Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Kevin Johnson moves past election loss

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson speaks the day after the 'Strong Mayor' measure he championed was defeated by voters.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson speaks the day after the 'Strong Mayor' measure he championed was defeated by voters. rbenton@sacbee.com

Mayor Kevin Johnson has a value to Sacramento that can be very hard to quantify – his fingerprints are all over some of the most exciting developments in town – but KJ is reluctant to talk about how he does it.

This is who he is, but his backroom nature played into the hands of opponents who prevented the mayor from gaining more authority. Johnson didn’t adequately explain what he does for Sacramento while pushing Measure L, the “strong mayor” initiative that would have made him a kind of CEO for Sacramento had it not been shot down by a majority of the minority of locals who bothered to vote on Election Day.

Johnson didn’t tell voters how he works and how his background and skills make him different and more valuable than any other politician in Sacramento. He also didn’t lay out how his specific city objectives – a new performing-arts center, an improved Old Sacramento, a remade riverfront, a more diverse police department – would have been boosted by him having CEO authority.

Instead, KJ suffered his most painful political loss in six years as mayor.

“We had the lowest turnout in the history of Sacramento County,” Johnson said last week. “That’s mind-boggling to me. … If that amount of people had turned out to vote in 2008, I never would have gotten elected.”

Maybe even if Johnson had been more explicit with voters, he still would have lost.

When 70 percent of voters stay home, apathy becomes an invincible opponent.

Johnson is hurt, no doubt. He is as hurt as we’ve ever seen him. But after allowing himself a week to recover, he says he has a clear idea of what he wants to accomplish in the two years he has remaining in his current term. In an interview on Thursday, he did not rule out running for a third term despite occupying a job that isn’t everything he wanted it to be.

A solid council majority has conveyed the same message to him: Let’s get things done.

Already on Friday, Johnson signaled that he wants to move UC Davis Medical Center back into the council district that includes his home neighborhood of Oak Park.

Johnson is spending much of his time building an ownership group that seeks to bring Major League Soccer to Sacramento. Behind the scenes, he is wrestling with massive egos on the soccer front – just as he did when he got the NBA to put the brakes on bolting from Sacramento.

This is what he does that no one else can in Sacramento.

Only Johnson had the credibility and ego to stand up to the NBA leadership and to the former owners of the Kings, who had treated his predecessors with contempt.

Johnson trades on his celebrity as an ex-NBA star and a rising political star who is the leader of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and one of the most visible African American mayors in America.

It’s a fascinating picture of a man given that he hates politics. He hates politicking. He absolutely despises the exercise of sitting on a dais, giving direction to a city manager and not knowing if it will be carried out the way he intends.

“That makes me feel like a loser,” he said.

This is what many of us in Sacramento have never gotten about KJ. He is not a details guy. He’d never micromanage or even concern himself with the vast majority of issues confronted by city staff.

His penchant is to work on the “glamour” projects that would create a more vibrant Sacramento.

“If I studied the riverfront for three months, I would rock it,” he said.

Had he won Measure L, Johnson said he would have attacked each project, gotten it going, placed someone in charge of the details and then moved on to the next.

It’s completely different from the way Sacramento operates, and it’s a vision that never really came across to voters. Johnson’s desire to be in charge of big, city-changing projects scared the life out of opponents who live in neighborhoods where people feel that the status quo is just fine.

In Johnson’s mind, the object was never more power. He was seeking to replicate the kind of success he had keeping the Kings in town and passing a plan to build a new arena. That effort is paying off with an upsurge of developer interest in surrounding properties and a proposal by the Kings ownership group to build a new project next to the arena with a mixed-use hotel tower, retail and restaurants.

To KJ, why renovate the current Community Center Theater? Why not see if he can lead an effort to raise hundreds of millions of dollars that would help finance a new building that better represents the capital of California?

To KJ, why give Old Sacramento a minor face-lift when something bolder could be done?

“There is nothing harder than what we did with the Kings,” Johnson said. “I know I could do all these things, but right now I don’t have the capacity to work on two or three big things at once.”

Johnson is already thinking about his state-of-the-city speech in January, one where he will again tout the need for public safety. Those close to him think it’s a crime that Sacramento does not have a designated person to help and promote youths from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Areas like Del Paso Heights and south Sacramento desperately need some of the energy and benefits that are now flowing toward downtown.

Even though he lost, Johnson is remembering that these goals are still unmet. So he’s going to try to meet them.

“I’m going to answer the bell,” he said. “My heart is here in Sacramento.”

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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