Capitol Alert

What’s next for Michelle Rhee, once the national face of education activism?

Michelle Rhee speaks at a Sacramento Press Club event in May 2010, when she was chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools system and fiancée of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Michelle Rhee speaks at a Sacramento Press Club event in May 2010, when she was chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools system and fiancée of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. Sacramento Bee file

Michelle Rhee, the combative former D.C. public schools chancellor who founded the national advocacy group StudentsFirst, has retreated recently from public view.

Rhee, who is married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, was nowhere to be found at the downtown premiere of “Down in the Valley,” the shelved TV movie documenting Johnson’s successful campaign to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle. Rhee hasn’t been seen courtside with Johnson at Kings games.

And she wasn’t by his side when Johnson, stung by the re-emergence of allegations that he molested a teenager, confirmed last month that he wouldn’t seek a third term at City Hall when his expires next year.

Her recent absence is a change for Rhee, 45, who despite living in Sacramento part time often has accompanied her husband to Kings games and other public events. She stepped back from her own political activism last year and focused more of her attention on working with Johnson.

“Kevin and I view our goals in life and public service as a team,” Rhee said at the time. “He was right there with me when we created this organization and has worked alongside me throughout these past four years. I am excited to continue working side by side on these new opportunities we have.”

Rhee once appeared holding a broom on the cover of Time magazine next to the headline “How to Fix America’s Schools” and set out to make her mark in California four years ago when she unveiled plans for an advocacy organization to counterbalance the influence of teachers unions over public education.

She then gave up her position as chief executive of StudentsFirst, saying she created it to “shake up the education establishment, which is exactly what we did.”

Instead, she assumed a leading role in the mayor’s 2014 citywide bid to make his office more powerful, appearing in debates and chatting with reporters. Voters rebuffed the measure, Johnson’s signature political effort. As he prepares now to exit the mayor’s office, it’s unclear where Rhee will channel her efforts.

“She’s a strong leader. This is somebody who cares about kids and is very talented,” said Marshall Tuck, a former charter schools executive who unsuccessfully competed for state schools chief last year. “Certainly, if she was going to jump back into education, there’s a lot of need for strong talent.”

Rhee’s decision to devote less time to StudentsFirst came amid speculation about Johnson’s future political prospects. A business-friendly Democrat with little taste for partisanship, he was touted as a potential candidate for statewide office, including governor. As head of the national mayoral association, he rubbed elbows with local dignitaries on up to President Barack Obama. Last year, the former NBA All-Star seized on racist comments made by former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, pushing for his removal.

The ESPN documentary, in which Johnson was portrayed as a hometown hero, would have helped tell his story, one crafted in recent years in part by Rhee. The network postponed the national release last month after a molestation allegation re-emerged from Johnson’s playing days in the NBA. Deadspin released a video taken in 1996 of Johnson’s teenager accuser as she was questioned by a police officer. ESPN said it needed time to decide “how we can deal with these matters in a fair and responsible way.”

Johnson has for years denied the allegation, suggesting that the most recent attention was fueled by his enemies in the teachers unions, who similarly have seen Rhee’s education crusade as a threat to their agenda. Rhee did not respond to recent requests for comment. Johnson also was unavailable, but his office provided a statement on her current work.

“Michelle is doing what she always has – fighting for better schools and supporting the mayor’s efforts – but out of the public spotlight,” said Johnson spokesman Ben Sosenko. “And she’ll continue to do that until the mayor’s last day in office.”

Gloria Romero, a former Democratic state senator who shares many of Rhee’s views on education, said whatever Rhee decides to do next she’ll likely face unanswered questions about the molestation claim and subsequent sexual harassment allegations against Johnson, positing that it would be “harder for her to claim a moral authority.”

“With him stepping down suddenly, she would have to overcome that,” Romero said. “Why did you stand by your man? It raises a credibility issue. If I were an opponent I would be asking, why didn’t you speak up?”

Rhee began standing by Johnson politically seven years ago, when she was active in his first campaign for mayor. While she had known him for years, she wrote in her autobiography that “during the campaign our relationship changed from the politics of education to the intricacies of romance.”

The polarizing power couple appeared together often at events and, after his election, it was Rhee who selected Johnson’s first chief of staff. Johnson’s prepared remarks, and key city speeches, were molded by Rhee.

Following her stint as District of Columbia school chancellor from 2007-10, Rhee launched StudentsFirst to “fix public education and finally put kids in the forefront of the decisions we are making,” signaling she intended to shake up a status quo she believed was protected by the teachers unions. Johnson, in a statement of his own, said he could think of nothing more important that his then-fiancée could be doing.

The organization has made progress advancing its agenda elsewhere but has left much of the trench fighting in California to other groups, where Rhee alienated some of those allied with her on education issues. StudentsFirst sought to advance a bill to add student test scores to teachers’ performance evaluations. It stalled, along with other priorities here. Its record of electing candidates and meeting ambitious fundraising targets also was mixed. Today, its California blog, updated less frequently than those in other states, provides a view of its scaled-back ambitions.

When Rhee withdrew, daily management went to new President Jim Blew. Officials at the organization said Rhee remains an active member of its board and has served in a key guidance position for Blew and his team. This year, the organization worked in 10 states, down from 17 the prior year, with a presence in New York, though under a different governance structure.

Officials said their work product across the 10 states included working with various coalitions and elected officials to enact more than 40 laws. Among them was a new charter school measure in Alabama, an enhanced charter school law in Ohio and a teacher-evaluation bill in Michigan. Part of the push has been to strengthen, and in some cases repair, its relationship with allied education groups.

Rhee also sits on the board of the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. and continues to serve as chairwoman of the board of directors for St. Hope Public Schools, which has grown considerably since its formation as an after-school program founded by Johnson in his native Oak Park in the late 1980s.

She divides her time between Sacramento and Tennessee, where her school-age daughters live and she and Johnson were married four years ago. She formally changed her last name to Johnson but continues to use Rhee on her Twitter account, where she has referred to Johnson as “my hubby.” No longer tethered to the city, or state, there’s speculation that she and Johnson could uproot should the opportunity arise.

“Their options to consider have probably expanded,” said Bill Lucia, the president and CEO of EdVoice, an education advocacy group that believes the current public education system is broken. He suggested Rhee may have more opportunities to affect education policy outside California. “Certainly the geography of Sacramento no longer being a necessary constraint could create a whole lot of things on how to engage.”

In his announcement last month, Johnson talked about his affinity for Sacramento, echoing the sentiment Rhee has said was on display during their first date, when Johnson drove her around the city, touring his childhood haunts and stopping off for a bite at Luigi’s Pizza Parlor.

“He said, ‘You know, I was born here. I grew up here. I went to school here. I came back after the NBA. I am going to retire here. I am going to die in this city,’ ” Rhee recalled at a public forum on the strong-mayor measure last year. She added to laughter: “Which, I thought was a little heavy for a first date.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago