Former NBA all-star and charismatic native son Kevin Johnson dove into this city’s mayoral race seven years ago with a golden reputation and an equally bright future.
Both were almost immediately clouded by scandal, but Johnson persevered, just as he had growing up in one of Sacramento’s toughest neighborhoods. He went on to win two terms as mayor, collecting accolades for helping to rescue the city from the depths of the recession and preserve its pride by keeping the Sacramento Kings from fleeing town.
But the taint of controversy, rooted in an allegation that he molested a teenage girl in Arizona while playing for the Phoenix Suns 20 years ago, never washed away despite Johnson’s adamant denials.
On Wednesday, Johnson announced that he would not seek a third term, insisting that the accusations against him — rekindled this month when a sports website posted a 1996 video of the 16-year-old girl describing the alleged molestation to police — were not a factor. No charges were filed after law enforcement authorities investigated.
“It had nothing to do with my decision. I’ve never made a life’s decision based on the facts of those allegations,” Johnson said at a press conference in his old neighborhood, which he helped revitalize as mayor.
“Being in the spotlight, and being a target of those who may disagree with your policies or decisions, is a sad reality of politics,” he said.
Johnson signaled months ago that this might be his last term as mayor, after Sacramento voters rejected a local initiative to increase the powers of his office. He said Wednesday that he had yet to decide “what’s next,” brushing aside speculation that his sights are set on higher office.
Over my two terms in office, I have experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows. But I wouldn’t change a single moment of it even if I could.
If he were to run for a statewide office the allegations would follow.
“The book on Kevin Johnson is not finished yet, for better or worse,” said Sacramento political consultant Kevin Eckery. “Eventually, it will be up to the courts, or the court of public opinion, to decide.”
Former state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, praised Johnson for delivering on his promise to revitalize the state’s capital city and using his cachet as a former star point guard to raise its national profile.
Steinberg, who is “strongly considering” a bid for Sacramento mayor, declined to address the allegations made against Johnson.
During his years in office, Johnson has served as head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and been a relatively frequent guest at the White House. He helped land federal support for flood control projects in the Sacramento area and campaigned heavily for a new basketball arena in the heart of town.
Sacramento developer Mark Friedman, part of the Kings’ new ownership group, credited Johnson for being the “essential ingredient” in keeping the Kings in town. “There’s nobody else in the world who could have pulled it off,” Friedman said Wednesday.
He represented the National Basketball Players Assn. in its effort to oust Donald Sterling from ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers after Sterling’s racist comments about African Americans.
Barbara O’Connor, a professor emeritus of political science and communications at Cal State Sacramento, said Sacramento is a much brighter, more livable city now. Crime is down, new restaurants are sprouting and people are moving here.
O’Connor has known Johnson for years and considers the mayor a friend. She nevertheless thinks he should avoid any urge to run for higher office, if he has one.
“I would argue that he doesn’t want that, because of all the trailing baggage, true or false,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a way out of it for him.”
After his NBA playing days were over, Johnson moved back to the neighborhood where he was raised by grandparents.
He expanded St. HOPE Academy, the after-school program he started during his playing career. He led a bruising political fight in 2003 to push out the unionized teaching staff at his hometown high school, which he said was cheating neighborhood kids out of a decent education.
Now called Sacramento Charter High School, the facility has about half the students and dramatically higher test scores.
In 2011, Johnson married Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., a central figure in the debate over education reform. Rhee has been vilified by teachers unions for her efforts to limit their influence and to use student test scores to measure teacher performance.
Political consultant Adam Mendelsohn, who has advised both Johnson and Rhee, told a newspaper in 2014 that the couple was a “modern-day version of Bill and Hillary Clinton.”
Johnson, a pro-business Democrat, won his office in 2008 despite strong union opposition and piercing attack ads fed by details of the molestation allegations.
Early in the campaign, the Sacramento Bee unearthed details of a draft agreement under which Johnson would pay a $230,000 settlement to the Phoenix girl, whom he had mentored in the mid-1990s. She had told police that Johnson fondled her, an allegation he has denied.
Opponents and political rivals also highlighted a federal inspector general’s report that said St. HOPE had misused $847,700 in grant money — the nonprofit was forced to return roughly half — and other accusations of sexual misconduct involving young women associated with one of Johnson’s inner-city programs.
Investigations into the allegations were conducted in Sacramento, and no charges were filed.
Political consultant Mike Madrid, who worked on the anti-Johnson campaign ads in 2008, said the stain of the scandal might have faded if not for the video and a recent allegation that Johnson sexually harassed a city hall employee — a claim that Johnson said was meritless and the city denied.
“If we had a video and a name in 2008, Kevin Johnson would not have been mayor,” Madrid said.
Earlier this month, after the video was posted, ESPN delayed a documentary called “Down in the Valley” that focused on Sacramento’s fight to keep the Kings.
David Clements, a Sacramento business consultant and a member of the predominantly African American Harold Washington Democratic Club, was dismayed to see the attention given to unproven allegations against Johnson, saying they have been “put to rest.”
“He has done so much good,” said Clements, who attended the Wednesday press conference. “This town is in a renaissance. Jobs, homeless initiatives, a balanced budget, a better relationship between the community and police — you name it, he’s done it.”
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