Mayor Kevin Johnson reassembling Think Big team to work on soccer bid

Mayor Kevin Johnson is reassembling the team of strategists that helped him keep the Kings in Sacramento, but this time their job will be to get the city a franchise in Major League Soccer.

Johnson said he is bringing back Chris Lehane, a national political consultant, who will return as executive director of Think Big Sacramento. Also returning are Dan Barrett and Benny Aziz, who had previously played roles in the strategy to retain the Kings and build an arena at the Downtown Plaza mall.

Barrett, a sports consultant, accompanied Johnson when he lobbied the NBA Board of Governors on Sacramento’s behalf. Lehane, who previously worked for Vice President Al Gore, played a key role in shaping Johnson’s messaging. He also openly sparred with the previous Kings owners, the Maloof family, when it appeared they would sell the Kings to investors in Seattle.

“I’m thrilled about the dream team coming back together,” Johnson said. “(They will) help us prove to MLS that Sacramento is a major league city, with a great market, strong ownership group and a clear path to a brand new soccer stadium.”

MLS officials will visit Sacramento on Thursday and Friday to assess the viability of an MLS franchise in the state capital. Sacramento is said to be in competition with Minneapolis, San Antonio and Las Vegas for the 24th MLS franchise.

Sacramento moved into contention for MLS on the strength of Sacramento Republic FC, the minor league soccer franchise that began play this year and has drawn huge crowds.

The Republic won its first playoff game on Saturday and has advanced to the semifinals in USL Pro, a developmental league that feeds players into MLS.

Kevin Nagle, a minority owner of the Kings, would become the lead investor in the Republic if the team moved up from USL Pro to MLS.

Johnson said Think Big will help him prepare presentations to MLS officials this week.

Think Big Sacramento was one of several nonprofits founded by Johnson under an umbrella organization called the Sacramento Public Policy Foundation. Between 2010 and 2012, the group raised $1.3 million in donations.

At one point, the largest contributor to Johnson’s nonprofits was the Maloof-owned Kings. Many local companies also contributed, including Sleep Train Mattress Centers, VSP and Western Health Advantage.

Johnson has been very successful in raising money for nonprofits, but in 2012 he was fined $37,500 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to report millions in donations he solicited.

Lehane said Monday that there was still money left over that Think Big will use to help fund its MLS campaign. He said other companies will continue to donate because they have an interest in MLS coming to Sacramento.

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