It’s been quite a year for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, topped in most people’s minds by his stunning, come-from-behind effort to block the Maloof family from selling and relocating the Sacramento Kings. We sat down with him recently to discuss basketball and several other topics important to the Capital Region.
Comstock’s: Was there ever a time during the whole Kings saga, before the sale was final, that you thought it just wasn’t going to work out, that the team was gone?
Johnson: There were different phases of the journey, with the last piece being the deal with Seattle. The reason why I probably had a different reaction to that news than everyone else was I finally knew that the Maloofs were willing to sell, and I knew what the price was. And I felt at that point that we had a chance to control our own destiny. So while it was alarming, catastrophic, horrific news to most people and the price was astronomical, we knew then there was a chance. That’s when we went into overdrive.
Comstock’s: It’s interesting that what was so discouraging to so many people was for you actually encouraging.
Johnson: Yeah, because if we would have never known they were willing to sell and a price, there’s not a whole lot we could have done as a city. We’re just knocking our heads against the wall.
Comstock’s: That said, many people contend that the benefit of having a pro sports team is vastly overblown. Clearly you don’t agree with that, but once and for all why do you feel it is in Sacramento’s long-term interests to have the Kings here?
Johnson: I’ll answer in three ways. One, we’ve always said it’s bigger than basketball. Let’s start by knowing this will create 4,000 jobs. It’s going to create an economic impact and tax revenue and tax base far different than what we would have otherwise. Three million more people will be coming downtown than would otherwise. We’ll be able to revitalize K Street and the downtown core, something we’ve been trying to do for 40 years. No one can dispute any of those facts. We’re not losing one of our major employers. Those are facts. Second, I would ask anybody who doesn’t see the value of a downtown arena to look at Denver and what its stadiums and arenas do for its downtown. Go to Indianapolis. Go to Phoenix. No business, no restaurant, no entertainment district around those communities would say anything other than these have been the best possible investments that communities have made. Third, it’s about civic pride for us. People talk about Sacramento, they think of it being the capital of California and the Legislature. But people also think of Sacramento Kings. So it markets your community. Think about the impact on Seattle when they lost a team. Any city that loses a team can tell you the value of keeping a team and how much more expensive it is and how much more difficult it is to get one back. Thank goodness we were able to keep what was ours.
Comstock’s: Along those lines, Vivek Randivé has talked at great length about his desire to market the Sacramento Kings globally and particularly to India. What does that mean for other things that we do here in Sacramento and that connection to those global markets?
Johnson: That’s the point I was getting at. We’re the capital of California, the eighth largest economy in the world, and we need to start acting like a capital. When you look at the Sacramento Kings, the ownership group is comprised of people from San Diego, L.A., Silicon Valley, the East Bay and Sacramento. This has an ownership community that is California, which is awesome for us. I remember when we (Johnson and team owners Mark Mastrov and Ranadivé) were in New York talking to the NBA Board of Governors in April of this year. Vivek was talking about NBA 3.0, telling the owners that Sacramento could help the NBA grow its pie and that all the owners were going to do better. He said, ‘There are two emerging global markets: China, where Mark Mastrov has 24 Hour Fitness clubs; and India, where I’m from. We are going to take advantage of these emerging markets and have this basketball team infiltrate and penetrate in a real way.’ I believe that very strongly. That’s going to create interest in Sacramento. You’re going to have investors willing to look at our community in ways they wouldn’t have done otherwise. And then you add Shaquille O’Neal. His popularity in places like China and India is off the charts. So now you’re talking about the frenzy he’s going to create, especially with young people who have idolized him. It’s going to have that real grassroots movement from every generation, from youth to young adults to not-so-young adults and to seniors, across the board. It’s the sweet spot.
Comstock’s: Did you bring Shaq to Vivek or did Vivek get him on his own?
Johnson: I introduced them, but Vivek had always wanted to have a real conversation with Shaquille and I always knew Shaquille wanted to be an owner at some point in time. And it happened to be that we were all together in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby last year. I introduced them. And even though it was the first conversation they had, you could tell something special was brewing even back then.
Comstock’s: You were playing matchmaker.
Johnson: (Laughs) Just being a point guard making an assist.
Comstock’s: What about other pro sports? The Oakland A’s are perpetually in need of a new home. What is the potential for Sacramento to acquire them or another Major League Baseball team? Would we face the same challenges as San Jose has had with territorial rights conflicts with the Giants? And if not baseball, what other possibilities are realistic for Sacramento?
Johnson: We’ve felt all along that Sacramento can support two professional teams. We’ve had conversations about soccer, and that’s a real viable option we’re going to continue to explore. As for baseball, I’ve always said Sacramento is a baseball town. We have 320 days of sunshine a year, kids play all year round and there are tons of players in both major and minor league baseball from Sacramento. The River Cats are the most valuable minor league team and lead in attendance year in and year out, so it’s clear that Sacramento is a baseball town. Now, as it relates to the Oakland A’s, I am clearly sensitive to any mayor poaching from another city. But if they cannot get their deal squared away and the team is looking to be sold or move elsewhere, would Sacramento be interested? Of course. But there are many things that would need to happen for it to be legitimately on our radar. And no, we would not have territorial rights issues like San Jose.
Comstock’s: The farm-to-fork movement has been very successful in highlighting the Capital Region’s tremendous agricultural assets. But some people think we can do much more to maximize its potential. Rep. Ami Bera has said he would “like to see Sacramento become the Silicon Valley of the agriculture sector.” How do we go about that? What else can we be doing to grow this sector of our economy?
Johnson: In my State of the City address last year, we talked about how we wanted to be the “farm-to-fork” capital of the country, and I think we did that. So now we want to look back at all the things that transpired and the lessons learned, figure out what we can do better and how we can build on that momentum. We had the dinner on Tower Bridge, we had a whole Farm-to-Fork Week, all the activity. That’s such great momentum, but we’ve got to keep building on it. We’re talking about a public market as the next natural thing. So there are things in the pipeline that we think are natural next steps.
Comstock’s: You have been a staunch proponent of the “strong mayor” system seen in so many major cities across the country. So far, however, Sacramento has not embraced this concept. When it goes before voters next year, how will you approach selling them on the idea?
Johnson: It’s a good question, but to say it hasn’t been embraced by the public actually isn’t accurate because the public has never had a chance to vote on it. Second, I won’t necessarily sell it, but I will talk about the merits of it. If you look at California or around this country and take the top 25 cities, nearly 70 percent of them have this form of governance because they feel it creates more accountability and allows your community to be a little more nimble and transparent. Our city charter hasn’t been modernized in a real way since 1920. When a city goes from a couple hundred thousand in population to 400,000 or 500,000, they usually change their government structure accordingly. It creates a good dynamic between the legislative and the executive. And in terms of a city manager, that job essentially stays the same. Ninety-nine percent of what a city manager currently does he will continue to do. The difference is, he will report to the mayor versus nine council members. He wouldn’t have nine bosses. I think that’s a benefit for everybody involved.
Comstock’s: But hasn’t our current city manager (John Shirey) said he would leave if it passed?
Johnson: This city manager has. There are tons of city managers that are happy to embrace it. I think what we’re actually voting on is much bigger than one city manager. I think there are many benefits for a city like Sacramento to change its governance structure, and I think the tangible benefits will be real in terms of Sacramento’s accountability and economic growth across the board.
Comstock’s: What is the biggest challenge currently facing Sacramento’s economic development?
Johnson: Education is our top issue. Education connects to economic development, it connects to crime, it connects to everything that you want a city to be known for and do well. I believe you can’t have a great city without great schools. If you take just third grade reading as an indicator in Sacramento, we have around 68 percent of our children not reading at grade level. That should be cause for outcry. If the majority of our kids are not reading, then there’s no way we’re going to have the vitality and prosperity that we want as a community. If you want to attract businesses and people to Sacramento, one of the first things families and businesses are going to look at is how the schools are doing. When the schools aren’t doing well, they’ll say, ‘Davis schools are pretty good, let’s go live in Davis or Roseville and maybe we’ll work in Sacramento.’ They’ll look in Roseville and say, ‘Roseville, the further out you get, those schools are solid.’ We want to be a community that has great public schools so that families want to come live in Sacramento and businesses want to relocate here. I think that is our top issue, at least mine personally.
Comstock’s: Sacramento was the first city in American to hold an enrollment day for residents to sign up for health coverage through the Affordable Care Act. Why was this so important to you and for the city?
Johnson: There are 35 million people in this country that are uninsured. In the Sacramento area, we have 300,000. That’s equal to the population of Elk Grove and Roseville combined. I feel the role of government is to protect and to educate its citizens. To provide health care is not too much for the greatest country in the world. I would love for California to continue leading the way, which it’s doing, and I thought it would make great sense for our community to be a leader in this as well. It’s very frustrating to me that something as important as healthcare has become a political football and led to government shutdowns and all the partisan politics in Washington. It doesn’t serve the constituents well, and I think one thing we can do in Sacramento is be a leader and an example for the country.
Comstock’s: I just saw an article that said you would be a great commissioner for Major League Baseball. Let me put you on the spot, will that happen?
Johnson: I am probably not going to be the next commissioner of baseball. However, I do love baseball and I think it would be a fun job. Whoever gets it has to compete because it’s a competitive environment. You’ve got baseball, basketball, football, soccer. It’s a great job. I don’t think it will be me, but I’m excited and thankful that people threw my name out there.
When Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson appeared before NBA bigwigs last April to plead his case for keeping the Kings, there was a lot more to the pitch than whether investors could afford to buy the team.
We’re at it again. For the fourth time in five years, the political conversation in Sacramento is focused on whether to change the city’s governing framework from the current council/city-manager structure to a so-called strong mayor system that boosts the mayor’s authority.