Local Elections

Sacramento’s strong-mayor measure defeated

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson leaves with his wife Michelle Rhee after speaking to supporters of Measure L at Pizza Rock in Sacramento.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson leaves with his wife Michelle Rhee after speaking to supporters of Measure L at Pizza Rock in Sacramento. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Measure L, the Sacramento ballot measure proposing to grant new powers to the mayor’s office, was defeated Tuesday night.

With all precincts reporting, the measure trailed 57 percent to 43 percent.

Earlier Tuesday night, Mayor Kevin Johnson told supporters at downtown’s Pizza Rock restaurant it was too early to concede. He said many of the early votes counted were from absentee voters, “a demographic I don’t do quite as well with.”

“We think if (the remaining votes left to be counted) go down the way we think it can, we end up winning,” he said in front of more than 100 supporters.

Instead, a subsequent update from the registrar of voters showed Measure L did not gain ground.

Councilman Steve Hansen, the lead spokesman for the opposition, said his campaign was optimistic with the early returns. Hansen was joined by dozens of supporters of the Stop the Power Grab campaign at the New Helvetia brewery on Broadway.

“The people of Sacramento believe our city is on the right track,” he said. “People continue to believe the mayor is doing a fine job, but they want a system where they think the little guy has a shot. Measure L had too many defects.”

Under the proposal, the mayor would have the authority to appoint and remove the city manager, essentially transferring the day-to-day authorities currently held by an unelected city manager to the mayor.

The mayor also would have the power to propose the city budget and veto City Council actions on most ordinances and the budget. The council could override mayoral vetoes with a supermajority vote of its eight members.

Mayor Johnson and other supporters said the measure would create a more nimble government in which voters would have a clear understanding of whom to hold accountable for the city’s performance. Opponents said it would place too much power into the hands of one individual – the mayor – and could lead to politics being injected into too many decisions.

The election capped one of the most expensive campaigns in the city’s history. More than $1.2 million was raised by the two sides combined, most of it by political action committees advocating for the measure.

The Measure L campaign’s largest contributors include prominent developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, Sacramento Republic FC lead investor Kevin Nagle, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Laurene Powell Jobs, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

This was the fourth strong-mayor plan pitched by Johnson.

Johnson’s first proposal came just a few days after he took office in 2008. He led a successful signature drive to get the measure placed on the ballot. But a judge later tossed it, saying that the revision of the city charter that the measure proposed could be placed on the ballot only by an elected body.

The mayor went back to the City Council in 2010, asking his colleagues to place a second measure on the ballot. They refused. And in 2012, the council rejected another request by Johnson for a strong-mayor vote, deciding instead to ask the voters to create an elected charter review commission that would look at changes to the city charter. The charter commission plan was crushed by the voters at the polls.

This year’s campaign pitted familiar political foes in the city against one another. Former Mayor Heather Fargo, whom Johnson defeated in 2008, was an early voice of opposition to Measure L. The Democratic Party of Sacramento County and the local plumbers unions – both historical adversaries of Johnson’s – were heavy contributors to the opposition campaign.

Supporters of the measure included the police and fire unions, four members of the City Council, business groups and outgoing state Sen. Darrell Steinberg.

Campaigning alongside Johnson was his wife, Michelle Rhee, who announced this year she was stepping down from the national education foundation StudentsFirst to focus on Johnson’s political career. Rhee represented the Measure L campaign at three debates.

The main spokesperson for the opposition was Hansen, who has been on the City Council for two years and until this campaign had been considered an ally of the mayor’s. Hansen commissioned a poll over the summer that showed the measure losing and formed a political committee called “Stop the Power Grab.”

Hansen was joined in his opposition by the League of Women Voters, whose members attended neighborhood forums and debates, and two other current council members. Their campaign was outspent by a wide margin.

From the start, Hansen and other opponents argued that the current system of government in Sacramento is working fine. They also pointed to recent developments such as the new arena as evidence that the city is on the right track.

While lauding the job Johnson has done during his six years in office, Hansen raised the specter that a strong-mayor government could have a crippling impact on the city if voters elect an ineffective mayor down the road.

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat. Bee staff writer Richard Chang contributed to this report.

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