Mayor Kevin Johnson has never been riding higher than he was last week.
KJ was a guest of President Barack Obama at a White House State Dinner for French President Francois Hollande. He presided over a State of the City address that he transformed into a rally celebrating his greatest mayoral achievement – keeping the Kings from relocating to Seattle.
Then Johnson was named a finalist for the basketball Hall of Fame.
Amid the excitement and the adulation from wealthy and famous supporters, Johnson told The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Lillis that he was “strongly considering” running for a third term as mayor.
There has never been a three-term mayor in Sacramento, and Johnson himself came out of nowhere to prevent Heather Fargo from coasting to a third term in 2008.
But before the idea of KJ 3.0 goes any further, please consider a three-word rebuttal: Wait a minute. Or a two-word rebuttal: Time out. Or a one-word rebuttal: Stop!
Kevin Johnson has been great for Sacramento in preventing the Kings’ move and in landing a new ownership group that’s poised to build an arena downtown.
The problem is that, for a long time, Johnson has been giving a good imitation of a one-trick pony. It’s been Kings and the arena – all day, every day.
Johnson mentioned a few other priorities at his state-of-the-city Kings rally. But, as is his wont, Johnson took only glancing blows and was a little sketchy on the details.
I’ve spoken with some key people in town who tell a similar story about the mayor:
They’ve tried to engage him on serious matters and have been disappointed when he and his staff seemed more interested in slicing off bite-sized bits of bigger issues that could be trotted out for the local TV cameras.
If it seems premature to think through the political calculus two years before KJ would seek re-election, think again.
Later this year, Sacramento voters will consider a strong-mayor ballot proposal that could greatly enhance the authority of the mayor.
If that measure passes, Johnson runs again. You can take that to the bank.
However, it’s important to remember that another heavyweight in town has been openly linked to the mayor’s job: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
With all due respect to Mayor KJ, he is not in Steinberg’s league as a politician. It’s not even close.
Steinberg is the last of the Capitol political leaders still standing from 2009, when a $42 billion state budget deficit pushed California to the fiscal brink. He was a key figure in securing tough legislative votes to help trim that deficit year after year until a tax hike championed by Gov. Jerry Brown won the public’s stamp of approval at the ballot box.
Just last week, the state of California was given two more years to cut its prison population – ending a showdown with the federal courts and preventing the potential release of a substantial number of prisoners into the public. It was Steinberg who pushed Brown to stop wasting money on federal court appeals that California would have lost. It was Steinberg’s opposition to Brown’s legal strategy that eventually led the governor to change course and embrace sentencing reform and rehabilitation programs to gradually reduce the number of state inmates.
Steinberg was an essential player in water reform and – whether you agree with it or not – his influence landed the votes needed to approve high-speed rail in California. On policy, he’s been key in securing funding for mental health and dental care for the poor. On politics, his influence helped score supermajorities for Democrats over Republicans in the state Senate.
When Mayor KJ needed to prove to NBA officials that a new arena would not be bogged down by lawsuits in Sacramento, it was Steinberg who helped seal the deal.
In all these ways and more, Steinberg’s abilities, accomplishments and accessible style offer sharp contrasts to Johnson.
Steinberg has expressed an interest in being Sacramento’s mayor and he will be termed out of his current job in November, but he could find bigger to fish to fry. A seat will open up on the California Supreme Court later this year, for example, with the announcement last week that Justice Joyce Kennard intends to retire.
Maybe KJ decides against four more years as mayor? Who knows?
But Sacramento faces huge challenges and has many opportunities to leap forward in the coming years. It’s time for the focus of the mayor’s office to pivot away from the arena and Kings and to move on to other equally pressing issues.
Sacramento does need a strong mayor. But even more important, Sacramento needs the right mayor – the one best suited to make that pivot into the future.