Michelle Rhee, wife of Mayor Kevin Johnson, debated City Councilman Steve Hansen on the strong-mayor ballot measure in a debate hosted by the Sacramento Press Club on Tuesday. Hansen is the lead spokesman for the Measure L opposition. During a brief and heated exchange, Rhee, photographed with Johnson in June 2012, criticized Hansen for suggesting that donors to the strong-mayor campaign are trying to buy influence. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com
Michelle Rhee, wife of Mayor Kevin Johnson, debated City Councilman Steve Hansen on the strong-mayor ballot measure in a debate hosted by the Sacramento Press Club on Tuesday. Hansen is the lead spokesman for the Measure L opposition. During a brief and heated exchange, Rhee, photographed with Johnson in June 2012, criticized Hansen for suggesting that donors to the strong-mayor campaign are trying to buy influence. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

City Beat

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City Beat

Rhee spars with Hansen over strong-mayor campaign donations

By Ryan Lillis

rlillis@sacbee.com

October 21, 2014 03:00 PM

Opponents of the strong-mayor measure on the November ballot have consistently criticized the amount of money proponents have raised from special interests. On Tuesday, Mayor Kevin Johnson’s wife tried to turn the tables on City Councilman Steve Hansen, the lead spokesman for the opposition campaign.

During a brief and heated exchange at a debate hosted by the Sacramento Press Club, Michelle Rhee criticized Hansen for his remarks that donors to the strong-mayor campaign are trying to buy influence.

Rhee said that Hansen, lead spokesman for Stop the Power Grab – the name adopted by the opposition – accepted contributions from some of the same interest groups supporting Measure L when he ran for City Council two years ago. She also said that Hansen should not criticize the amount of money going into the campaign when he raised more than his City Council competitor in 2012.

“If you think that those folks are trying to buy influence, then they must have been trying to buy your influence as well,” Rhee said, before adding, “I actually don’t think that’s the case. I think you have different groups that want what’s best for the city.”

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Campaign finance records show that AT&T, the city firefighters union and the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce donated to both Hansen’s council campaign in 2012 and to the committees advocating for the strong-mayor ballot measure. The donations made to Hansen were smaller than those made to the Measure L committees.

Hansen called Rhee’s remarks “a very direct attack on me.”

“It’s clear attacking me is easier than selling this measure on its merits,” he said.

Hansen raised $287,000 when he was elected to the City Council in 2012, records show. His opponent, Joseph Yee, raised $205,646.

“If you want to talk about inequity in fundraising, then you have to be able to turn the mirror around on yourself as well,” Rhee said.

As of today, the two committees pushing Measure L have combined to raise $951,000, according to the most recent campaign finance records. Stop the Power Grab has raised $204,561, including the monetary value placed on campaign phone calls organized by the local Democratic Party.

“Is this the city we want, where you have to have big money to get things done?” Hansen asked.

Hansen was also critical of the Measure L campaign’s decision to have Rhee take part in the debate and not Johnson. “I don’t know why (Johnson) won’t debate this issue,” Hansen said.

Later Tuesday, CBS 13 reported that Rhee is not registered to vote in Sacramento. Joshua Wood, a spokesman for the strong mayor campaign, said Rhee is registered to vote in Tennessee, where her two daughters from a previous marriage live.

Rhee and Johnson have been married for three years.

Wood defended the campaign’s decision to use Rhee in the debate, as well as other forums in recent weeks. “She is the perfect choice,” Wood said. “We thought she knows the mayor best and knows the things he's done to move the city forward.”

Rhee, who has taken a hands-on role in her husband’s political career since she stepped down as head of education organization StudentsFirst, said Johnson had been turned off by personal attacks and “petty politics” that she said surfaced during a strong-mayor forum hosted by the Service Employees International Union earlier this year.

Measure L would allow the mayor to appoint and fire the city manager, essentially transferring to the mayor many of the daily responsibilities currently held by a city manager appointed by the City Council.

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916)321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat.