Kevin Johnson shares the stage with President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco on June 19. Eric Risberg The Associated Press
Kevin Johnson shares the stage with President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco on June 19. Eric Risberg The Associated Press

Foon Rhee

Associate editor, editorial writer and Viewpoints editor

Foon Rhee

Even Mayor Kevin Johnson deserves fair shake

By Foon Rhee

July 13, 2015 04:30 PM

Mayor Kevin Johnson is the most polarizing politician I’ve ever covered, by far. You’re either in the pro-KJ camp – or a KJ hater. In Sacramento, there is very little middle ground.

But what he does should be judged on its own merits, just as it should for everyone else. For instance, the mayor deserves a lot of credit for his quick and forceful response to the Ferguson riots, which helped prevent any unrest here and will lead to a better, more diverse police force.

Like all of us, Johnson should get the benefit of the doubt. His opponents, however, always think the worst of his motives. So when he testified that he deleted a bunch of texts about the downtown arena deal, his critics assumed he was covering up something nefarious.

I get lots of emails and voice mails on almost anything I write about Johnson, especially from people who don’t like him. Some responses aren’t fit to print in a family newspaper. If I don’t completely slam him, I’m accused of being a cheerleader.

Actually, I’ve written more than a few columns and editorials critical of him, for instance pointing out his use of behests unlimited donations from corporations and wealthy individuals – to his network of nonprofits – to expand his power. I’ve been called into his City Hall office so he could lecture me on how misunderstood he was. One session lasted so much longer than I expected, I got a parking ticket. (No, I never told him.)

After following him since early 2010, I’ve decided that on balance, his lofty goals are good for the city, though sometimes his follow-through isn’t quite there. I’ve also come to realize that Johnson, now in his seventh year as mayor, isn’t going to change, not at his core.

Part of why he’s such a lightning rod is that Johnson is a different kind of politician for Sacramento. He didn’t rise through the ranks. He does the job differently. A former NBA star, he’s a celebrity who hobnobs with boldface names and gets invited to the White House for state dinners.

At times, he puts himself in the cross hairs of critics by blurring the line between his official duties and personal ambitions. Last week, the city released thousands of emails and documents proving that city-paid staffers played a key role in helping Johnson take control of the National Conference of Black Mayors in 2013, as well as enhance his presence in Washington, D.C.

His defenders say his national stature helps bring attention and money to his hometown. There is some evidence for that. In 2013, Ygrene Energy Fund picked Sacramento as one of its first two cities for a financing program to help residential and commercial buildings become more energy-efficient.

It’s worth noting, he has learned during his time in office to be a better team player, and even to admit his mistakes. A mayor who once dressed down colleagues at council meetings when they didn’t vote his way now makes sure to praise them in public. After voting against hiring John Shirey as city manager, Johnson is now a supporter.

In taking stock of Johnson, we can’t ignore those other accusations swirling around him. In April, a former staffer in the city manager’s office filed a claim that Johnson sexually harassed her multiple times. Johnson denies it happened, and the city rejected her claim.

But we also have to admit that some of the resentment is because he’s Sacramento’s first black mayor.

He has the support, by and large, of the business community. But he has never won over many old-guard labor and neighborhood leaders – the ones who backed Heather Fargo against him in 2008 and who defeated his “strong mayor” measure in 2014.

Assuming he runs, the spotlight on Johnson will get even brighter as we move into the 2016 mayoral campaign, particularly if Johnson’s foes unite behind a single challenger. Maybe it will be Steve Hansen, the mayor’s most vocal critic on the City Council these days. Hansen says he’s planning to seek re-election, but coyly adds that he’s keeping an eye on the mayor’s race.

Whoever ends up running, one thing is for sure: The election will be much more a verdict on Kevin Johnson than anyone else on the ballot.