Kevin Johnson changed downtown Sacramento by keeping the Kings in town and getting an arena built. Sexual allegations changed the way he communicated. Sacramento Bee file

For the life of me, I never fully understood Mayor Kevin Johnson. The man has so many gifts, so many strengths, so much magnetism and a world-class ability to communicate with everyone from billionaires to the most humble people on the street.

Yet Johnson was capable of threatening every great thing he did or ever will do by getting himself in trouble, hiding behind lawyers and going quiet like a nuclear submarine in enemy waters. The man who dedicated his life to helping young people had his political career undone in part by 20-year-old allegations that he molested a teenage girl while still an NBA star in 1995.

Even though Johnson had to know those allegations would come to light, he ran for mayor anyway, in 2008. Even though someone as tightly wound and excessively guarded as Johnson seemed ill-suited for the accessibility required in politics, he ran for mayor anyway. And even though he hated City Council meetings, was bored by policy and despised political horse trading, he ran for mayor anyway. Now he walks away after eight years as mayor with more of a legacy than the vast majority of his predecessors.

I used to think Johnson was a smaller version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who traded on his celebrity for a turn as governor. But it turns out, Johnson may have more in common with President-elect Donald Trump. Those who love Johnson and stay in his sphere are not only supporters; they are believers. Those who did business with Johnson but fell out with him loathe him for life. Those angry that he was elected vehemently believe that his character is unfit for office – and that allegations against him should have been disqualifying.

There are those in Sacramento who believe that people like me – people who occasionally wrote favorably about Johnson – were somehow “normalizing” sexual assault. You couldn’t tell these folks that there is a big difference between allegations and facts. You couldn’t tell them that Johnson was never so much as arrested, let along prosecuted, for his alleged crimes against women. You couldn’t tell people that, no, the Bill Cosby comparison is incorrect because Johnson was never accused of raping anyone.

No matter. You write about Johnson and get ready for the onslaught of how he’s a “pedophile” or a “sexual predator.” There were also times when the criticism of Johnson – and the vehemence behind them – edged close to seeming racial.

When Johnson tried to strengthen his hand as mayor, a practice common in many big California cities, the opposition crafted a campaign that warned “Stop the Power Grab.” Mayors in other California cities control the city budget and have the city attorney and key managers report to them. But that idea was somehow dangerous, ominous if Johnson was given that authority. As it turns out, the city manager, city attorney and police chief initially concealed videos of a controversial police shooting earlier this year. This was done over the objections of Johnson and other elected council members.

The reason why more people don’t defend Johnson now, as he’s on his way out the door, is that we know him. And those of us who know him know the contradiction that many of us had in our relationships with him. You wanted to root for Johnson. He is a historic figure in Sacramento history, and not just because he was the first black mayor since the city was incorporated in 1849. KJ was more than that.

He was a mayor from the wrong side of town, from a poor neighborhood in a place where ZIP codes mean everything. Curtis Park, Land Park, McKinley Park, the Fabulous 40s, East Sacramento – those neighborhoods have run Sacramento forever.

Johnson blew up that paradigm, and some people hated him for it. He blew up the political pecking order that saw his predecessor, Heather Fargo, essentially line up the endorsements of all her council colleagues a year before the 2008 election.

Boom! You would never know it now by the stealthy way he is slinking off the stage, but when I broke the news that Johnson was running, it shook the ground. Many who had endorsed Fargo, suddenly un-endorsed her and rushed to him.

Sacramento was craving a change. There had been a dismal resignation among business leaders who felt that Fargo was missing the boat on what Sacramento could be. Johnson understood what people wanted, just like Trump did. Johnson was dismissed by some of the elites in Sacramento, but the neighborhoods came strong for him.

He represented Sacramento more than Fargo or any of the tired crowd around her did. Like Sacramento, Johnson was diverse, young, vibrant and aching for more. He didn’t have that many fully formed ideas. He once told me what he wanted most of all was for Sacramento to be a cool place. You know what? It is now. And those who say he had nothing to do with it miss the point – and the gifts of Kevin Johnson.

“He changed the mindset of Sacramento,” said Scott Syphax, the developer and public television talk show host who has known Johnson since he was a child in Oak Park. “His major accomplishment is that he changed Sacramento from a ‘can’t-do’ community to a ‘can-do’ community.”

Sacramento is brimming with optimism as Johnson steps aside. A new downtown is taking shape. The downtown railyard is poised for development. A culture of restaurants, art galleries and craft beer breweries has gained traction, as has a nascent tech community.

Johnson brought development to Oak Park. And yet for all this, he leaves now as a solitary figure tinged with sadness. The allegation that he molested a teenage girl 20 years ago found new life last year when a video of her interview with a police officer was published. The ensuing bad publicity caused ESPN to scrap a film on Sacramento’s quest to save the Kings, a quest led by Johnson.

The mayor soon announced he would not seek a third term and has been mostly AWOL since. Instead of fighting back to change public perception as Johnson did during his first campaign in 2008, the now 50-year-old son of Sacramento simply retreated to his isolated corner of town.

The details of that case involving then 16-year-old Mandi Koba, contained in a Phoenix police report, were widely publicized when Johnson first ran for office in 2008, as was the $230,000 settlement Johnson paid her and her family (part of that agreement stated that Johnson denied the allegations were true). But it was an altogether different experience to see and hear those allegations coming from the mouth of a petite youngster whose voice was still childlike and who nervously fidgeted in her chair while telling a Phoenix cop that Johnson had touched her in the shower and in her bed.

To revisit the details of his relationship with Koba is to wonder: Kevin, what were you thinking? Whenever Johnson would hide behind a lawyer instead of talking, I asked the same question. Johnson stopped speaking directly to me last year after a City Hall employee accused him of sexual harassment – a claim the city later dismissed. He wouldn’t talk to me about it. I wrote about it anyway.

After the video came out, his term as mayor was effectively done. What a pity. How could a guy who did so much for Sacramento by stopping the Kings from relocating to Seattle – and making Golden 1 Center possible – be dogged by the reality that he could have done so much more if he had been more? This past year should have been a victory lap for Johnson. Instead, it was a slow-motion disappearance from public view.

The late sportswriter Jim Murray once penned a funny line about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an NBA hero of Johnson’s youth. Murray wrote: “No man is an island, but Kareem gave it a shot.”

Johnson actually is an island. No one is allowed in unless they follow his rules. The island looks glorious from a distance, less so close up. It didn’t have to be this way but somehow, Kevin Johnson’s greatest foe was always Kevin Johnson.

Outgoing Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson was honored at his next-to-last City Council meeting as mayor in December.

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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