Kevin Johnson wants the ball

Sacramento’s new mayor discusses the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and his greatest challenge so far

Sacramento’s new mayor, Kevin Johnson, wasted little time taking the reins, last week declaring his intention to revise the city’s charter to give his office more power.

Sacramento’s new mayor, Kevin Johnson, wasted little time taking the reins, last week declaring his intention to revise the city’s charter to give his office more power.

Photo By Larry Dalton

There are three seconds to go in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA finals, and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls have a one-point lead over the Phoenix Suns, thanks to a clutch three-point shot by guard John Paxson. Suns point guard Kevin Johnson stands on the sidelines, ready to inbound the ball for what will be the last play of the game.

If the Suns score, Phoenix lives to see Game 7. Otherwise, Chicago wins the series, becoming the first team to “three-peat” since the Boston Celtics in the 1960s.

The play is a give-and-go to K.J. off the inbounds pass; he catches the pass back on the fly and cuts toward the center of the key, where a lane has opened to the basket. The Suns look like they just might pull the game out. Then 6-foot-10-inch Bull forward Horace Grant steps into the lane, between 6-foot-1-inch Johnson and the hoop. He crushes K.J.’s shot like a bug.

Game over. Championship, Bulls.

If any one questions the backbone of Kevin Johnson, the newly elected mayor of Sacramento, all they need to do is watch the final minutes of that game, one of the best in NBA finals history, on YouTube. Going one-on-one against the goggled goliath, K.J. doesn’t doubt himself for an instant.

Johnson displayed perhaps even more nerve last week. Just nine days into his administration, he announced a controversial plan to revise the city’s charter to increase both the power and the accountability of the mayor’s office. He may be new on the job, but K.J. wants the ball now.

A charter revision requires an election, which is at least months away. Only time will tell if voters trust Johnson or simply reject the power grab. At any rate, a new era is at hand, both for Kevin Johnson and the city of Sacramento. SN&R caught up with the mayor the day before he announced the charter revision. In a short, fast-paced interview, he discussed the issues dividing Sacramentans, setting the city’s priorities and coping with the economic downturn, and, of course, Game 6 of the 1993 NBA finals.

Since winning the election, you’ve talked about the need to heal Sacramento’s divisions. What in your view are the major issues dividing Sacramentans today?

For me, when I spoke of healing and unity, it was really to bring the city together. We had a very contentious battle for the office of mayor between myself and Heather Fargo. It was divisive in many respects; you had people lining up on both sides. I think now that the election’s over, it’s about unity, it’s about bringing people together, it’s about one Sacramento, it’s about one council, it’s about one city, and we’re going to be much stronger together.

Let’s talk about the division between rich and poor, which often breaks down according to race, and has been growing wider for the past two decades. What will you do as mayor to make sure those who need help the most get it, particularly given the economic downturn we’re facing?

My campaign slogan was a city that works for everyone, and that was very inclusive. My goal is to not just take care of the people who come to city council meetings, or the people who have business before the city; we have to make sure that those who are the least among us are included. Sacramento is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and we have to play to those strengths. You brought up race for a moment, and that’s also why education is so important. We have an achievement gap between kids of color and those who aren’t, and we’ve got to improve our public schools.

There’s a perception on the part of many young people in Sacramento that the city is hostile to night life and youth culture. For example, it’s virtually impossible to have a hip-hop show downtown without the cops showing up. Do you have any plans to ease this tension between “young” and “old” and make Sacramento’s arts and entertainment community truly all-inclusive?

We have a responsibility, if you think about how we market our tourism, in the tourism and convention bureau. We have a tremendous opportunity to do a much better job of marketing our city and community, and when young people want to do things that include night life, I think it’s a bonus. We all win by doing that. We don’t want the city being looked at as an impediment, putting up roadblocks to those sorts of things. Now, there have got to be some parameters and some rules, but we want to be more problem solvers to make things good happen, rather than regulators who prevent things from happening.

You are an inspirational figure, and despite the tough times we’re facing, people are excited about the city’s future with you at the helm. But getting to that future will require sacrifices. What sacrifices will you ask citizens to make, in order to see that we all make it to that future together?

I think right now when you have such a challenged economy, it’s about having a good attitude. We have to be willing to work together and we have to support each other, and I think that overall mindset played out very well at my swearing in on November 25. We filled up the Memorial Auditorium. It was a call to action for the community. We said it would be free for everyone, and we asked folks to bring a canned food to get in free. We ended up getting almost 1,500 pounds of canned foods we were able to give out. People that weren’t able to come were able to go online and agree to volunteer for Hands On Sacramento, which was great, so people were volunteering their time. Lastly, you could give to your favorite charity, so you can financially contribute as well. My challenge to the Sacramento community is, when you’re in a challenging time like we are now, when you have a downturn in the economy, we as a community have to step up. It’s not a spectator sport. Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, is not going to solve all the problems by himself. It’s going to take all of us to do our part; we can’t sit on our hands.

You’ve repeatedly stressed that funding law enforcement is one of your top priorities. Given the economic collapse, some national observers are predicting riots by the summer of 2009. Will Sacramento be prepared for such large-scale civil unrest, if it should come to pass?

I think by making public safety a priority, we’re going to be able to be proactive and prevent those things from happening in our city. We do have to establish a base line. Unfortunately, our violent-crime rate has increased 55 percent over the last seven years. Sacramento is the second most dangerous city in the state of California, behind only Oakland. So we have to do a better job. By making public safety a priority, where our streets are safe and secure, that’ll mean a great deal. One thing we can look at is potentially increasing the percentage of our general fund for next year’s fiscal budget for public safety.

The city, often in conjunction with developers, has often been at loggerheads with the growing number of citizens more concerned about the environment and global warming than economic growth. The downturn provides an opportunity to bring these factions together and rebuild a greener city. Will you capitalize on that opportunity by, say, fully implementing the city’s sustainability policy?

I think we’re all committed as a council to make sure Sacramento is a sustainable city. There needs to be green building and certainly green development and green jobs—[there could be] tons of green jobs. Rather than just wait for things to naturally happen, we want to be a city that’s going out and seeking opportunity, clean technology, clean energy. We have over 100 companies in our region that generate over $650 million, but they’re waiting for the city to be an even bigger cheerleader and create an environment where we can attract even more [green businesses]. You’d like some of these companies that grow to stay in our region, that they don’t grow and then move to some other part of California or beyond.

As the captain of your own ship—let’s call it the St. Hope—you’ve learned that you have to have faith your commands will be carried out in order for the ship to run smoothly. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. How will you apply that lesson to ensuring the priorities you set as mayor are carried out?

I think it starts with laying out a clear vision, and with that vision a game plan, the necessary steps you need to implement to get there. You have to create an environment of accountability, and the way you do that is you determine on the front end how you’re going to measure your success. You have to work collectively, with a lot of different people. Start with the council, the rest of the council members, certainly the city manager and city staff, then you go external, working with the public and the community. To make any bold initiative a reality is going to take input and effort from everyone.

An outside auditor is examining the city’s budget to determine how well the taxpayers’ money is being spent. What city programs will be examined, and given the city’s budget deficit, what criteria will you use to balance public-safety needs with the city’s infrastructure needs and the economic needs of the growing number of unemployed workers and families in Sacramento?

What this company is doing, they’re going to review the city’s finances. We’re going to look at our current budget, and we’re going to look projecting forward. What they are committed to do in the first phase is to try to find three to five budget areas where there are potential savings. I can’t tell you yet where those will be until they bring forth the information, but at that particular point, they’re going to ask what our priorities are as a city based on the resources that we have. Then you have to align the resources with the priorities, and that is where a trade-off truly occurs. We’re not going to be able to do everything, but we can be smarter certainly than where we are today, and hopefully find additional cost savings going forward that don’t compromise employment in terms of laying off people or [cutting] city programs or services.

You majored in political science at UC Berkeley, which no doubt included courses in political economy. Describe your economic philosophy as it applies to taxation and the services people expect from their local government, in the context of the current economic environment.

I think people want their government to be representative, they want it to be efficient, effective, responsive. The primary role of government is to make sure our streets are safe and secure, and certainly educating young people, not so much from a city-budget standpoint, but educating people. We’ve got to be good stewards of the resources that we have. My philosophy is that government is not going to solve every problem, but we have a responsibility to be problem solvers, to do whatever we can when opportunities present themselves.

Take foreclosures, for example. We’re having more homes in our city and our region being foreclosed on than almost anywhere in the country. Normally, it’s not a city’s role, but now it has to be. The city has to provide information to those people who have been foreclosed on, the city will have to work with the state to see if there are any programs or opportunities to identify dollars to help those people who’ve had their homes foreclosed on. Again, you have to be proactive.

In terms of taxing people, I think there’s an appropriate time to tax, but I don’t think it’s the first thing we should do every time you just need more money. You’ve got to make sure you’re being effective and good stewards and efficient with what you have first. There are plenty of times, in terms of roads and bridges and things like that, where it certainly makes sense to a taxpayer to participate and share some of those costs.

Now that you’re in office, you’re gaining a fuller picture of the economic challenges facing Sacramento. Describe that picture for our readers.

I’ve been in office eight days, and things are worse than we imagined. Barack Obama, president-elect, just said the other day that things are going to get worse before they get better. That’s real. We have a $58 million budget deficit going into this year. We’re having to make additional mid-year cuts, probably in January or February. We had to do a voluntary separation program, we’ve had hiring freezes, we’re doing furloughs, there are a lot of things we’re doing to make sure we’re not laying people off, and I think that’s very significant. When you look at the budget going forward, it’s projected that the budget deficit is going to be $140 [million] to $150 million over the next four years. We’ve got to tighten our belts, and this is why that independent review of the city’s finances is so important. It gives us an opportunity to stop the bleeding and really make some tough choices, and find solutions, both short-term and long-term.

You’re in the hot seat once again. Knowing what you’re up against, how does being mayor of Sacramento compare to Game 6 of the 1993 NBA finals?

You know, I’m in the hot seat, but I’m a person that enjoys accountability. I’m a person that’s not going to run from a challenge; that’s why I ran for mayor. I just think I have a tremendous responsibility and burden, and it’s one that I embrace wholeheartedly. I like to think the voters put enough trust and confidence in me by voting for me because they believe I’m a person that can lead the city, going forward the next four years, especially through some very challenging times.

So you’re more nervous now than before Game 6?

No, I wouldn’t say that I’m more nervous now. Game 6, I would say in some respects that was more difficult, because I was going up against Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player to ever play, to walk on this Earth, and we ended up losing Game 6, which wasn’t a good feeling. Here, with these challenges, I just believe so much in the people of Sacramento, I believe in the city workers and staff that I’ve met; we’re going to get through this. I’m not nervous, I’m just eager to get going. I’m ready for this challenge.