Thoughts on Mayor Kevin Johnson’s final State of the City

Jeff vonKaenel

How goes Sacramento? That was the expected focus of Mayor Kevin Johnson’s final State of the City address. Instead of the Memorial Auditorium, this year’s event was held in the smaller Crest Theatre, with enhanced police security and chanting homeless advocates outside. But his speech never really addressed the fate of Sacramento. Instead, it focused on the legacy of Kevin Johnson.

How will he be remembered? Clearly, he has given us much to remember. He kept the Kings in Sacramento. The new arena will transform downtown. He fought for and lost the strong-mayor initiative. He transformed the neighborhood high school, Sac High, into a controversial nonunion charter school. His celebrity put Sacramento into the national spotlight. And sadly, during his term, we heard the devastating police recording of his phone conversation with an underage girl in Phoenix.

I do not know how Johnson will be remembered. But the Johnson era has definitely been a unique period in our city’s history. Olympian world-class swimmer and Roseville native Summer Sanders emceed the State of the City event. She introduced Johnson as Sacramento’s first African-American mayor. But what sets Johnson even more apart is that he is our first celebrity mayor, known less for his policy decisions as for his abilities with a leather ball.

His name recognition goes far beyond our fair city. And his story: He grew up in a poor part of Sacramento, his father died when he was 3 years old, he graduated from UC Berkeley, played professional basketball and then returned to become mayor of his hometown. It is a beautiful story. An inspiring story, made all the more powerful because it is true. And well told by a handsome, articulate, committed man.

Johnson, his story and his energy helped put Sacramento on the national stage. It helped bring national speakers to his For Art’s Sake and Greenwise initiatives. I was proud to see our mayor in the company of President Barack Obama. The excitement around Johnson was a major plus for our city, so often overshadowed by our more glorious sister cities, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

I doubt we will have another celebrity mayor any time soon. Future State of the City events will probably forgo rock bands and Olympic athlete emcees and, instead, have smaller discussions of policy, with more content and less fireworks.

During the event, Johnson used numerous sports analogies. But I kept thinking of a different sports analogy: a star playing past his time.

With each swing of the bat, and each missed shot, his reputation diminishes. The wise star knows when to step down.

Both Sacramento mayoral candidates Darrell Steinberg and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby were at the event, working the crowd. Both are ready to lead our city. A city that Johnson clearly loves and has done much for. If either candidate wins the primary in June, it would be a mistake to make them wait until December to take office. And it would be painful to watch Johnson, who wanted to be a strong mayor, going through the motions of being a lame duck mayor.

He should step off the court with pride.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.