Soon, it will all be over. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson will leave office, most likely leaving politics behind for good. For a city that has come to simultaneously love and loath his high-flying, face-planting tenure, the future is sure of only one thing: It’s going to be a lot calmer around City Hall the next few years.
But is that necessarily a good thing?
Younger folks may not remember what it was like around here pre-KJ. Johnson was the political equivalent of a Ferrari — fast and cool as hell, albeit prone to a steady stream of breakdowns that kept him in neutral as often as in overdrive. But who cared? It was still a major upgrade over his predecessor, Heather Fargo, who was a lot more like the used Honda your parents gave you to get through college. She was functional, but only if the road was smooth and undemanding. And let’s be real: with Fargo as mayor, the Kings would already be playing home games in Anaheim or Virginia Beach or Seattle.
“Kevin Johnson has elevated the Sacramento mayor’s office to heights unforeseen,” says Sacramento political consultant David Townsend, who managed both of Johnson’s election campaigns. “The job is clearly more attractive than it was before he got there.”
Even one of Johnson’s harshest critics, City Councilman Steve Hansen, notes the power of the mayor’s personality and drive, calling him “a force of nature.”
Of course, Fargo’s folks would remind us ad nauseum that she also would never have been embroiled in the kind of sexual misconduct allegations — including those by accusers who were teenagers at the time of the alleged incidents — that have plagued Johnson. They would be right.
So what now? With nobody in the race now bringing the kind of celebrity status KJ had when he ran in 2008, what will Sacramento’s political scene look like at this time next year? And before we get too far, please spare me the Tony Lopez talk. Yes, “The Tiger” was a once world champ in the hopelessly fractured, long-in-decline boxing game. But when was the last time you saw him hanging out with the POTUS?
Things are going to be different. But how? For one, hopefully no more alleged sex crimes. Just as critical, crossed fingers for less of the petty cat fights that have dogged the City Council during the Johnson years. All of which is the simple baseline for how a governing body ought to work anyway. The bigger question is will the next mayor be able to build on the best parts of KJ’s time — the city’s larger national profile and the accompanying growth in its downtown core — while also tackling some of the biggest issues he struggled with, like the city’s growing homelessness problem?
The answer is yet to be determined. The leading candidates, former state Sen. pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Councilwoman and Mayor pro Tem Angelique Ashby, are both eminently qualified political animals who’ve shown they can get things done. Each has a long list of quality endorsements from the region’s government and business leaders, though for what it’s worth Steinberg’s include political glitterati like U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Maybe more key, six of the seven City Council’s members not named Angelique Ashby or Kevin Johnson have endorsed him as well. Hansen, one of the six, says there is a reason so many of his colleagues have pitched their tents in Steinberg’s camp.
“Mayor Johnson’s leadership always had a big purpose,” Hansen says, a reference not only to the mayor’s fight to keep the Kings in town but other high-profile efforts like championing the farm-to-fork movement and pushing the city’s green agenda. “I’m not sure the city needs that same purpose served in in the city’s next phase.” Building coalitions and negotiating deals is Steinberg’s specialty, he notes, but with more of a “human touch” than Johnson utilizes.
“Kevin was not always able to connect to regular people, and I think we’ve probably had too much of the top-down approach,” Hansen says. Which is the reason he isn’t supporting Ashby, whom he says conducts herself in much the same manner.
Ashby would undoubtedly disagree with that assessment, as would supporters like former Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully and Sacramento Metro Chamber CEO Peter Tateishi. The Chamber has endorsed her, Tateishi says, not only because it feels she is the most pro-business candidate, but because it believes she can effectively build coalitions. He also doesn’t believe that losing Johnson’s national profile will put the brakes on Sacramento’s current progress.
“Changes in office don’t necessarily translate to changes in momentum,” he says.
We’ll find out soon enough what voters think. But whichever candidate they choose, it’s probably going to be a lot less chaotic around City Hall over the next four years. And a lot less interesting.