The K.J. who would be governor?

Kevin Johnson was never going to ascend from the mayor’s office—if only because the California press wouldn’t be as gentle as Sacramento’s

Photo illustration by Sarah Hansel

If resurgent child molestation allegations hadn’t dashed his political career, might former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson have risen to become California’s governor?


While the height of K.J.’s political popularity spurred water-cooler talk that he could one day move into the governor’s mansion, those who worked for and covered the self-anointed “Little Barack” consider the notion little more than magical thinking.

“I don’t think anyone serious thought that Kevin Johnson could be the governor or was destined for higher office,” said Cosmo Garvin, who reported on Johnson’s two terms as mayor for SN&R. “And my theory of it was, he was just not going to get the kind of free ride from the L.A. Times [that he got from local media]. He was not going to be able to withstand the scrutiny outside of Sacramento.”

The scrutiny inside Sacramento flagged after K.J.’s first election in 2008, despite multiple unresolved claims that he groped teenagers associated with his St. HOPE nonprofit in Phoenix, where he was a superstar NBA player, and in Sacramento, where he segued into politics.

Approximately three years after leaving office, Johnson has reinvented himself again—this time as a celebrity investor in a budding restaurant empire (read: “The problem with K.J.’s comeback,” Nov. 14).

But by the end of Johnson’s second mayoral term in 2016, his carefully sculpted image was crumbling following a bruising segment months earlier on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. The cable sports news program rehashed the sexual misconduct allegations that had dogged Johnson since he was an All-Star point guard with the Phoenix Suns, but also featured interviews with previously unheard accusers in Sacramento. Their onscreen testimony showed the rest of the country what Sacramento’s press and public shrugged off for eight years. ESPN was forced to shelve a pro-K.J. documentary about Johnson saving the Sacramento Kings and the mayor largely phoned in his final months in office.

As a result, we don’t know where Johnson’s ambitions would have taken him next, but his former campaign manager says it wasn’t going to be another election.

“Politics were never part of his long term plan,” Steven Maviglio, a local political consultant who ran both K.J. campaigns, wrote in an email. “He was passionate about Sacramento, wanted to do the best job he could, and move on.”

But Johnson hasn’t completely shut the door on political life.

Shortly before leaving office, K.J. joined wife Michelle Rhee at the White House to discuss a possible cabinet position with then President-elect Donald Trump. Lest you think it weird that an Obama Democrat could so quickly decamp for his polar opposite, Garvin said: “There is no policy core. I’m not surprised at all that he was trying to find a perch in the Trump administration.”

While Trump selected Betsy DeVos over Rhee to be his education secretary, Johnson continues to maintain two active political committees under his name—though not for the most obvious reason.

City clerk filings show that Johnson has loaned his old campaign funds nearly $73,000 through the first half of this year, as he chips away at outstanding debts. The committees spent more than $47,000 of that money paying back law firms and other professional services, political consultants and campaign literature companies, the filings show. As of June 30, the committees’ debt totaled just less than $120,000.

Even with the abysmal national press K.J. received three years ago, Garvin thinks he could’ve run for a third term as mayor if Darrell Steinberg hadn’t emerged as a clear front-runner. After all, Johnson continued to raise enormous sums of money for his foundations and initiatives in the form of solicited donations called “behests,” even after the Real Sports exposé.

Kevin Nagle, a Sacramento Kings board member and Sacramento Republic FC CEO, gave $50,000 to a St. HOPE fundraiser in December 2016, documents show. The Walmart Foundation, Wells Fargo Bank, U.S. Bank, Dignity Health and mega-developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos all kicked in large sums of money to K.J.’s interests after the damaging episode aired.

Johnson hasn’t reported any new behests since leaving office. As for whether investing in restaurants represents a step down or yet another curveball in an unorthodox career trajectory, Garvin said it’s probably a little bit of both. Being an Oak Park restaurateur who presides over grand openings and snaps selfies with diners casts a dimmer spotlight than K.J. is accustomed to, but makes better use of his real talent: schmoozing.

“His [political] career has been a lot of talk and not in the way of a lot of accomplishments,” Garvin contended. “It was all just kind of B.S. There was nothing really there in the end. … But a restaurant, yeah, that seems doable.”