Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Controversy, ambition continue to define Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson

Kevin Johnson can sell Sacramento to the world, but struggles at selling himself to his peers and constituents, Marcos Breton writes.
Kevin Johnson can sell Sacramento to the world, but struggles at selling himself to his peers and constituents, Marcos Breton writes.

It was déjà vu. The events of this past week transported Sacramento back to the summer of 2008, when a vast majority of city voters wanted Kevin Johnson as their mayor – but the political candidate with so much promise and charisma was dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct.

Sacramento elected him anyway. Voters seemed to decide that KJ’s past was his past. They wanted him for his dynamism, his youth, his connections and his promise to promote a more robust and positive image for Sacramento.

The mayor blossomed from a stilted speaker to a confident one. He went from being politically naive to politically powerful. A City Council of antagonists largely morphed into a council of friends and supporters.

Even the setback at the polls this past November – his ill-fated strong-mayor attempt – hardly seemed to matter. He continued to ride a wave of optimism as the new arena took shape, as he secured federal dollars for Sacramento, as he chased a Major League Soccer berth for the city and pledged to repopulate downtown.

When Ferguson, Mo., was erupting in racial violence, KJ was leading community events that helped keep the peace. Weeks ago in New York, he was the star of a premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival – the lead player in an ESPN film about Sacramento’s successful quest to keep the Kings. At another event at New York University, the mayor turned a ballroom of law school students into fans.

Then it was déjà vu. What seemed like the past was suddenly the present.

A city employee accused Johnson of sexual misconduct. Like past accusations, KJ denied it. We were told the issue had been settled. How? We don’t know. Is money going to change hands between accuser and accused? We don’t know. Is there going to be another shoe to drop? We don’t know.

The mayor’s representatives said the issue was over, settled, with the city formally rejecting the accuser’s claim last week. But City Attorney Jim Sanchez was acting and talking like it wasn’t over – ordering all city parties to keep quiet. Sanchez wants to protect Sacramento from a civil lawsuit or an employment complaint from the state.

The implication that this could linger exposed a type of controversy that has been part of KJ’s story since he was an NBA superstar with the Phoenix Suns. In Arizona during the ’90s, he was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with an underage girl. That also was murky. The authorities didn’t prosecute, but a financial settlement was reached.

On social media, people wondered last week if this is a pattern of behavior or if KJ is just terribly unlucky with some relationships. Based on the information, it wouldn’t be right to render judgment on the latest accusation.

The question now is does this incident affect Johnson’s ambitions for the city and for himself?

It’s worth noting that just before the story of the accusation broke in The Sacramento Bee, Johnson was in Knoxville, Tenn., in his capacity as leader of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He and other mayors attended a public event with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. This type of visibility outside the city has netted Johnson access to federal officials and federal dollars for Sacramento.

Last month, Sacramento was one of eight communities nationwide designated a “Promise Zone” by the Obama administration, whereby certain high poverty neighborhoods are given greater priority when applying for federal grants to spur economic growth. With the elimination of state redevelopment dollars, “Promise Zone” could help give Sacramento a real shot at landing money to help improve the quality of life in Del Paso Heights, Oak Park, Lemon Hill and other struggling neighborhoods.

KJ also played a role in the $1.5 million federal transportation grant awarded to West Sacramento in 2014 – money to be used on the new Broadway bridge that will connect West Sacramento and Sacramento.

With these successes as a backdrop, Johnson is seeking to bolster his staff so that he will have greater capacity to trade on his relationships with federal officials. It’s a legitimate idea that deserves discussion.

But while KJ was standing behind Foxx as he addressed reporters in Tennessee, his staffing plans were getting pummeled back home. Instead of being the primary spokesman for why he should get more staffers at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Johnson left it to his aides to speak for him unconvincingly. Meanwhile, even close allies on the council expressed frustration that he didn’t clue them in to what he was doing.

The net effect was that the value of KJ the ambassador was obscured by the shortcomings of KJ the politician – whose Achilles heel has been articulating why he should get more authority.

He can sell Sacramento to the world, but struggles at selling himself to his peers and constituents. By leaving the council to discuss his request for five additional staffers at a cost of nearly $700,000 while he went to Tennessee, the whole issue landed like a thud.

It would have been different if he said on the City Council dais what he said to me by phone Friday:

“Giving the mayor more capacity allows him to be more effective,” Johnson said. “It shouldn’t be controversial to go from seven staffers to 12. More staffers would help me get more done for the city.”

He said he decided to miss Tuesday’s meeting because the staffing increase – part of the proposed city budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year – wasn’t going to be voted on that night. “I would be back in plenty of time to discuss it, and if people didn’t agree, they would have the opportunity to do so.”

KJ has been a fascinating puzzle of achievement and enigma. He’s moved mountains with his guard up. He thrives outside City Hall in the service of Sacramento. It’s working inside City Hall – the site of the sexual misconduct allegation – that has been the problem.