Mayor Kevin Johnson’s perpetual money machine keeps on raking in big-dollar donations

The stronger the mayor, the bigger the checks

So demolition of the Downtown Plaza has begun. Honestly, Bites is not sorry to see it go. Years ago, while the city council was wheedling Westfield to give the mall a facelift, or any attention at all, this writer was calling for dynamite. Of course, Bites had something more human-scale in mind: restoration of the street grid, neighborhood-supporting retail. And housing, housing, housing. Not another expensive megaproject that will be obsolete in 20 years.

Nonetheless, here we are. Mayor Kevin Johnson’s celebrity has been enhanced, it seems. His bottom line, too. Just last week, as the wrecking crews got to work, the National Basketball Association cut Johnson a $50,000 check for the mayor’s St. HOPE Academy charter-school company, according to city documents. The week before that, Marci Friedman, mother of arena developer Mark Friedman, gave another $250,000 to St. HOPE, at the mayor’s behest.

Coincidence? Looks more like a transaction. Step one, mayor pushes through arena project. Step two, people who profit from the arena reward mayor with big checks for the mayor’s family business. Nothing on the city’s behest paperwork says “quid pro quo.” And even if it did, who would object? No one around here.

Bites couldn’t help but notice that the ridesharing company Uber Technologies also recently gave $50,000, at the mayor’s behest, to the African American Mayors Association. That’s a new nonprofit that Johnson started this summer. Didn’t know the mayor had started yet another nonprofit staffed with former city employees? How would you?

Anyway, Uber is fighting hard to keep from being overly regulated or outright banned by local governments. There are limits on the amount of money a company can give to a mayor’s campaign fund. But there’s no limit on how much they can “behest” to organizations that enhance the mayor’s power and political profile. (See “K.J. Inc.,” August 16, 2012, for a primer on the lucrative behest loophole.)

Also, Uber’s big donation came just after the Sacramento City Council slapped new regulations on traditional cab drivers, requiring them to speak English and to not dress funny. The kind of rules that don’t apply to rideshare companies like Uber, it should be noted. Bites imagines it will stay that way.

More news about the Johnson family business last week. It was announced that Michelle Rhee would be taking over St. HOPE’s board of directors as the new chairwoman. Rhee, of course, is Johnson’s spouse and the founder of the controversial StudentsFirst organization, which she promised would raise $1 billion—billion with a “B”—to fight teacher unions and push the family’s ideological brand of education reform.

As part of the St. HOPE shakeup, StudentsFirst vice president of operations, Enoch Woodhouse, has been installed as the new superintendent of St. HOPE schools.

Observers of the teacher wars have noted that the changes come at a time when StudentsFirst seems to be floundering, having closed down operations in several states. Rhee’s own star was tarnished by the D.C. cheating scandal, and Campbell Brown seems to be rising as the new face of the national teacher-bashing movement.

It’s not entirely clear what’s going on behind the scenes at St. HOPE that demanded Rhee’s up-close attention. We’ll see. But if Sacramento is a smaller pond, it must be a more comfortable one. There’s no critical media to speak of. And whatever problems St. HOPE has, the mayor’s perpetual money machine will help. He has raised more than $1 million in behested payments for St. HOPE in the last year—using his public office and profile as mayor to do so.

It will likely be a comfort to him to have Rhee keeping an eye on the family business while Johnson works on his next big mayoral ambition—passage of his “strong mayor” plan. More about that in future columns. For now, just step back and take in the sweep of Johnson machine. The distinguished members of the Society of St. Tammany would be impressed.

Over here, Johnson is remaking the city charter to his liking. Over there, his wife runs a national education-reform group that promotes charter schools and campaigns to bring school districts under mayoral control. Johnson uses City Hall to funnel money into his own education-reform group, Stand Up, which shares an ideological agenda—and a physical address—with Rhee’s StudentsFirst. He uses City Hall to funnel money into his charter schools, which his wife runs. He uses City Hall to funnel money into his other nonprofits, like the Sacramento Public Policy Foundation—which helps promote Johnson’s strong-mayor plan.

And the stronger the mayor, the bigger the checks.