Kevin Johnson’s legacy as Sacramento mayor

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson stands over his mother, Georgia West, after a ceremony Tuesday to honor his eight years in office.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson stands over his mother, Georgia West, after a ceremony Tuesday to honor his eight years in office. jvillegas@sacbee.com

After eight years as mayor, Kevin Johnson leaves Sacramento in much better shape than he found it. On Tuesday, he hands off to Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg a more confident city on the rise.

As Sacramento’s first celebrity mayor, Johnson brought charisma and connections he used to boost his city’s national stature, as well as his own. He called on all those skills to keep the Kings in town, open the new Golden 1 Center and jump-start development downtown.

As the city’s first black mayor, he expanded racial inclusiveness and championed the now-thriving Oak Park neighborhood, where he grew up. As an outsider, he helped further expand local politics beyond the old guard of unions, neighborhood groups and the Democratic Party to include a younger, more diverse group of stakeholders.

He attracted strong and loyal supporters, but partly because Johnson did the job of mayor in his own way, he also fueled tenacious detractors. There is no denying he was a polarizing figure.

As it is in trying to assess any politician’s time in office, it isn’t easy to always draw a direct line from Johnson’s actions to successes and failures. Timing matters, a lot. He took office in December 2008, in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, which forced painful budget cuts. He departs during a strengthening economic recovery, which allows the city to do more.

Still, there were crucial choices to make. And along with just-retired City Manager John Shirey and allies on the City Council, Johnson made mostly the right decisions to stabilize city finances, start pension reform, catch up on water and sewer infrastructure, and much more.

Two years ago, Johnson took the lead in bringing together the police department and community leaders after the riots in Ferguson, Mo. While police reform in Sacramento is a work in progress, the fact that it is being done without violence is no small matter. Johnson deserves a lot of the credit.

With his wife Michelle Rhee, he also used the mayor’s office to promote education, including public charter schools, though that unfairly drew the wrath of teachers unions.

Significant parts of his legacy are yet to be written. He and the rest of the council paved the way for construction at the downtown railyard, which could include a soccer stadium if Republic FC succeeds in winning a Major League Soccer franchise. Johnson also set a goal of 10,000 housing units in the central city and started a $10 million innovation fund to empower young entrepreneurs and lure high-tech jobs. It’ll be years before we can fairly judge those initiatives.

Despite the city’s progress, there will be a nagging sense that he could have accomplished even more.

Would he have made a difference on a wider range of issues if he had been a little more interested in policy and better at following through? What would be his impact if he had spent a little less time and energy trying to win more powers and focused more on fully using those he had? Or if he had been a little more of a team player and didn’t sow suspicion by bringing in his own “shadow” staff at City Hall and soliciting big-dollar donations for his own network of nonprofits?

His biggest victory came in May 2014 when the City Council approved the arena financing deal with the Kings (though the team is resisting calls to hang a “Mayor KJ” jersey from the rafters with other legends).

Johnson’s upward trajectory as mayor was cut short in November 2014 when voters decisively rejected a “strong mayor” plan. He decided not to resign, but also not to seek a third term this year.

Last year, he faced accusations of sexual harassment by a former aide in the city manager’s office. The city rejected her claim for damages. But then the sports website Deadspin resurrected 20-year-old allegations (aired during Johnson’s first campaign) by interviewing a woman who accused Johnson of sexual misconduct while she was a teenager in Phoenix.

That cloud may help explain why he retreated from public view in his final months in office. While Steinberg won’t be sworn in until Tuesday, he has been holding meetings with key players for months and has already weighed in to delay the selection of a new city manager and a final decision on a bigger convention center.

In his farewell remarks, Johnson called his two terms a roller-coaster ride. That’s certainly true, but there were plenty more ups than downs. He didn’t achieve everything he wanted, but he got a lot done. His city owes him its gratitude.