Kevin Johnson stakes legacy on boosting mayor’s clout

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is not running for office in November, but the election’s outcome will likely decide his future at City Hall.

Political consultants and those close to the mayor said Johnson’s decision to run for a third term in 2016 will hinge on whether voters pass Measure L, the ballot initiative to increase the powers of the mayor’s office. Johnson’s political legacy is also at stake as he pushes for the most significant change to city government in a generation.

In a 90-minute interview Thursday in his office on the fifth floor of City Hall, Johnson said he is “strongly considering” running for another term in two years. He confidently predicted that Measure L will pass, and shied away from discussing what he’ll do if it fails. He insisted that the change in city structure he is pushing is necessary to complete Sacramento’s evolution into a big city.

“We need a city governance structure that promotes big thinking and does not slow us down,” he said. “And I say that with the recognition that these changes will probably help whoever the future mayors are more than they will help me.”

The most significant provision of Measure L would shift much of the power currently held by an appointed city manager to the mayor’s office. Johnson and others argue it would create a more nimble and accountable city government in which routine decisions would be made by the mayor, not a high-level bureaucrat who answers to the entire City Council but is not chosen directly by the voters.

On the other side, an opposition led by Councilman Steve Hansen, former Mayor Heather Fargo and several groups that have long-simmering feuds with Johnson contend the measure would place too much power in the hands of one elected official.

Some of those opponents acknowledge Johnson’s popularity in the city and have tried to remove the mayor from the debate, saying he has done a decent job leading the city in the current weak mayor system. They argue the strong-mayor proposal is flawed, and unnecessary, when the city appears to be on the right track.

“I hope the mayor runs for a third term; he’s been great for Sacramento,” Hansen said. “But we can’t make a system around one person, and the system is not broken, so why do we need to break it?”

The campaign for the ballot measure, meanwhile, has embraced Johnson as its central figure. The mayor has spent the past three weekends going door-to-door, trying to persuade voters to support Measure L, and his photograph appears on social media promotions.

Johnson’s wife, national education figure Michelle Rhee, has appeared at two community forums on behalf of the campaign. During The Bee’s interview with the mayor last week, Rhee sat at Johnson’s side, wearing a “Yes on Measure L” shirt.

Connecting Johnson to the cause may be a smart move, said Sacramento political consultant Brian Brokaw.

“Many voters will ultimately cast their ballot based on their personal view of the job our current mayor is doing, and given his recent streak of high-profile successes, that has to bode well for Measure L if, in fact, it becomes a ‘referendum’ on Kevin Johnson’s job performance,” Brokaw said.

And if the vote doesn’t go Johnson’s way?

“I think it’s much less likely (Johnson would seek another term if the measure fails),” said state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who supports the strong-mayor plan. “I do think that the passage of this measure makes the mayor’s job even more attractive.”

Steinberg’s term at the Capitol is up this year. He has said he is weighing his own run for mayor one day, but it’s considered unlikely he would run against Johnson. Like Johnson, he sees the strong-mayor plan as “what’s best for a modern and growing city.”

Familiar opponents

Over the past 20 years, voters in four California cities – Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and Fresno – have approved changes to their governance structures that gave their mayors more power; none has reverted to its prior mayor system. Of the 50 largest cities in the country – a list that includes Sacramento – 60 percent have a version of a strong-mayor government.

“A weak mayor system is designed for a small town, a village,” Johnson said. “It reflects a mindset of those that think Sacramento is still a small town. And we want to be a Sacramento that’s diverse and fast growing. We can balance that and keep our small town values.”

Johnson noted that many of the Measure L opponents also fought him when he was first elected in 2008, then again when he won re-election in 2012.

That group includes Fargo, whom Johnson defeated six years ago to take office. The opposition campaign’s largest donor has been the local plumbers union, which spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to defeat Johnson in 2008.

Among the other key members of the opposition, dubbed “Stop the Power Grab”: the Democratic Party of Sacramento, which has never endorsed Johnson, a Democrat; the League of Women Voters; environmental groups; and the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers.

“There is a group that’s very happy with the past,” said Lola Acosta, a longtime North Sacramento resident and the former head of the League of Women Voters. “And proposals that would empower people who have not been at the table and proposals that represent change make certain people uncomfortable.”

Hansen and Fargo are among the opponents who say that under a strong-mayor system, issues that aren’t important to the mayor would be ignored, and interest groups with ties to the mayor would get an advantage, regardless of who holds the job. They say their opposition has nothing to do with Johnson.

“People want this to be a fight of me vs. him, and they want this to be a repeat (of 2008),” Fargo said. “But to me, it’s the governance issue. I think the current system works for him, it worked for me, and I think it will work for future mayors.”

Hansen said the coalition of opponents “thinks it’s a bad proposal, based on the merits. People have to personally look at it and see if it properly balances the downside with the possibility for an upside.”

Kerri Asbury, head of the local Democratic Party, stopped short of complimenting the job Johnson has done. “I don’t know if I would use the word ‘good.’ I don’t think he’s been bad for the city,” she said.

But Asbury said her organization’s opposition isn’t about the person sitting in the mayor’s seat today. “You could have Anne Rudin as the mayor and I would still oppose it,” she said, referring to the former Sacramento mayor who was recently honored by the Democratic Party.

On Johnson’s side are the city’s business groups; unions representing police officers, firefighters and many of the construction workers employed at the downtown arena site; a group of prominent pastors; and four members of the City Council.

Johnson’s message also has resonated with many of the city’s young voters.

Last week, more than 50 young Capitol staffers and other downtown professionals jammed KBAR at the corner of 10th and K streets in downtown Sacramento for a strong-mayor “happy hour.” Johnson showed up a little after 6 p.m. and worked the crowd, posing for photographs and shaking hands with supporters who were drinking craft beers and munching sweet potato fries.

John Vigna, chairman of the California Young Democrats and one of the event’s organizers, said the first reaction he often gets from young voters when he talks about the mayor’s proposal isn’t about its merits.

“If you had to register one emotion, it’s surprise that we don’t already have this,” he said. “People are surprised we don’t have a governing structure that fits a modern big city.”

‘The door of greatness’

For the past six years, Johnson has served as a self-proclaimed “figurehead,” operating in a governance structure that affords him essentially the same powers as the other eight members of a part-time City Council. Even with limited power, he has set the agenda on some high-profile issues. He led the charge to build a downtown arena for the Kings – and commit $255 million in public money to the project – and has gained a national profile as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

But what kind of strong mayor would he be? The key element of his proposal would give the mayor direct control over the city manager, the top administrator at City Hall. That means many of the day-to-day decisions Johnson currently has little influence over would suddenly be a central part of his job description.

Johnson has faced criticism for a lack of oversight in administrative matters in the past, both as mayor and before he was elected.

The federal government accused his nonprofit organization, St. HOPE, of misusing grant dollars six years ago, forcing Johnson and the organization to repay some of those funds. Soon after Johnson began his second term as mayor, he was fined $37,500 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to report in a timely manner donations he had secured for charities and nonprofit organizations.

“Organizations that I’ve run in the past have made mistakes, like all organizations do,” Johnson said. “However, when things do go wrong, the difference (in a strong-mayor system) will be that everyone can be clear on where to look. The buck will stop with me.”

Johnson also has been criticized for missing City Council meetings, although his attendance record has improved recently. He maintains a national profile as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the first Sacramento mayor to hold that post. His office is decorated with evidence of his stature: framed photos of Johnson posing with dignitaries and celebrities, including President Barack Obama, basketball star LeBron James and chef Alice Waters.

Despite his penchant for headline-grabbing endeavors, Johnson said he is just as interested in the nitty-gritty details of running the city. The mayor took a hands-on approach last year to the effort to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle, recruiting new buyers for the team and lobbying the NBA.

As the only politician at City Hall elected citywide, Johnson said he already is held accountable for decisions made by the city manager. But he doesn’t always know what’s going on. For example, he said, he was unaware the city had a budget surplus this year before reading about it in The Bee, and he said he was not asked for much input before City Manager John Shirey made the decision last year to name a new police chief.

“You want to have the elected official you vote for have the tools to make the decisions,” he said.

Hansen counters that giving the mayor control of the upper layers of city management allows for politics to be injected into too many key decisions. Should a council member fall out of favor with a Sacramento mayor, he said, that member’s district could get bypassed for attention. Opponents also have faulted the strong-mayor campaign for accepting large amounts of money from developers and business interests, saying those groups are seeking access to the mayor’s office.

“I get why people want it to be easier,” Hansen said. “But at the same time, it’s disingenuous to say a system that puts more power in the mayor, just because it’s easier, will somehow be fairer.”

Under the system, the other members of the City Council would remain part time, their powers further diminished by the fact that it would take a supermajority of council members to override a mayoral veto, Hansen said.

“The burden is on them (the mayor’s campaign) to prove a change is needed,” Hansen said.

Johnson and his allies are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in that effort. So far, their biggest challenge has been persuading people to make a change during a time of budget surpluses and downtown development.

“We’ve been able to do all these good things,” the mayor said. “But we can do even more. We’re knocking on the door of greatness.”