SN&R's interview with Mayor Kevin Johnson

K.J. reflects on his first four years, lays out a vision for four more—and answers his critics

During the mayor’s SN&R interview, Kevin Johnson laid out his vision for a Sacramento that wields more regional and national influence. “I always looked at what I was doing as eight years,” he said.

During the mayor’s SN&R interview, Kevin Johnson laid out his vision for a Sacramento that wields more regional and national influence. “I always looked at what I was doing as eight years,” he said.

photos by Justin Short

Local kid doin' good or political-machine powerhouse up to no good? Rock-star politician or divisive prima donna?

If it all sounds familiar, that’s probably because four years as mayor didn’t alter Sacramento’s perception of Kevin Johnson.

Trumpeters still champion his pro-business ethics, ability to rake in private dollars for the public good and inclination for the national spotlight. Doubters still sound off on his highfalutin “world-class” speak, private-fundraising secrecy and affection for cause célèbre politics.

So is Sacramento a better place after four years of K.J.?

The mayor never rolled his eyes during an hour-plus interview with SN&R last week, but there’s no denying Johnson rebuffs the notion that Sacramento isn’t prepped for greatness—and that he’s largely the one to thank for its recent successes.

He’s quick to tout his résumé: K.J. saved the Sacramento Kings (for now), revitalized downtown and K Street, raised tens of millions from private donors for city programs, stepped forward to battle homelessness, planted seeds of an eco-friendly “Emerald Valley,” got the city’s fiscal house in order.

K.J. is K.J.’s best salesman. He’s likeable, easygoing under fire and passionate, whether it’s about laying out a contentious vision for Sacto’s schools or praising his new wife, Michelle Rhee, and her savory tuna casserole (she cooks, he takes out the trash).

Johnson’s verve can charm. He crows about how Sacramento is on the cusp of a promising new identity—a proverbial small-town big city that, in his words, is poised to become “the second-most important capital city in the country”—and you almost want to join in with him and let out a few fist pumps, just as he often does while seated at the dais.

But while Johnson excels in the mover-and-shaker politiverse, back at City Hall his administration oftentimes is the devil in the details.

For instance, K.J.’s Sacramento Public Policy Foundation, initiatives and nonprofits allow the mayor to raise unlimited millions in private money, but the donors, coffers and expenditures of this “K.J. Inc.” machine mostly go undisclosed; the California Fair Political Practices Commissions levied a significant fine this past Monday—25 violations, a $37,500 slap—for failing to report millions in donations.

The mayor told SN&R that he’s followed the rules, which, of course, isn’t true—and implies that he possibly doesn’t think the details are important, that the public doesn’t really deserve to know.

The mayor’s snub and secrecy has reared its head often over the past four years: his office’s credit-card scandal, all those travels and missed council meetings. And his penchant for drama—whether it be chastising fellow council members, soap-opera redistricting brouhahas or the umpteenth incarnation of his “strong mayor” power grab—had many questioning his brand of leadership.

Despite the prospect of an hour-long chat with SN&R, Johnson entered his fifth-floor City Hall conference room in good spirits last week. Two city council candidates, purportedly sympathetic with his agenda, Allen Warren of north Sacramento and Steve Hansen of downtown, had just won the election. It’s good news for a mayor wanting to get stronger.

Like any successful politician, the mayor excels in evasiveness and pivoting, especially when pressed on tough issues. So, not every question has answers. But in the end, it’s commendable that he even sat down with the fourth estate; as Mitt Romney will tell you, one can ignore the media and nearly finagle the presidency.

The following is an edited transcript of Mayor Johnson’s SN&R chat, a check-in one month before his next term officially begins.

Four years from now, when you look back on your second term, if one thing could go Sacramento’s way, what would you want it to be?

People say this all the time … we’re a community overreliant on government jobs and the real-estate industry. And I would love to be part of an era [in which] we diversify our economy, and the green sector, for me, is the opportunity to create a self-sustaining sector. So when you think of Sacramento, it’s the Emerald Valley. It’s “Man, we lead in green jobs, we lead in green growth, we’re a hub for clean technology.” This notion that we can transform Sacramento into the Emerald Valley.

Yet do you support more aggressive environmental policy? For instance, should the city require energy audits of buildings more frequently at the point of sale? Or will you vote yes next time for the long-delayed Green Building Program?

One of the things I’m proud of is you have the folks on one end, on the real-estate side, who weren’t in favor [of point-of-sale audits], and the city worked back and forth, and we came up with a resolution that both sides felt comfortable with. … It doesn’t do any good if we mandate things without having conversations with people who are in the business community and represent other interests. When you can create a win-win, where they’re actually weighing in on whatever those policies are, then they have a different sense of their investment, and I think that’s something that we’ve been able to do.

What’s been your biggest success so far?

When I got elected, one of my mindsets was to redefine the mayor’s role in Sacramento, which was really important. I thought that the mayor of Sacramento needed to not only be the leader of a city but also the region. I think the mayor of Sacramento has to play a role statewide, because we’re the capital of California. And then … if we’re going to be the second-most important capital in the country, then I think there’s a national dynamic—really elevate the profile of Sacramento. …

I also thought, in the last four years, we were able to be creative in tough times. We had to cut $200 million over a four-year period, but we found ways to do creative public-private partnerships. …

The mayor at the announcement of a Sacramento United Soccer League franchise on December 3. Some fault Johnson and his Think Big Sacramento initiative for being too sports-focused, while others thank him for (temporarily) saving the Sacramento Kings.

photo by Dhon Santos

I grew up in Sacramento … and since the late ’60s and early ’70s, downtown has [left] a lot to be desired, as you know. But I think the downtown core over the past years, we’ve made really great strides making a strong, regional downtown core.

Is it the mayor’s job to, say, help the developers of the 700 block of K Street secure a loan? Shouldn’t you be at the table with them and a bank, working something out? It’s not unlike meeting with AEG and the NBA.

I would say it’s always the mayor’s job when there’s a priority. If there’s a problem that has a solution and you need a person to get that done, I think it’s always the mayor’s job.

People say the sale of Sacramento Downtown Plaza took too long.

When I grew up here, I remember the early ’70s, what K Street was. And when you look at it over the last 40 years, you think about the hundreds of millions of dollars we spent, and you have nothing to show. Right now, K Street has something to show. We have new owners in Downtown Plaza who are committed to Sacramento. That right there is huge. So the fact that we got it out of somebody’s hands, as opposed to being held hostage, that is a huge win for Sacramento.

OK, so what’s the next step?

It’s going to be a combination of things in my mind. But then again, the developer’s going to say, “First, we have to stabilize it.” Right? We have to make sure Macy’s doesn’t bail, because they’re already kind of downscaled. …

What I will tell you that I know we need there—and no one disagrees with it—that Downtown Plaza cannot be an inward-facing mall. It’s got to be outward-facing, it’s got to have connectivity to the grid, to the rest of K Street. You can’t have it feel like it’s a fortress. I want to see blue skies, and I want to see it connect to the grid. …

I know that, collectively, we need more housing downtown, so when you think about, say, San Diego and the Gaslamp [Quarter], you know we need more housing density. … So I think that, in term two, you’re going to see a lot more emphasis on downtown housing and affordability in general, because we need more people to live downtown, and that’s the natural next thing. Whether that happens at the Plaza or [in] the role that the 700 block plays or if things are one block off either way, that’s got to be the totality of the vision downtown that takes place.

It’s got to be a cool place. For example, you’ve been to Lucky Strike?

The bowling-alley chain? Yes.

Everybody’s been to Lucky Strike! I would love to see a Lucky Strike come downtown. … We don’t always have to get the big names, but I think Lucky Strike is one that puts the stamp of appeal, because it’s the hip, young, millennial, next-generation people that have to populate that area. That, to me, is the energy that we’ve lacked.

Critics blame President Barack Obama for not uniting Congress. How much of city council’s “dysfunction” is on you?

In my campaign, one of the things I said was that I want to bring a new energy and a new perspective to city council. This was ’08. And I remember saying then that the council’s dysfunctional, our community deserves better, etc. So that was when I came in. … Then you become part of that very system. And I realize that there are certain things in place, and that you become part of the same problem, regardless. Even if you’re not it. Or if you are doing it. …

We’ve got two-thirds new council members over the last four years. … That’s a whole different perspective. I feel like people are going to be here for a common vision, and I don’t think you’re going to hear those words “a dysfunctional council” over the next four years.

All right, so what things would you go back and do differently?

I think, for me, I felt like I started out really quickly. You know, I came out of the block going, “I want to do these five things,” and the lesson learned being a John Wooden quote, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” But I just went full steam. I got voted [in] by the public, I felt they knew what my vision was, and what I did not do was sit down and engage council or different coalitions or constituents on the front end, get their input, then tweak it along the way. So, that notion of being quick but don’t hurry, that’s primarily my biggest lesson.

I read interviews with mayors from other U.S. cities—Michael Bloomberg of New York City, Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, etc.—and Bloomberg basically says that as mayor, you go in and you do the hard stuff first, and in the end, if your approval ratings are low, then you know you did a good job. Does his philosophy resonate with you?

It does, but again, this whole notion of strong mayor, he has a different environment. He’s the CEO of a city, so he can do the hard stuff. I couldn’t. I think I thought I could do it, but I didn’t realize it’s not the same government, so it didn’t quite work out that way. What works in New York [City], his style, doesn’t quite work out in Sacramento. But I certainly can understand why he said that and what he’s talking about.

At home in my free time when I play armchair city clerk and look at the new city council makeup, I now see five votes for strong mayor. Do you?

Off the record or on the record?

On the record. Are we going to see another strong-mayor proposal in the next few months?

What I’ve learned, going back to “Be quick, but don’t hurry,” is you’ve got to have a dialogue and engage people. I cannot come out and say this is what we want to do. It’s not the right approach. It would not be smart for me.

The mayor doesn’t hide his emotions on the city council dais. He also told SN&R that there wouldn’t be a new “strong mayor” proposal right out of the gate this year.

photo by Justin Short

So we have a new council that’s going to get seated, I think [voters] sent a strong message that this community wants a different energy, similar to my agenda. I’m pro-business, I’m pro-public safety and taking steps forward. We’ve got to get to know each other. We all actually know each other, but we’re all on the same team, in the same uniform now. We’ve got to get to know each other. And I think what will happen is, very early, we’ll start setting out some priorities.

So, another strong-mayor push in the next three months?

I think a natural dialogue and conversation will include everything, but I’d be making the same mistake all over again if I spent any time thinking about that as an early conversation. It’s just not smart to do.

How has married life changed you?

I don’t eat out as much as before (laughs). I appreciate what home-cooked meals are on a whole different level.

I’ve seen you and your wife often at the Sunday farmers market. What do K.J. and Michelle Rhee cook for dinner?

So, I go to the farmers market every Sunday, whether she’s in town or not, I do that. I do not do the cooking. I pay for the groceries; that’s my contribution (laughs). I bag the groceries. I carry them into the house. And I put the dishes away and do the trash, all that stuff—those are kind of my duties. And she’s a good cook, she enjoys cooking. She’s a modern-day woman who can multitask and do a hundred things well. She’s like Superwoman—she does everything very effectively, and I’m the beneficiary of that.

She lives part-time across the country, and while I personally see the upside of your traveling, you get a lot of criticism for traveling too much, for missing council meetings. How can Sacramento benefit from your travels?

I want us to reach our potential as a city. I want us to play to our strengths, and I want us to have an identity that we all feel very good about. … So, Austin, [Texas], what do we think about Austin? We think about the music festivals or the tech folks there. All these places have things that are their identity and have been for years.

And when I think about Sacramento, if I go around the country, people think about the gridlock and the dysfunction of the state. “Oh, your state can’t do this, your credit rating’s down. The Legislature there”—that’s all that people know. And that Sacramento sucks. …

And they’re not just talking about the city, they’re talking about the state and the city. And I feel like that if you look back to the 1800s and the transcontinental railroad and people out here discovering gold, Sacramento had a pioneering spirit. It wasn’t afraid to take risks; there were entrepreneurs who were willing to risk it all. I feel like we have to tap back into that for the next 100 years.

It’s interesting you mention innovation and risks and going back to the 1800s, because I want to know what you think it means to make Sacto more “business-friendly.” For example—and this is my pet issue—people say Sacramento was built with beer and brewery money. Yet today, it’s illegal to sell single bottles of beer in the central city.


You can’t go to the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, which your campaign manager, Steve Maviglio, is president of, and buy a single bottle of one of the world’s finest beers. Meanwhile, a ton of new breweries have opened shop in the region. Is this a microcosm of larger problems inside City Hall?

Those are no-brainer things to me. So let’s not even talk about the beer question in general—I’ll get to that, though.

For me, it’s not that hard to be a business-friendly environment. You just create a business climate where your permitting and fees are all conducive to what the customer needs. … And we’ve made strides on that. We’ve streamlined a lot of things when it comes to permitting. We’ve found ways to make it one-stop instead of when you come in, you have to go to 50 different departments. It’s inefficient, it’s dumb, it’s not smart. Those [things] cost no money. …

One of the big things for us is I would be out in Sac saying, “This parking thing is a pain in the butt.” Those things aren’t hard to fix. If you want people to come downtown, you can’t have such restrictive parking so that no one wants to come downtown. … There are things we can do to create a more conducive and inviting business climate for all these things. Again, I’m a fan of—and I say this all the time—what West Sacramento, Roseville and other places do. They shouldn’t be the only places doing it.

So in terms of the beer question: Why would we not look at that, send it to the Law and [Legislation] Committee, look at different ordinances and do that? Other cities do that. These are not hard things to do.

Your vision for education and that of the teachers union are extremely polarized. So, concisely, describe your priority.

We want kids to learn. OK, so you’ve got 100 schools. How many are doing well? OK, well, how do you know if they’re doing well? So we have to figure out a way to measure that somehow. And whatever we agree on to measure, I’m good with that. I don’t care what it is. But we’ve got to measure it on whether kids are learning.

But there’s no agreement on how. Something has to give?

Please don’t have our whole interview be on what I’m about to say, but I’m going to give you the answer: You have some mayors in some cities—not Sacramento—where they have control of the schools. What does that mean? They can appoint a superintendent. They appoint a school board. So you’re taking out the politics.

It’s what Villaraigosa wanted in L.A., but it was political.

The mayor has been criticized for missing many council meetings. “[But] whose job is it to be marketing the city?” he says.

photo by justin short

But it changes the whole dynamic, because then you can empower somebody to be able to lay out policies, and they have leverage in a different way. If you don’t have that, then it’s just always going to be a battle of wills that’s 50 percent on one side and 50 percent on the other.

Education, green economy, the arts, “Farm-to-Fork,” homelessness, the Sacramento Kings—you have a lot of issues. And there are critics who say that you try to do too much and, two, you make proclamations such as “Emerald City,” but they’re sort of empty.

I would feel like I would ask anybody, “How do you want to evaluate success?” on any of these issues, any of them. So whether they’re my detractors or just someone who is asking, I think that’s a fair question. So if you were to say homelessness, I’d say homelessness is down 16 percent in the last two years.

But why not focus on two or three things, build a consensus, set big goals, accomplish one or two core issues all the way? Instead of just doing a lot of things maybe so-so.

If you take homelessness, there were all these people camped along the river. But, as the mayor, I don’t get the privilege of saying, “Well, these are the things we are going to worry about, and you can’t worry about the other things.” If all of the sudden a homelessness problem occurred, I would want the mayor to jump all over that. And try to resolve it in a real way. So, as a result, I created … Sacramento Steps Forward. I don’t think people would look at that and say it has not been successful. People may say it, but if you really look at it, there’s no one who’s going to say that’s not successful.

One of the first things you brought up today was confidence and trust. But your attorney told SN&R that people don’t have the right to know who donates money to your private groups and initiatives, or how this money is spent, or whether your donors have business in front of you at City Hall. Doesn’t the public have the right to know these things?

When you ask that question the way that you’re asking it, there is no dollar—no dollar—the public does not know about. We’ve announced every single thing. So that’s not really what you’re asking me. Let me explain why.

Well, hold on, we don’t know, because you haven’t disclosed all the money, and the donors and amounts and expenses aren’t declared on IRS forms.

I don’t know what legally the process is, I don’t know what the answer is. If all those things are what should be done and need to be done, then we should do it. Behests, right? We didn’t do all the behest forms properly. OK, that was wrong on our part. But nobody will say one of those dollars wasn’t [explained] in a press conference, wasn’t on a website and wasn’t what everybody knew. So that was never the case with any of that, so I don’t feel like that’s what you’re really getting at.

OK, so do you truly believe there’s been sufficient transparency?

One-hundred percent. We didn’t cross a T, but there’s never been dollars over here that we don’t want—you can put me up in front of the court of public opinion and there will be nothing that will ever be, because that’s what you’re really getting at, because you’re getting at transparency and knowing who gave all the dollars, [and] we’ve done that.

But what you’re actually getting at, and let me give you an example: The way [SN&R contributing editor] Cosmo [Garvin], or whoever, asks questions of me is, “Well, if you’re having conversations with the Kings, they need to be public.” And it’s like, if you’re asked this, not really. Because if we make every conversation public, we can’t negotiate. But overall, I would like everyone to know that we’re having conversations, but I can’t say every single thing that we do all the time.

So, I go back, I don’t think that there’s any single dollar that anybody doesn’t know about, but if the process is that you have to declare it a certain way or you don’t, then we’re just going to do whatever legally you’re supposed to do.

So when The Sacramento Bee editorial board or SN&R says that’s not enough transparency, it’s just the media not treating you fairly or something?

I feel like the media’s job is to be a watchdog of all and act like something might be wrong. I’m good with that—it’s the fourth estate, I’m all good. … But, at the same time, they can hold me accountable to a higher standard, and I’m OK with that, I don’t mind that.

But for anybody to say that I’ve done something not transparent, that’s just not, I’m sorry, that’s not. … Everything was done, we go out and do it every single day, so people know what it is.

But when you go to Sacramento News & Review, I feel like Cosmo had a beef. It is what it is, so I put Sac News & Review in a little bit different category. …

[Editor’s note: Read Cosmo Garvin’s response, right.]

I would like to end on a more upbeat note.

I love what I’m doing. I’m so excited I got re-elected, I love my job.

Did you sort of feel left out of the spotlight because you didn’t get to campaign, that you didn’t have a worthy adversary to go up against this election year?

To me, whatever. I like competition. I like that no council seat is safe if you’re an incumbent. You have to run.

I always looked at what I was doing as eight years. That I had term one to learn and get smart, and then term two. And I felt we did a lot of really good things. I felt like I could be smarter and a better leader. But part of it was getting the right energy, the right view and the right vision and the right electeds. And I think we’re doing that. But I’m not a complainer: the media not being fair—that’s not how I work. They’ve got to do their job, whatever that is; I’m OK. If I felt like the economy sucked for four years, I can’t complain and say I can’t go out there and solve problems. It’s so easy for a mayor to say, “We have no money, we have all these problems, oh well.” My job is to try and fix those things.

If I’m being criticized … I don’t think it’s fair, in terms of what we’ve done, in terms of job creation and bettering Sacramento. I mean, when you think about competitive grants, we’ve got tons of competitive grants, because I’ve been back in Washington and lobbying states. All those things are what I believe the mayor of Sacramento should do. Not just sit there and go to every council meeting. Who’s going to be marketing the city? Whose job is it to be marketing the city? Whose job is it? It’s not your council members, who are part-time employees. The city manager’s job is just to run the operations part of the city. And the way the mayor’s job in Sacramento was before, he or she was just a council person. So you have nobody marketing the city, nobody lobbying for resources, nobody trying to attract electeds to government. You still have the legislative pieces to do what they do. It doesn’t change. They’re not mutually exclusive.

So, that to me is where I get criticized most, but I know in my heart it is the right thing for Sacramento. And that’s why I continue to do it now.