K.J. vs. K.J.

In a two-person race to become Sacramento’s mayor, it’s the self-made man vs. the pre-packaged candidate; the man of faith vs. the creep

This isn’t going to work. To give the Kevin Johnson campaign credit, they’ve tried to squeeze SN&R into a busy campaign schedule. We’re in Southgate Meadows, an old suburb of modest ’50s-built houses south of south Sacramento, walking precincts with the mayoral candidate. It’s the hottest part of the day, just after five in the afternoon.

It’ll make for some good photo opportunities, some random color, an opportunity to see “how everybody treats him like a rock star,” as campaign spokeswoman Christy Setzer puts it. But actual questions seem unlikely.

There’s Johnson, the former NBA star and native son, in his shirt and tie and his black-and-white Nike running shoes, running, literally running, from door to door. Click, goes the camera.

His canvassers, mostly fit young men in T-shirts with clipboards full of the names of registered voters, have fanned out ahead of Johnson, knocking on doors and setting up impromptu meetings with the candidate.

From a block ahead, one of them shouts, “Mr. Johnson! Over here.” And Johnson runs to meet the resident at their door. Then the call comes from a block in the other direction, and he runs after.

The reporter mostly hangs back with Setzer, trying to make small talk. “So, how much money have you guys raised?”

Setzer rolls her eyes. “You know I’m not going to tell you that.”

“Uh huh. So where’d you come from?” She says “D.C.,” and that before coming to Sacramento, she “worked on some other campaigns.” She doesn’t elaborate, but “some campaigns” is a major understatement. Just a couple of examples: She was press secretary for U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd’s presidential bid this year, and worked as a spokesperson for Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004.

“So, Christy, who talked you into coming out here to Sacramento?” She laughs and says, “That guy,” pointing at the only other sweaty, out-of-shape white guy trying to keep up with Johnson today. She just refers to him as “John.”

John is the 28-year-old John Falcicchio, nicknamed “Johnny Business” because of his fund-raising skill. He’s another Dean team alumni, on a break right now from his job as a fund-raising adviser to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Johnson jogs back, “This isn’t going to work,” he tells the reporter, smiling and shaking his head. “Let’s set something up for tomorrow,” he tells Setzer. Another firm handshake and the candidate jogs off. Soon he meets a woman holding a copy of the April edition of the glossy Sactown Magazine, which has Johnson’s smiling portrait on the cover and a flattering profile inside. “Will you sign this for me?” she asks.

If you talk to enough people about Johnson’s campaign for mayor, “weird” is a word that comes up over and over again. It’s weird that—like it or not—this mayor’s race has been all about Kevin Johnson. At times, it seems there are only two candidates running for mayor: Good K.J. and his bitter rival, Bad K.J.

“I’m an outsider,” Johnson told SN&R, when we caught up with him at a Midtown coffee shop the next morning. “I’m taking on the status quo because I think a change is needed.”

Among the enemies of the status quo who are endorsing Johnson: the Sacramento Central Labor Council; the Sacramento Police Officers Association; the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association; the North State Building Industry Association; the Sacramento Association of Realtors Political Action Committee; developer Angelo Tsakopoulos; Mark Friedman, part owner of the Arden Fair Mall; a handful of GOP heavyweights who helped put Arnold Schwarzenegger in power; and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to name just a few.

It’s just one of those weird things about the Johnson campaign. He’s the “outsider” candidate backed by a big chunk of Sacramento’s political establishment.

It’s weird to have these national political pros parachute in for a campaign in little old Sacramento. Perhaps that’s part of being the “world-class city” that people seem to pine for. But somehow it seems dramatically out of scale for Sacramento.

The other candidates, particularly Shawn Eldredge, Muriel Strand and Adam Daniel, have been tireless, showing up for debate after debate, learning ins and outs of the city operations—offering their own ideas and criticisms. Same with Leonard Padilla, who is also the only candidate who can boast that Johnson has threatened to sue him.

Then there’s Fargo, who if asked, is happy to tell you about what she’s accomplished. She rarely turns down an invitation to appear in public. She seems to know every corner of city government, and if you let her, she’ll give you a tour of each one.

But her political campaign has at times seemed casual, almost listless. She seems to expect voters to do their own homework and has at times been more of a spectator than a contender in this political fight.

So it has become a two-person race: Johnson vs. Johnson. The self-made man vs. the pre-packaged candidate. The best point guard of his time vs. the guy who doesn’t play well with others. The man of faith and philanthropy vs. the creep.

When Kevin Johnson first announced he was running for mayor, he seemed the perfect foil to the incumbent Mayor Fargo’s career bureaucrat.

“It’s a perfect case study in how people will react to disenchantment with government,” CSUS professor of communications Barbara O’Connor told SN&R.

There’s this ambient dissatisfaction with government at all levels right now, said O’Connor. Sure, Fargo has nothing to do with the war in Iraq, or California’s unprecedented budget deficit. But some of Fargo’s supporters will privately tell you that they wished she hadn’t run again. They’ll tell you she’s been a perfectly competent mayor who ought to have stepped aside and allowed some new blood to come in. Call it “Fargo fatigue.” After all, no mayor in Sacramento has ever served a third term.

The biggest thing Fargo has going for her is brains. “She knows the city, at a granular level,” said O’Connor. Johnson on the other hand, “represents a sort of rock star, outside government quality.”

Johnson concedes that Fargo’s got him beat on the details. “If you want somebody who knows every detail about everything, that’s great. That, to me, is not what a leader of the city should be,” he told SN&R. “A leader of a city should have a vision. A leader is someone who can inspire confidence and collaboration and get things done.”

“If you want somebody who knows every detail about everything, that’s great. That, to me, is not what a leader of the city should be. A leader is someone who can inspire confidence … and get things done.”<br>Kevin Johnson<br>Sacramento mayoral candidate

Photo By Larry Dalton

The counterargument that Fargo supporters make is this: When you get on an airplane, you do want the pilot to know “every detail about everything” having to do with flying that plane.

“Kevin Johnson has managed to say that he wants more cops on the street. I’m left feeling a little lukewarm by that,” says Rob Kerth, a former Sacramento City Council member who ran for mayor against Fargo in 2000. He’s supporting her for mayor this time.

“There are certain things that government has to get absolutely right,” said Kerth. “They tend not to be flashy things. You know, the water needs to come out of the tap when you turn the knob. There are just things we expect from government that Heather Fargo does a great job at. They’re things I’m not sure Kevin is even aware of.”

It’s not surprising then that Fargo has hammered Johnson for not showing up at the majority of debates held between the candidates.

Kerth said he and Fargo took part in “something like 40 debates,” during their 2000 contest. The two would sometimes even carpool together to the various candidates’ forums. It sounds so quaint now, so small-town next to Big-Time Johnson campaign.

Johnson did submit to two televised debates; one was broadcast on Channel 10 on May 7.

“He wouldn’t even be in the same room with us,” said candidate Adam Daniel, making fun of what he called the “K.J. machine” backstage at the California Museum where the debate was held.

While Fargo, Daniel and other candidates Shawn Eldredge, Muriel Strand, Leonard Padilla and Richard Jones all hung out in the “green room” together before the debate, Johnson and his entourage were given a private room to prep.

Daniel said that Fargo had been offered her own room by debate organizers, but that she declined. As the candidates all prepared to walk on to the stage for the debate to begin, Daniel said, Johnson’s staffers were busy bringing their laptops and cables and fax machines in behind the candidates, converting the green room into the Johnson campaign’s post-debate “command center.”

That night, Daniel announced on live television that he was abandoning his mayoral bid and voting for Fargo instead.

The candidate forum had barely wrapped up when every reporter in town got a “post-debate score card” from the Johnson campaign, detailing how Fargo lost.

Johnson launched his campaign with a $500,000 loan to himself. Since then, Team K.J. has held out-of-town fund-raisers in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Phoenix; and Los Angeles. And though there are a couple more days until the campaigns have to report their fund-raising again, Johnson is certain to break Kerth’s 2000 record of over $1 million raised. When SN&R last talked to Fargo, she said she was closing in on $300,000.

Complain all you want about how money corrupts politics, K.J. is unapologetic. “I want to raise the profile of Sacramento. Whatever resources I can bring to bear, whatever personal connections, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Johnson is a Democrat; he’s a big Obama supporter. But many of his supporters are Republicans and representatives of big business.

One of his finance chairmen is Democrat Mark Friedman, of the Friedman family of developers that built Arden Fair Mall. The other is Fritz Brown, a GOP fund-raiser who worked for John McCain in the California presidential primary.

In late April, Johnson held a fund-raiser with Steve Maviglio, a Democratic Party operative who works for Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez. But most of the hosts of the fund-raiser were people associated with Republican causes. Rob Stutzman, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s former communications director and chairman of the Proposition 22 campaign to ban gay marriage in California, was a host. As was Marty Wilson, Arnold’s main fund-raiser for several years.

But the Sacramento County Democratic Party and most elected Democrats in town have endorsed Fargo.

“In this town, the Republican Party is housed somewhere within the Democratic Party,” said Bruce Pomer, a member of the Los Rios Community College Board of Trustees and the Democratic Party Central Committee.

Meaning: Republicans don’t get elected mayor in Sacramento. Some of the business and development interest that might back GOP candidates in other towns have to find other avenues to power.

“There’s this cadre of people who want to be back in control and who aren’t going to put up with Fargo anymore. So they came up with this guy,” said Pomer.

Johnson’s political consultant, David Townsend, is the founder of the consulting firm Townsend, Raimundo, Besler and Usher. In 2006, TRBU worked for PG&E to beat back a public power initiative that would have brought SMUD into PG&E territory in Yolo County.

Before that, Townsend and his colleagues went to work on behalf of Sheriff Lou Blanas and Sacramento’s best-known suburban developer, Angelo Tsakopoulos to craft a Rube Goldbergesque plan to open up the northern area of the county, a huge swath of farmland and wildlife habitat, to development, in order to generate money for a new Kings arena. That plan fell apart under its own complicated weight before it reached the ballot.

Townsend’s friend, former City Manager Bob Thomas, works in the TRBU’s offices in Midtown and is also said to be advising the Johnson campaign. For years, Fargo and Bob Thomas had a strained relationship; it was the worst kept secret at City Hall. Thomas wasn’t exactly fired, but it was coming. “Obviously Bob Thomas didn’t want to leave. He was surprised when we had the votes for him to leave. And he doesn’t like to be surprised,” Fargo told SN&R. Their mostly underground power struggle came briefly into view when they butted heads over development in North Natomas and a proposal whether to build an auto mall in there. Thomas supported it, but it would have nuked the Natomas Community Plan, which Fargo helped to get put into place, first as a neighborhood activist, then as an elected member of the Sacramento City Council.

So when Johnson came out a couple of weeks back and said he thought the city needed another auto mall—a lot of people saw Bob Thomas at work behind the scenes. And Tsakopoulos is backing Johnson, too. “They may think they can have more control over him than they have had over me,” Fargo said. “Maybe they will; I don’t know what he’s telling them.”

SN&R asked Johnson if he was the developer’s candidate. “While I have developer friends, and I’ve got the support of the Chamber and the business community, I’ve also got the support of the labor council and the BIA and the Builders Exchange,” he explained. “I think that needs to speak volumes to people right now. I can’t be defined on one side of the aisle.”

A few weeks ago, this race seemed like Johnson’s to lose. It may still be. Political junkies following the presidential primaries have new polls almost every day to track who’s ahead and who’s behind. In Sacramento, we count yard signs.

Heather Fargo has given Sacramento eight years of competent, if somewhat bland, leadership in City Hall.

Johnson says he intends to win in it the June 3 primary. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in June, then the top two vote getters face off in a November runoff election.

But if he does lose, it probably won’t be because his grasp on policy issues is tenuous. It probably won’t be because his claim to outsider status seems somehow at odds with the list of insiders backing and bankrolling his campaign.

It will be because of “Mandy.”

It would take pages and pages to recount all of the details surrounding the allegations made by Mandy and another teenage accuser. But some review is necessary to understand the full weirdness of the Johnson campaign.

Back in 1997, Johnson’s attorney, a man named Fred Hiestand told the Phoenix New Times that allegations that Johnson had an affair with an underage student in Phoenix had “hung over him like the Sword of Damocles.”

“We figured that it was just a matter of time before some publication took the [police] report and said, ‘Let’s tear him down and show him to be a Svengali,” he told the Phoenix alternative weekly.

While the allegations were known about here in Sacramento and were quietly being talked about while Johnson was considering a run for mayor, it seemed that nobody wanted to look too closely. The Bee mentioned it in passing in one story. The SN&R asked Johnson about it directly back in April, but he said he couldn’t remember most of the details—only that the allegation was untrue. That all changed when mayoral candidate Leonard Padilla decided to distribute copies of a Phoenix police report, complete with a transcript of the “confrontation call” between Johnson and his young accuser, recorded by the police.

The student was 16 when she struck up a friendship with Johnson. He was 29. It’s hard not to wince a little with embarrassment reading the conversation between Johnson and his young friend. It’s an intimate conversation, and an unsettling one.

“Can I tell you something off the record? I miss you bad. I don’t like not being able to talk to you,” says Johnson early in the tape-recorded conversation.

Mandy, for the benefit of the police wiretap, tries to draw Johnson out, to get him to make some sort of confession. “Well, I was naked and you were naked, and it wasn’t a hug,” she says in the transcript.

To which Johnson replies, “Well, I felt that it was, you know, a hug, and, you know, I didn’t, to be honest, remember if we were both naked at that time. That is the night at the guest house?”

And later, “Well, I said the hug was more intimate than it should have been. … But I don’t believe I touched your private parts in those areas.”

The prosecutors didn’t come up with evidence to bring charges against Johnson, but Mandy and her attorney did threaten a lawsuit at the time.

Today, Mandy is grown with kids, living on the East Coast. She declined to speak to SN&R about the case. Her attorney in Phoenix, a man named Kent Turley, also refused to speak with SN&R.

And Johnson has refused to answer questions about whether he had paid a settlement to Mandy, citing privacy concerns. SN&R asked Johnson if he thought he had used good judgment in his friendship with Mandy.

“I’ve said all I’m going to say about that,” he replied.

Meanwhile, another past allegation was just beginning to percolate.

On April 18, SN&R reported on its Web site that another Johnson attorney, Kevin Hiestand, has apparently interfered with the reporting of a sexual harassment charge against Johnson at Sacramento High School.

The print version appeared in SN&R, April 24 (see “The conversation, part II,” SN&R Bites) based on the account of Erik Jones, a former Sacramento High teacher. He said that in May 2007, he was approached by a student who complained that Johnson had hugged and kissed her and touched her breasts.

Jones said that he told St. Hope attorney Kevin Hiestand about the girl’s story and asked whether a Child Protective Services report should be filed.

Jones is what state law calls a “mandated reporter.” He must report any information he hears about possible child abuse to the police and to CPS right away. But according to Jones, Hiestand told him not to make a report until after the attorney had a chance to talk with the student.

Hiestand and two other St. Hope employees then met with the girl and her mother. After that, Hiestand reported to Jones that the girl had recanted her story. Jones said he made the report and then quit his job. When the police interviewed the girl and her mother, they found no reason to continue the investigation.

But Johnson denies that Hiestand told Jones not to file the report. He said that Hiestand was part of an “impartial panel” that went to gather information, simply to find out what happened. “No law was broken,” Johnson told SN&R.

Kevin Hiestand is the son of Fred Hiestand, and along with his father, helped Johnson to fend off the allegations in the Phoenix case. The younger Hiestand was Johnson’s high-school friend and his agent while Johnson was in the NBA.

The Bee had been gathering string on the same story and went to print with a more detailed report on April 25.

That’s when the Kevin Johnson campaign started to lose its cool, lashing out at the Fargo campaign, then at the media.

These yellow “Shame” fliers went all over Midtown last month. SN&R is trying to check them against Richie Ross handwriting samples.

City Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy, one of two council members to endorse Johnson for mayor, said in a statement sent out by the Johnson campaign, “The real story is how closely Terri Hardy and [Fargo’s campaign consultant] Richie Ross are working together to keep this story alive.”

But there was more female trouble to come. Several prominent women, including State Sen. Deborah Ortiz, SMUD board member Genevieve Shiroma and former Mayor Anne Rudin, held a press conference—in the lobby of the Sacramento Police headquarters—saying they were troubled by the way the investigation was handled and asking the police to take another look.

“This is no ‘group of women leaders,’” complained Sheedy in a press release the same day. “This is a desperate tactic from the mayor’s campaign consultant who knows that the mayor has little support and almost no campaign funds, and therefore has embraced a slash and burn strategy against Kevin Johnson. The goal here is to stretch a non-story to ridiculous limits. The Bee’s purpose is to sell papers, and they clearly believe scandal sells.”

The campaign even sent out a little dossier on each of the women, connecting them to Fargo’s campaign and to Richie Ross.

Rudin and Shiroma have endorsed Fargo, Ortiz has not. In fact, many insiders will tell you that Ortiz and Fargo don’t really get along. When Ortiz was considering jumping into the race for Congress, after long-time Congressman Bob Matsui’s death, Fargo threw her support to Matsui’s widow, Doris Matsui. And Ortiz has been out of politics since Ross helped her lose her 2006 Democratic primary race for Secretary of State.

While the story mostly died down within a few days, there have been aftershocks.

Concerns that St. Hope didn’t follow the law on reporting possible child abuse have prompted a federal investigation, still pending.

Fargo supporters and the media have pressed the police department to release the details in the police report of the allegation against Johnson and details about reports by two other students that have since come to light. But Police Chief Rick Braziel and City Attorney Eileen Teichert have steadfastly refused to do so.

There’s no reason in law that the police department can’t release the report, other than its own internal policy, says Jim Ewert, an attorney with the California Newspapers Publishers Association.

The law allows the police to withhold “incident reports,” but still requires them to disclose much of the information inside the report, including “the factual circumstances surrounding the incident or crime.”

“The public is still entitled to see the information in the report,” said Ewert. Unless releasing it would harm the witness or victim—or disclosing it would somehow compromise an ongoing investigation. Since it was, according to the police, an open and shut investigation, Ewert said the latter argument doesn’t hold water. And it’s easy enough to protect the identity of any witnesses or victims. That’s what magic markers are for.

Without releasing the information, said Ewert, there’s no meaningful way to settle doubts about the investigations, either the “impartial” one conducted by Johnson’s high-school friend Hiestand or the one conducted by the police. “I think those doubts will continue to linger.”

What kind of mayor would Kevin Johnson be? “As CEO of St. HOPE Academy, I’ve grown businesses, met payrolls and balanced budgets with a disciplined approach that can be applied to government,” Johnson says on his campaign Web site.

“Only by asking the tough questions and identifying how our tax dollars are being spent, we will be able to create a truly accountable, results-based culture in City Hall.”

There were a lot of tough questions aimed at Johnson when The Sacramento Bee went after Johnson about several blighted buildings and vacant lots that he owns in Oak Park. In October, it was reported that Johnson’s development nonprofit, St. Hope Development, was $6.2 million in debt.

And according to IRS documents reviewed by SN&R, almost every nonprofit associated with the St. Hope brand has been operating in the red for several years now.

Some of these nonprofits, like the St. Hope Academy and the St. Hope Academy Foundation, are associated with Sacramento Charter High School, which Johnson was given permission to open at his alma mater, Sacramento High School, in 2004.

Johnson says that it’s not unusual for nonprofits to operate at a loss for years, and that the results he’s been getting at Sac High are what’s important. He cites increased test scores, higher graduation rates and higher rates of students enrolled in four-year colleges as evidence.

But critics say that some of those academic gains may be a result of falling enrollment—as low-scoring students have moved on (or been nudged on) to noncharter high schools. Johnson concedes that enrollment is not where it should be. But he faults the district for not allowing St. Hope to open a middle school on the Sac High campus.

But Sac High has had trouble holding on to teachers as well.

Monica Cuellar describes herself as of one the “escapees” from Sac High. She said her tenure as a teacher at Sac High, from 2003-2005, was a period of turmoil and turnover.

“I thought I was going to be part of this progressive educational movement. I was very excited to be on the bandwagon,” said Cuellar.

But she found that classes, curriculum and staff were constantly in flux. “Every semester was an emergency situation. It was a mess.”

Johnson says turnover was high in the beginning but has since settled down.

“Any time you’re working in the inner city it’s going to be tough. There’s high turnover in inner-city schools all over the country. And we demand a lot of teachers,” Johnson explained.

But Cuellar was just one of several former Sac High teachers that SN&R talked to who said that the high turnover was because of mismanagement, not geography. “People were being ousted for questioning what was going on. Questioning authority in that place was a big no-no,” Cuellar explained, adding that’s ultimately why she left. “I started getting the sense that I was ‘off the bus.’”

We know a lot about what kind of mayor Heather Fargo will be; we’ve got eight years of history to go on. We’ll have a decade of competent, steady, but mostly low-key leadership in City Hall. The “Progress!” touted on Fargo’s campaign signs could as easily read, “Slow and steady wins the race.” But, if some of Fargo’s supporters are lukewarm, so are many of her critics.

That’s not so with Johnson. The people who support him do think he’s a rock star. Part of that’s flash and celebrity and a ton of campaign cash. But it’s also true that no mayoral candidate has walked (let alone run) the streets of Southgate Meadows in a long time. It’s a place where Johnson’s slogan, “A city that works for everyone,” is going to resonate.

The people who oppose Johnson say he’ll be a disaster as a public servant, that he’ll be controlled by the moneyed interests in town (and, for that matter, from out of town). And it seems unlikely that the sexual allegations—proven or not—will be forgotten, even if Johnson is sworn in in November.