Sacramento’s next mayor must balance local needs, national stature

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, shown launching the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council in 2015.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, shown launching the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council in 2015. Sacramento Bee file

The shape of the 2016 mayor’s race – and the future of Sacramento politics – changed dramatically in the space of a few hours.

Mayor Kevin Johnson announced he will not seek a third four-year term. Even before that blockbuster news late Tuesday, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby jumped into the race. Former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, who pledged not to run against Johnson, may not be far behind. Others could run as well.

Whoever the next mayor is needs to unify this city. For all his many strengths and successes, Johnson could be polarizing. Too often, the merits of his priorities became mired in those divisions.

He has been a national figure, serving as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. After Johnson, Sacramento cannot go back to a parochial mayor better suited to a small city. We need someone who has the gravitas to lead the capital of the biggest, most ambitious state in the country.

At the same time, the next mayor must care deeply about local challenges and focus on the basics that make this city special.

After years of historically low violent crime, Sacramento is becoming more dangerous, especially in poor neighborhoods with gang activity. Public safety is job one. The next mayor must expand the effort to end homelessness, too.

The city needs to catch up on infrastructure, including upgrades to the storm drainage system and finally finishing installation of water meters. Further rate increases for customers could start next year. The city’s parks also need care and attention.

And the City Council must continue progress on controlling the costs of pensions and retiree health care, which are eating up more and more of the city budget.

With those additional costs looming, the city faces a “fiscal cliff” in 2019, the expiration date for a half-cent sales tax that has paid for putting more police on the street, hiring more firefighters and fixing up parks. It’s almost a sure thing that voters will be asked to renew the levy.

While Johnson’s decision arrived rather suddenly, it isn’t a complete surprise.

The writing was on the wall as early as last November, when voters rejected a ballot measure to give the mayor more power. More recently, a sports website revived two-decade-old allegations that he molested a teenage girl in Phoenix while he was an NBA player, and there was a new allegation that he sexually harassed a city employee.

He said Wednesday that the allegations didn’t influence his decision. In his announcement, he said he has “experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows” during his time in office.

About those highs, Johnson deserves credit for finding responsible new owners for the Kings and a reasonable financing plan for the new downtown arena. On his watch, City Hall is giving business people the confidence to invest in the central city.

When he took office in December 2008, Sacramento, like the rest of the country, was headed into a deep recession. He helped steer the city through painful budget cuts without eviscerating core services.

He pushed Sacramento to have bigger dreams. That’s no small feat.

Unless he decides to step down early – and his spokespeople say he has no plans to do so – Johnson has more than a year in office to get more done. Freed from the burden of campaigning, perhaps he’ll be even bolder. His final legacy to Sacramento isn’t written yet.

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