Strong Mayor? Why? Part 3

Like every reform, the push in Sacramento to crown Kevin Johnson a “strong mayor” is an effort to change the rules of a political game. And like all such reforms, it comes wrapped in rhetoric about good government. But as we’ve seen in the last two posts, reality doesn’t confirm the rhetoric. Council-manager or strong-mayor system: the choice doesn’t matter to how well a city is run or responds to its residents.

So voters are left to judge Measure L, a change in the rules of the game, by how it will affect who wins. When the clerics in Iran fiddle with the election rules or Vladimir Putin and his oligarch buddies change the constitution in Russia, we understand immediately: Reform is about making it easier for one team to win. It’s no less true when it happens closer to home. If you want to understand the push by Sacramento’s wealthy and powerful for Measure L, think of it as Putin envy.

The backers of the push for “strong mayor”—developers, downtown property owners, public safety unions, the consultants and fixers who hang around city hall—have been power players in city politics for decades. Often they’ve won policy fights and elections. But not always.

 Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

There have been checks on their power: independent politicians like Mayors Anne Rudin and Heather Fargo, who had support from women’s, neighborhood, and environmental groups; strong liberals like Joe Serna and Grantland Johnson, whose background in civil rights and labor struggles gave them a commitment to broad sharing of public resources; active and resourceful neighborhood groups; scrutiny by the Sacramento Bee operating in the McClatchy family Progressive tradition of distrust of concentrated private power in business or labor.

But in the Kevin Johnson era the balance has tipped toward the powerful. Ambitious, pliable, and lacking a reliable ethical compass, Johnson has been a perfect front for the dominant coalition: a celebrity African American basketball star with proven ability to attract attention and cash from the corporate foundations and donors that drive so much of the policy agenda of this new Gilded Age. Over the last six years Sacramento has seen the rise of a shadow city government, dubbed K.J. Inc. by the city’s leading political reporter, Cosmo Garvin, who has chronicled it so diligently in the Sacramento News & Review.

The coalition is a new kind of urban political machine, fueled by “behest” gifts from corporate, foundation, and wealthy individual donors and employing a crew of operatives it shares with special-interest groups. Directly and through independent expenditure committees, it has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaigns to reelect its favored candidates. When challenged by independent voices in community and nonprofit groups, it has bought them off or tried to bully them into silence with threats to cut off charitable donations.

It even managed to engineer the dismissal, at least temporarily, of the executive secretary of the central labor council. When a business-dominated coalition can control the voice of labor, you know Sacramento is seeing an unprecedented change in its politics.

Measure L is best understood, I think, as the coalition’s attempt to create what UC Merced Prof. Jessica Trounstine calls a “political monopoly.” By passing a strong-mayor measure, it aims to tilt the game to hobble its foes and assure reelection. If a governing coalition can do that, it “gains the freedom to be responsive to a narrow segment of the electorate at the expense of the broader community,” she writes.

Kevin Johnson whines when foes of his strong-mayor push call it a “power grab,” and he’s halfway right. Unlike Putin, KJ can’t grab, he must ask. Measure L is more like a “power reach.” But he can’t deny that it’s all—and only—about handing him and the dominant coalition more power. (If you doubt that, ask yourself whether the oligarchs would be pushing this measure if Heather Fargo were still mayor.) And the power they seek would go far toward sealing their political monopoly.

 Kevin Johnson

Kevin Johnson

The mayor would gain control over jobs in city departments, letting him reward political allies. He would gain control over the budget, writing the first draft and having veto power over the council’s final choices. That would give him a way to reward or punish community groups and nonprofits that receive city money. Concentrating so much power in a single office elected expensively in a citywide campaign would amplify the influence of the wealthy people and organizations who can supply the election cash.

Perhaps most important, the mayor would gain control over information that citizens and the city council need to assess the performance of the city.

Former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders showed how it’s done. After that city adopted a strong-mayor system a decade ago, he “moved to consolidate his control over the city bureaucracy by concentrating information in the mayor’s office,” University of California political scientists Steven P. Erie, Vladimir Kogan, and Scott A. MacKenzie write in Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego. “Sanders forbade city employees from speaking to the press, allowing department heads to conduct interviews only when a member of the mayor’s public relations staff was also present.”

K.J. Inc. already excels in spin and restricting press access. It took a lawsuit to reveal that the purported city analysis of the benefits of the Kings arena giveaway was a cut-and-paste job from the deal’s backers. Combine increased mayoral control with the Bee’s declining capacity to cover the city and you can count on city hall’s becoming an information black hole.

Sacramento has already gone far down the road toward what Erie calls, in its San Diego form, the “politics of extraction,” through which “civic elites succeed in channeling the powers of government to benefit narrow, private interests at the expense of the broader city interest.”

While police and fire unions win and protect pay and pensions unimaginable elsewhere in the country, Sacramento residents get stuck with the unenviable combination of high crime rates and among the lowest levels of policing of any major city.

Billionaire sports owners get handed $300 million in subsidies, Sacramento taxpayers get handed taxes higher and more regressive than any other in the region, which provide levels of services for things like libraries and recreation that are far below the standard in comparable cities outside California.

When Erie describes San Diego as “an American Potemkin village—an impressive privatized facade with a dark public-sector underbelly—featuring a gleaming new downtown and bevy of tourist attractions but saddled with billion-dollar pension liabilities and deficient public services,” you pause and ask yourself whether he wasn’t talking about Sacramento instead.

So forget about all the rhetoric and Measure L as some abstract proposition. Think about it concretely. Do we want to risk handing a political monopoly to this mayor and this coalition of self-serving interests who have rung up this record of bringing Sacramento this low?