K.J. vs. Fargo: Bring it on

With the Sacramento mayoral contest whittled down to two, the real battle is set to begin

K.J. receives congrats from Sacramento City Councilman Robbie Waters.

K.J. receives congrats from Sacramento City Councilman Robbie Waters.

Photo By Anne Stokes

The lesson learned from the Sacramento mayoral primary last week? Money talks. Former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who finished first in the contest with 46 percent, raised more than $1 million, or approximately $38 per vote. Current Mayor Heather Fargo, outspent by Johnson 3-to-1, paid $15 per vote for second place, garnering 40 percent of the electorate.

No one else even came close.

First order of business for Kevin Johnson as he heads into November’s election: Hire a new campaign staff. Second order: Mend fences with Sacramento’s gay community, or face their wrath in the fall.

Fargo’s primary concern: Raise enough money to combat K.J.’s financial juggernaut.

Johnson campaign manager Erin Lehane, who’s expecting a baby and had hoped to have the campaign wrapped up by now, is leaving. Gone, too, is campaign spokeswomen Christy Setzer, already back in Washington, D.C., after what she described in her goodbye note to local media as “the wild n’ craziest election I’ve ever been party to.”

The changes have nothing to do with the campaign’s often strained relationship with local media, said Johnson consultant David Townsend.

“I wouldn’t call it a shake-up,” Townsend said. “People just need to get on with their lives.”

As of this writing, there were only about 3,500 votes separating the two candidates—with about 10,000 votes left to be counted. Only 65,000 voters in Sacramento—about 35 percent of registered voters—cast ballots in the mayoral election.

“This election was so strange, and the turnout was so low, nobody could predict how it was going to go,” said Fargo campaign manager Dale Howard. When November rolls around, both sides expect to benefit from a very different election atmosphere. That’s because many voters who eschewed the primary election will turn out for this fall’s presidential contest.

“You’re going to see a huge swing,” said local political consultant Doug Elmets, who’s not affiliated with either campaign. “It’s almost schizophrenic.”

Howard believes Fargo did better with registered Democrats—though county election officials won’t be able to provide a detailed breakdown for several weeks—and that more Dems showing up at the polls in the fall will translate into more votes for her. She’s also doing well in the central city and among gays and lesbians, many of whom were disappointed by Johnson’s opposition to gay marriage. That could hurt him more in November, when a divisive constitutional amendment that would strip gays and lesbians of the right to marry will also appear on the ballot.

“You’ve got a very active gay and lesbian community here,” said Elmets. “The gay marriage initiative in November is going to bring this community out in droves.”

However, Townsend contends a higher turnout in the fall will favor Johnson.

“The turnout is going to be young people and people who want change,” he said, adding that Fargo is finished financially and politically after placing second to K.J. in the primary. “Her fund-raising and endorsements are just going to collapse around her.”

Indeed, Johnson swamped Fargo in the mayoral primary, not to mention Leonard Padilla, Muriel Strand and Shawn Eldredge, who respectively spent $5, 50 cents and 35 cents per vote.

“It’s an unfortunate sign that a half-million [dollars] is what you need just to start a campaign,” said Christina Lokke, policy advocate with California Common Cause. “I think it sets a really bad tone.” Common Cause is one of the main groups behind Sacramento’s public-financing system, which allows candidates to draw from a city election fund if they agree to fund-raising and spending limits. No candidate chose to use the system this election.

It’s uncertain what impact allegations against Johnson of past inappropriate behavior toward teenage girls will have between now and November, if any. In fact, it’s not clear at this point who the allegations have hurt more, Johnson or his opponent.

While the controversy surely cost Johnson some votes, Fargo was heavily criticized when she asked police Chief Rick Braziel to take a second look at the allegation made against Johnson by a former Sacramento High School student. The police found no merit to the accusation and said the girl later recanted.

But Johnson’s personal attorney had a meeting with the girl before she was contacted (by phone) by the police. And that issue may continue to simmer until the results of a federal investigation into Johnson’s St. Hope organization are released later this year. Asked whether the allegations will continue to be a problem, Townsend turned the tables.

“The only people who can answer that are [Bee reporters] Terri Hardy, Dorothy Korber and you [Cosmo Garvin],” he said.

Howard, when asked if Fargo had shot herself in the foot by asking the police department to reinvestigate the allegations, said that the controversy presented the campaign with a difficult issue.

“I don’t know that there was any good way to handle it,” he said. “I think it was impossible to go through the campaign and never address it. But we’ve never been in a situation quite like that before.”

Elmets believes the allegations likely undermined both campaigns in a more subtle way. “Neither of them had the opportunity to see through the fog of the allegations to get their message out,” he said.