Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: So, are you running, Mr. Mayor?

Mayor Kevin Johnson
Mayor Kevin Johnson

In the 165-year history of Sacramento, the city’s never had a three-term mayor.

Kevin Johnson would be the first, should he decide to run and prevail. Some of his allies are pressing for such an announcement, and soon. A local business group has started a mini-version of “Run, Joe, Run,” the campaign urging Vice President Joe Biden to seek the presidency in 2016.

“Mayor Johnson is the most accomplished leader our city has ever had, which is why we need him to keep working for the people who call Sacramento home,” exhorted Mike Kimmel, co-chair of Region Builders Political Action Committee.

Run, KJ, Run? Is four more years of Kevin Johnson in Sacramento’s best interest?

No question involving Johnson is ever that simple.

Johnson, at 49, already achieved the distinction of becoming the first African American mayor of the state capital. He sealed his legacy as the mayor who prevented the Kings from relocating to another city. He led the talks that resulted in construction of a new downtown arena after a decade of failed attempts.

The powerful aftereffects from that achievement are radiating outward: Downtown property values have tripled. Vacant buildings are suddenly hot commodities. The city’s profile is on a tangible upward trajectory.

None of this would have happened without the former All-Star point guard of the Phoenix Suns, whose NBA connections, business acumen and celebrity helped seal the Kings deal. And yet Johnson remains a polarizing figure in his hometown. Idolized, even feared, by allies. Despised and distrusted by detractors, more so now than when he was first elected.

Johnson-hate took root when he took over Sacramento High School and transformed it into a non-union charter school. Well more than a decade later, the people who opposed that move have hardened into a core group of opponents who read greed or corruption into every Johnson stance.

Separate from that, and troubling to a wider audience, are the allegations of sexual misconduct that Johnson never quite shakes. The story that surfaced during his first run for mayor, in 2008, about his $230,000 settlement a decade before with a Phoenix teenager who said he had fondled her during his playing days with the Suns. An allegation that in 2007 he fondled a 17-year-old student at Sacramento High.

In both cases, Johnson staunchly denied wrongdoing. After reviewing the evidence, prosecutors declined to press charges in the Phoenix case; the Sacramento High student recanted her accusation, and police found no merit to the allegation.

Then came the claim filed in April with the City Clerk’s Office, in which a former aide to the city manager alleged Johnson had sexually harassed her over seven months, making repeated unwanted advances. Again, Johnson said it didn’t happen, and the city, after an investigation, said the accusations were unsubstantiated and denied the claim.

The Phoenix episode has found new life on the Internet in recent weeks, as the website Deadspin has revisited the allegations. Taken together, is it enough to make Johnson walk away from a third term to avoid the scrutiny of public office?

If anything, those close to Johnson say his detractors may be propelling him toward another run. Johnson is nothing if not combative, and some believe he may seek a third term because he refuses to surrender to his foes.

Johnson is not talking, and some close to him say he may not know what he wants to do. But the reality is, until Johnson announces that he’s not running for mayor again, then he is running for mayor again.

And if Johnson is running, at least two serious candidates will have difficult decisions to make. Former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby are definitely interested in the job – so long as Johnson decides not to run. If he seeks a third term, it’s a far more intricate equation. Do they challenge Johnson and risk destroying their close ties with him?

Steinberg is quite possibly the most accomplished politician Sacramento has produced in half a century. He led the state Senate through the worst economic period since the Great Depression and still managed to score major legislative victories. He championed initiatives that are making a difference in the lives of people with mental health issues. He also played a critical role in saving the Kings by pushing through a bill that prevented nuisance lawsuits from delaying construction of the Golden 1 Center.

He would bring a breadth and depth of policy understanding. He is amiable and approachable. Where Johnson divides, he unites – a master at building consensus in ways Johnson is not.

Ashby, 40, brings strengths of her own. She is hugely popular in her Natomas district, where she has helped secure critical flood-control support. She has been an ardent supporter of law enforcement, and would have the backing of police and fire unions. She is currently the only woman on the council, and represents a new generation of leaders in Sacramento.

Johnson’s failure to declare his intentions is particularly damaging to Ashby, who would have to introduce herself to broader Sacramento should she decide to run. Thanksgiving is a heartbeat away. By all rights, emerging candidates should have been pounding the pavement weeks ago.

If Johnson waits much longer, the question is whether Ashby will grow impatient and run against him. That face-off would pose some fascinating dynamics: Would police and fire unions campaign against Johnson after supporting him so strongly for years? Would developers loyal to Johnson dare cross Ashby when Natomas is about to open up to huge development?

An Ashby-Steinberg matchup also offers intriguing elements: Steinberg is beloved and likely could outspend Ashby by a wide margin. But his ties to labor make business leaders nervous, and Sacramento’s business community is flexing its muscles like never before.

A hard-fought campaign among any of these players could be healthy for Sacramento. It’s time to move on from recent successes and confront the complex issues ahead. Violent crime has spiked. The American River Parkway is overrun with homeless campers. The city lags behind West Sacramento in developing its riverfront. What about more after-school programs and job training for the youth of Johnson’s native Oak Park?

The danger with Johnson running unopposed is that these issues don’t get aired. He slides back into office buoyed solely by the cult of personality that has taken shape around his enigmatic image. Sacramento needs a mayor who will attack crime, homelessness and economic development with the same fervor that infused Johnson’s efforts to save the Kings and land the Golden 1 Center. Does he have the desire to do that? The passion? He’s not saying, and it’s time to decide.

What’s it going to be, Mayor?