Foon Rhee

Opinion: Will big-money strong-mayor campaign scare voters?

Mayor Kevin Johnson high-fives singers before delivering his State of the City address at Memorial Auditorium in February. His political future hangs in the balance with Measure L on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Mayor Kevin Johnson high-fives singers before delivering his State of the City address at Memorial Auditorium in February. His political future hangs in the balance with Measure L on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Depending which side you’re on, it would be agonizingly ironic – or deliciously fitting – if the immense piles of cash being poured into Sacramento’s strong-mayor campaign backfired in defeat on Nov. 4.

The “Yes on Measure L” forces led by Mayor Kevin Johnson justify the big spending by saying that educating the electorate on the complex measure is time-consuming and costly – about $1.50 a voter. Yet that gusher of big money plays into the hands of opponents who say that a strong-mayor system would give corporations and the wealthy too much influence – and that they’re already putting a down payment on access to a more powerful mayor.

We absolutely do not want “pay to play” at City Hall. If there really is a silent majority skeptical of drastically changing city government, that fear could be the tipping point for a “no” vote.

That’s what the “Stop the Power Grab” campaign is banking on. City Councilman Steve Hansen, who is helping lead the effort, told me that voters just don’t believe these large donors have their best interests at heart.

Neither, the other side argues, do the labor unions bankrolling the “no” campaign. Still, of the $1.1 million and counting in the Measure L fight, more than 80 percent is on the pro side, and it’s coming from some well-known names. Kevin Nagle, who gave $100,000, is lead investor in Sacramento Republic FC, the soccer team that needs city cooperation to build a stadium in the downtown railyard. Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, another $100,000 donor, is a prominent land developer. Mark Friedman, who chipped in $62,300, is a minority owner in the Kings and a major player in downtown development.

We have to be realistic: Developers, unions and others with the most at stake are usually the biggest political donors and try to exert influence at City Hall. The mayor’s people told me that Johnson’s door has always been open to everyone, whether or not they contribute.

I really want to believe that, I do. Except I can’t shake nagging doubts because the amount of cash that the mayor has solicited is so astronomical.

He’s the king of behests – donations from foundations, companies and wealthy individuals that politicians direct to their favorite nonprofits, policy priorities and pet causes. There is no limit on how much can be given.

In 2012, Johnson raised $6.5 million in behests – almost three times as much as all 120 state legislators combined. Last year, he reported more than $1.3 million – more than all 40 state senators combined.

When I tallied up this year’s total, Johnson had brought in $3.5 million as of Oct. 8. That’s far more than Gov. Jerry Brown’s $1.3 million, more even than the $3 million raised by all statewide elected officials combined.

The largest Johnson behests this year include $400,000 from a Kaiser Permanente charity to College Track, a nonprofit that helps poor students earn college degrees and that has come to Sacramento; $300,000 from Nagle to the Sacramento Public Policy Foundation, an umbrella group for the mayor’s nonprofits; and $250,000 from basketball legend Michael Jordan to St. Hope Academy, the charter school nonprofit he founded and where his wife Michelle Rhee is now board chairwoman.

While most of the behests went to the same nonprofits as in past years, there’s also a new beneficiary – the African American Mayors Association, which Johnson created last year. Of the $290,000 from various corporations, $50,000 – tied for the single biggest donation – came from Uber in late June. In early August, Johnson wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle criticizing legislation that the ride-sharing service opposed. In September, he praised Uber again at the fall meeting in Sacramento of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which he now leads.

In its report on Measure L, the local watchdog group Eye on Sacramento says the strong-mayor system will likely lead to a significant increase in fundraising by the mayor and a bigger risk of cronyism. That makes it even more important that the ethics code and commission in the measure are robust and effective, the group said.

I’d agree with that. While the focus is naturally on the mayor’s enhanced powers, the measure wouldn’t be good for Sacramento unless its other provisions – a “sunshine ordinance,” a neighborhood advisory council and an independent budget analyst – also work well.

Johnson has already run into trouble over behests. In late 2012, the mayor was fined $37,500 for failing to report more than $3.5 million in behests, some going back three years. The state Fair Political Practices Commission, however, said it wasn’t a conflict of interest for Johnson to raise money from a foundation funded by the founders of Wal-Mart before he voted in August 2013 to loosen restrictions on superstores like Wal-Mart because the cash didn’t come directly from Wal-Mart.

While the behests are legal, inquiring minds want to know: What do the donors want in return?

If strong mayor passes, that will be an even more pressing question.

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.

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