Legacy in Waiting

If Mayor Johnson moves on, just what will he leave behind?

Back Commentary Jun 10, 2015 By Thomas Dodson

Mayor Kevin Johnson hasn’t said whether he’ll seek re-election in November 2016, but anyone paying attention can make a fairly strong case he won’t. The crushing defeat of his strong mayor initiative in 2014, his prominent leadership role with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, his speeches across the country on the topic of education, and the most recent sex scandal are just a few of the logs fueling the speculation fire.

I think he’s ready to move on. Johnson has been a big fish in our small pond long enough. The grand opening of the arena in October 2016 will likely be his public farewell, a metaphorical victory lap. Cuts ribbon. Drops mic.

I’ve been wrong before, however. And I will be wrong again. So take my prediction with a grain of salt. But if 2016 is his last year in office, how will he be remembered as mayor?

Elephant in the Room

To begin any meaningful conversation about Johnson’s legacy, you have to acknowledge the obvious factions: There are two groups simply unable to think logically when it comes to our mayor.

The sycophants, both inside and outside of City Hall, are incapable of seeing, or at least publicly admitting, any flaws in the man. To them, he’s 100 percent correct 100 percent of the time. If he said the sky was orange, they’d agree. And it’s difficult to reason with someone like that.

Then there are the attackers, incapable of seeing any positives in the man. To them, he’s 100 percent wrong 100 percent of the time. If he said the sky was blue, they’d disagree. And it’s difficult to reason with someone like that.

If you fall into one of these camps, stop reading now. The rest of this piece will be a waste of your time. Your mind is already made up.

This is for the middle group: the rational, reasonable, objective people capable of celebrating success while also recognizing when the emperor wears no clothes. You know, the minority.


Without Johnson, there would not be a major league sports franchise in Sacramento, and there certainly would not be a new arena coming to downtown. This is his tangible mark he leaves, and the visual we’ll get after he is gone. No one else could have put together the new ownership group, lobbied the NBA to block the sale of the Kings or constructed the deal to keep them here.

The majority of people in our region, like myself, are extremely grateful for his leadership on this project. I am fully vested in the idea that the new arena will prove an economic catalyst that will reshape our urban core. For decades, we’ve needed something to shake up our sleepy little central city. This is it.

But the true test of this plan will take time. Will the city’s financing plan pencil? Will the arena catalyze lasting improvements? Will Sacramento be a better place when it’s all said and done?

My crystal ball is hazy, but my hope is clear.

Cheerleader vs. Here Leader

I sometimes feel there are two Mayor Johnsons. There’s the magnetic guy trumpeting Sacramento’s successes on national television. Watching him work a room, an auditorium or an arena, you believe he’s speaking from the heart, and you know the one thing he cares about above all else is Sacramento.

Johnson has elevated our city on a national and international level, changing the way people outside of our region see Sacramento. But it takes more than charm to lead a city, particularly a city as politically savvy as ours.

Johnson’s early run-ins with city council are well documented. Even now, as he has enough votes on the council to pass practically anything, there’s still something missing from him politically. You can just feel it.

Johnson has missed so many opportunities to lead on the home front, to build consensus and galvanize support for important issues. Can you imagine for a second what we could have accomplished had he tackled job creation and homelessness with the zeal he poured into keeping the Kings and building the arena? It boggles the mind to think where Sacramento could be had he demonstrated that level of leadership across the board.

Instead, it’s been eight years of battles and bullying with only flashes of political skill. If you’re against him, you’re going to get steamrolled.

But has Johnson altered the Office of the Mayor? Have his eight years of work built any permanent changes into the system, or have they been just for him? I have a hard time believing whoever our next mayor is will maintain the corporate-like structure Johnson has built behind the scenes in City Hall. And he’s implemented very little policy that will have a lasting impact on the Office of the Mayor. For all of his work, it just feels… temporary.


All of this may be for naught. Mayor Johnson may run again in 2016. If he does, he wins easily and serves four more years. But why? To bring the MLS to Sacramento? Eh, OK. Past that, I don’t see his motivation.

He’s done what he set out to do: save the Kings and engineer a new arena in his hometown. For that, he’ll be hailed as a hero by many and denounced as a villain by a few.

Eventually, we’ll look back at Mayor Johnson’s time in office much the same way we now view Governor Schwarzenegger’s. Both brought passion and energy to their office, both were world-class ambassadors, both were showmen and both lacked true political acumen and got more wrong than they got right.