No more Mr. Nice Guy?

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson reflects on his first year in office, the strong-mayor initiative and unseemly allegations

The man who would be strong mayor: After a year in office, Kevin Johnson’s confidence remains unbowed.

The man who would be strong mayor: After a year in office, Kevin Johnson’s confidence remains unbowed.

Photo By Larry dalton

I hate using tape recorders for interviews. A hundred things can go wrong. The device might not pick up the subject’s voice. The batteries could die. Tape recorders have been known to spontaneously self-destruct at precisely the wrong moment. Over the years, I’ve learned to take very accurate notes, which is a good thing, since it wasn’t until I was on the elevator that would deliver me to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall that I discovered I’d left my tape recorder at home. That’s one of the other things that can go wrong.

Johnson spokesman Joaquin McPeek met me in the lobby, and I informed him of my dilemma. “You gotta tape recorder I can borrow?” I asked. He said he’d go find out and disappeared inside the mayor’s office. He returned and informed me there was no tape recorder, but I could reschedule if I wanted to. I’ve heard that one before.

“I’ll go old school,” I said, clutching my notebook and pen. Mano a mano with Kevin Johnson, the would-be strong mayor of Sacramento, with nothing but the rudimentary tools of the trade and my wits.

I was ushered into the mayor’s office and discovered we would not be alone, after all. Johnson sat at the head of the table and McPeek, special assistant R.E. Graswich (the former Sacramento Bee columnist) and adviser Andrea Corso flanked its sides, each with their own notebook. There were two tape recorders (liars!). They’d be watching my every move, and for a brief, clammy moment, I felt like I was trying to pee in the men’s room at Arco Arena with a big line waiting behind me.

The feeling passed. I wasn’t expecting a fair fight. Besides, even with all their notebooks, they couldn’t see inside here (points index finger at temple), where I was already working on plan B.

It was late November; I had interviewed Johnson at about the same time last year, shortly after he took office. The day after last year’s interview, he announced his strong-mayor initiative, which was kind of a downer, since I hadn’t asked him about it. We couldn’t squeeze it into the article before publication, and I looked supremely stupid when it hit the stands. This year, it was almost kind of worse. The Friday before my Monday interview, the following story broke in The Sacramento Bee:

Kevin Johnson’s accuser says he offered to pay her $1,000 a month

“Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson offered to pay $1,000 a month to one of three girls who had accused him of inappropriately touching her while she was involved in his St. HOPE Hood Corps program, the girl told federal agents during their investigation of Johnson’s nonprofit St. HOPE organization last year.

“The girl—unnamed in a newly released report by two ranking Congressional Republicans … ”

I’m gonna stop right there. Personally, there’s no way I would lead off a story with unsubstantiated accusations from an anonymous source, particularly allegations that have already been fully investigated, and especially when they’re being raised from the dead by right-wing politicians with ties to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Nevertheless, now I was going to have to ask him about it.

The mayor was looking good, a lot better than he did last year, when he was just eight days into his administration and still had dark rings under his eyes from lack of sleep. I was really looking forward to talking to him about the strong-mayor initiative during our scheduled 45-minute interview. But I had to ask the question or I’d look like a fool, again. Unless I’ve done the digging myself, I really hate having to do this kind of crap, so, before the interview, I had tried to formulate the ultimate question that would put the sordid allegations to rest for eternity.

“Have you ever inappropriately touched an underage person?” I’d ask the mayor. That’s not too bad, since it includes both boys and girls, but it leaves out persons of legal age. It wouldn’t do.

“Have you ever inappropriately touched anyone?” Hmm. What, exactly, does inappropriate mean? Does it include fouls in basketball games? Acts considered immoral by evangelicals? I had to throw that question out, too.

I settled on something like, “What’s your response to the allegations raised in last Friday’s Bee story?”

Johnson looked me dead in the eyes and told me near verbatim the same thing he later told every other news organization in town.

“There’s nothing new here,” he said. He’s already been cleared of any wrongdoing by the Sacramento Police Department, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office. The charges have simply been regurgitated for political purposes.

In short, he said it’s all total bullshit.

The mayor would never cuss, of course, but if you haven’t guessed it by now, paraphrasing is my plan B. You think I’m going one-on-three with those flacks and their notebooks?

With the “question” out of the way, it was time to play what might be called the Strong Mayor Game with Kevin Johnson. Here are the rules: You can set your own budget and policies, unless the city council overrides them. You can hire and fire any of the city’s department heads, including the city manager. Oh, and by the way, your city’s economy is caving in. How would you use your expanded powers to pull Sacramento out of the abyss and lead it to world-class citydom? What would your priorities be?

Certainly Johnson has gained some experience staring into the abyss his first year in office. After a round of deep cuts in fiscal 2008-2009, the city was facing a $50 million deficit for fiscal 2009-2010 as he took the helm. Estimates of the number of employees facing layoffs ran as high as 500, including 67 police officers and 44 firefighters. After months of what Johnson called “very difficult labor negotiations” between the unions, city administrators and the city council, both the police and firefighters unions agreed to salary concessions, and no one from either department was laid off. Other city employees, namely, the 135 who were laid off, weren’t so fortunate.

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Photo By larry dalton

Johnson isn’t a strong mayor yet, and he’s careful to give the entire council credit for solving the budget crisis without laying off any cops or firefighters. Public safety has always been one of his top priorities, and given that the present city council/city manager system has arrived at what has to be called the optimum result, what would he do different as a strong mayor?

For one thing, he’d take a firmer hand in labor negotiations.

“If you had a strong mayor directly involved, that would allow me to direct the negotiating team,” he explained.

“Where are you gonna find the time?!” I exclaimed. Employee compensation is by far the largest portion of the city’s general fund pie, and bargaining with labor unions, particularly in tough economic times, consumes much of the time dedicated to the budgeting process.

Johnson explained that his staff would work directly with the city administration’s labor management department and report back to him. Unions would be more encouraged to bargain, knowing that as a strong mayor, Johnson would have the power to accept or reject their proposals, a decision that’s ultimately made by the city council now. Since he would also have the power to set budget priorities, he could meet labor’s demands. For an example, Johnson said he’d have the power to increase the share of the general fund dedicated to police and firefighting from 53 percent to 54 percent. The flip side is he might have to lay people off, and if that negatively affects public safety, the strong mayor’s on the hook for it. This is what Johnson means when he talks about “accountability.”

I told Johnson that his idea of what a strong mayor does sounds a lot like the job City Manager Ray Kerridge is already doing. As a strong mayor, Johnson countered it would be his job to articulate a vision for the city, then collaborate with the city manager to execute that vision. But sometimes, there’s a thin line between setting policy and administrating those policies, as is the case with labor negotiations. Johnson insisted that as a strong mayor, he’d be leaving most of the administration to the city manager and the appropriate department. Of course, if Johnson and the city manager didn’t see eye to eye, he’d also have the power to fire him.

Kerridge has come under criticism recently, thanks to the uproar over the fast-tracking of the Nestlé bottled-water plant and the discovery that City Councilman Robbie Waters’ son had been permitted to build homes in the Natomas flood zone. Kerridge has taken responsibility for the incidents, and rumors of his imminent departure are swirling about City Hall. Johnson gave the city manager his full support.

“I think Ray’s doing a very good job,” he said, adding that in the wake of the Natomas and Nestlé controversies, a balance must be struck between attracting new businesses to Sacramento and enforcing environmental regulations. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

According to Johnson, the high point of his first year in office was the April visit he and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger paid to the homeless encampment across the railroad tracks from C Street. The homeless people in the encampment gathered up enough spare change to barbecue a hamburger for the mayor. “It’s easy for us to have an opinion, until we’ve walked in someone else’s shoes and have a clearer understanding,” Johnson said.

Johnson positively beams when he talks about helping the homeless. Last month, he launched the Sacramento Steps Forward initiative, which will seek funds from the federal government, the state, the county, the city, the corporate community and philanthropic organizations to secure permanent housing for the homeless. He’s been instrumental in securing more beds for the homeless—including beds at Mather Field, much to the surprise of Rancho Cordova city officials, who were miffed that Johnson neglected to inform them about the plan first.

He’s equally enthusiastic about his For Art’s Sake initiative, for which he managed to raise more than $100,000 in August, from private corporations such as AT&T, Western Health Advantage and Wells Fargo Bank. The program will promote art in the schools and the community, one of Johnson’s stated priorities. It also illustrates the limits of private largesse: $100,000 is barely enough to fund a staffer and an office.

It’s hard not to be infected by Johnson’s optimism; he genuinely appears to believe that people are essentially good and will help the less fortunate out or donate to a worthy cause. But the truth is, in hard times, the good are just as likely to turn cannibal. More Sacramentans may be contributing time and money to charitable causes thanks to Johnson’s encouragement, but overall, donations are down, across the country. There will not be enough beds for the homeless this winter. The so-called economic recovery is shaky at best, and the goodwill of Chevron isn’t going to pull us out of the death spiral.

What would a strong mayor do?

Build a new sports arena with corporate donations!

I know Johnson plans to use corporate donations, because I told him, I think maybe three times, that he must be crazy thinking he’s going to get a publicly subsidized stadium approved by voters in an economy like this, and he corrected me all three times: I’m not necessarily talking about a publicly subsidized stadium, he said.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a new arena. Arco Arena is an embarrassment. I was for the last heavily subsidized stadium proposal, even though I’m aware that such arenas don’t deliver the revenue that’s advertised. Without a new stadium, the Sacramento Kings are almost certain to leave town, and that would be a bummer for a lot of people, myself included. There goes your world-class city. I asked Johnson how important it is that the Kings not leave town on his watch.

“It’s very important, but not because they are a basketball team; [Arco Arena] is one of our biggest employers,” he said. Property and sales taxes from the facility provide vital funding to the city. Arco’s Kings are not just important because they’re an NBA basketball team, as Johnson notes, they also put butts in the seats 50 nights a year. Without the Kings, any bid to build a stadium, publicly subsidized or otherwise, could be doomed from the get-go.

“I hope that we don’t get to that point,” Johnson said.

I babbled something about how I’d just figured out that the Oklahoma City Thunder are actually the team formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics. That’s how ruthless these teams are! Either build them a new stadium or they’ll move to … Oklahoma City? Anaheim? Las Vegas? Haven’t we been down this road before? Can we save the Kings? Should we even bother? The odds are insurmountable, but Johnson appears to believe he can get the job done.

Where are we gonna get the revenue for all this world-class city stuff? I think I might have asked that three times, too. No one in the room really seemed to know. Perhaps a stronger mayor will be able to figure it out.

There’s been a lot of media recently about how Johnson’s strong-mayor initiative has divided the city council as well as the business community. If that’s so, he claims not to see it. He and his fellow council members vote the same 90 percent of the time, he says. Sure they have disagreements, but they’re conducted respectfully. No problem here, move along.

Johnson’s confidence, considering the stakes, at times almost borders on naiveté. I’m tempted to chalk it up to his Christian beliefs. Jesus had a secret, after all. When you turn the other cheek and your opponent strikes you again, it leaves him wide open for a right cross. Nice guys don’t always finish last. Sometimes they aren’t even nice guys. In the coming months, as the June primary and the strong-mayor initiative grow nearer, we’re gonna find out just what Kevin Johnson is made of.