In 2008 I ran into Kevin Johnson, the former NBA basketball star, at a restaurant near his condo in midtown Sacramento. I congratulated him on advancing into the runoff in his campaign to oust then-Mayor Heather Fargo. He thanked me, and then asked if I had any advice.
I replied that the most important skill in politics was being able to say “no” to the people funding his campaign. As I spoke, Johnson winced, as if having gas pains. “But they all want something,” he moaned. “Sure they do,” I said. “But remember what the great Jesse Unruh said. ‘If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and then vote against them, you have no business being up here.’”
In a terrific bit of reporting at Sacramento News & Review, Cosmo Garvin makes clears that my playfully offered advice was not heeded.
As Sacramento’s mayor, Johnson has built a shadow machine of nonprofit front groups funded through large and often undisclosed contributions. Although figures at Sacramento City Hall have long had ties to state government and the Legislature—former mayor Phil Isenberg was a legislative staffer, Fargo was a parks bureaucrat—Johnson is the first to tap so heavily into the assembled hordes of lobbyists, consultants, liars for hire, and fund-raisers who have infested the capital city as a result of the Prop 13 centralization of power in California. In fact, it is hard to know for certain whether Johnson formed what Garvin calls KJ Inc. to advance his political fortunes and whether KJ Inc. has latched on to him as a way to generate fat paydays for themselves.
Whichever may be the case, the strategy has worked. The four years of Johnson’s tenure as mayor has been the worst of times for Sacramento. Its economy is among the worst performing in the nation, public safety is being cut in the face of one of the highest big-city crime rates in the country, foreclosures have been rife, and the city budget, burdened with outsize pay and pensions for cops and firefighters, faces a large structural gap. Yet Johnson has done little to nothing on the housing front and has declined to pursue the full-court press for pension reform such as that pushed by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. Instead he devoted his attentions to a clownish pursuit of building an arena for the equally clownish NBA Kings franchise. A failure in every respect, he nonetheless had built so formidable a money and institutional machine around him that no serious candidate was willing to challenge him for reelection.
So I’m changing my political advice. To wannabe politicians: Don’t worry about being good, just try to look good.