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Mayor Kevin Johnson gets help to ‘play nice’ with council

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As soon as Mayor Kevin Johnson declared victory in his bid for re-election, he moved out key members of his City Hall staff and brought in two longtime city employees, leading some to question if he is doubling down on arena efforts in his second term – or just trying to shore up support on the City Council playground.

“The city does better when people are working together,” political analyst Andrew Acosta said. “His ability to work together and have a relationship with council members has not been demonstrated so far.”

Acosta was a key campaign advisor in the June primary elections for local council candidates Kevin McCarty (District 6), Bonnie Pannell (District 8) and Joe Yee (District 4).

The mayor’s former chief of staff, Kunal Merchant, and Special Assistant R.E. Graswich have taken lead positions with Think Big Sacramento, a coalition of business and government interests dedicated to economic development in the railyards. To replace them, Johnson brought in public-sector veterans Cassandra Jennings and Patti Bisharat as policy directors and administrative leaders.

Chief executives commonly make staff changes when they go into a second term, but it appears Johnson brought in people with extensive public sector experience to help him in what some consider one of his weakest areas: playing well with others.

It’s no secret that the mayor has clashed on occasion with fellow council members. Not only have they disagreed about arena issues and the strong mayor initiative, Johnson has found himself on opposite sides of the table on numerous budget and city service issues, too. Some conflicts – such as a few curt words exchanged at the dais during council meetings – have proven to be fairly benign, while others have created communication chasms resulting in more than just bruised egos. After a weeks-long rift during the redistricting process, for example, Johnson went so far as to put his political weight behind the opponent of current District 8 Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell in the June primary.

But Johnson’s candidate, former Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams, lost her bid to take the council seat from Pannell, and Johnson will have to find ways to mend that (and many other) council fences.

Johnson may be trying to change his ways in his second term by bringing Jennings and Bisharat on board: Together, they bring to the table six decades of city government experience, according to Joaquin McPeek, the mayor’s spokesman.

That’s good news for Johnson, who came into the mayor’s office with plenty of ambition and drive but with zero political experience. For a mayor who scores high on charisma, he gets low marks on ability to finesse an often tenuous interplay with fellow elected leaders at City Hall.

Craig Powell, president of political watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, said the mayor’s decision to bring in two city government powerhouses will do a lot of good in the way of building – or rebuilding – relationships on the City Council.

“They have worked hand-in-glove with everyone on council over the years, so having them there will make dealing with the council easier,” Powell said.

Jennings, in particular, has worked closely with all levels of city government and all city departments in Sacramento. Bisharat has a strong financial and administrative background and will act as a chief advisor on items before the city council. Both women will have key oversight on administrative activities in the mayor’s office, McPeek said, including the day-to-day operations.

“Maybe the mayor is saying he needs people that have a wealth of knowledge that can put more meat on the bones of some of the initiatives he’d like to tout,” Acosta said. “Right now they’re just floating out there. That’s a problem for the guy.”

Jennings and Bisharat may be the key to the mayor’s fence-mending efforts on the City Council but, by taking on the day-to-day council-oriented tasks in the mayor’s office, they will also free up time and energy for Johnson to keep his eye on what might be the real prize of his second term: an entertainment and sports complex in the railyards.

“The mayor has spent an enormous amount of time and resources on getting an arena built,” political analyst Doug Elmets said. “He’s not going to be satisfied until he’s got some blueprint for the future that includes an entertainment facility.”

With Merchant and Graswich in the Think Big think tank, they can be Johnson’s eyes and ears in the push for getting an arena built – something the mayor has been keen on since the Kings’ owners, the Maloofs, started sending smoke signals about a move out of Sacramento.

“It’s a grind to work in the mayor’s office day to day,” Elmets said. “(Merchant and Graswich) will have larger, more entrepreneurial roles with Think Big.”

Elmets said those goals include building a new concept for an arena and moving the community along economically, but stopped short of calling the new positions “rewards” for work well done in the mayor’s service during his first term.

“I’d say it’s more of a recognition that they understand the mayor’s goals and objectives and have the credibility – certainly with Johnson – to try to implement something that is going to be challenging in and of itself.”

Should the arena be the backbone of Johnson’s second term? Acosta says no. The mayor would do better to create an agenda that speaks to the people – and strong mayor and the arena are not it.

“How does your agenda fit with where the people are? I think they have to connect,” Acosta said. “You can’t just come up with something that has no real connection to what voters are feeling and expect it to fly.”


What will the future hold for Johnson? Elmets suggests Johnson may have a higher political calling, perhaps even in the role of governor of California.

“The one thing I wouldn’t do is underestimate Kevin Johnson,” Elmets said. “Particularly now that he’s been re-elected. I think he’s looking at the road ahead and not focusing on what’s transpiring in the rear-view mirror.”

As far as Johnson’s long-term future, Acosta said he expects it may include higher office – whether that would be a successful move for Johnson is another story, Acosta said.

“When you don’t play well with others, where are you going to go? The state Legislature? Probably not,” Acosta said. “I would assume he wants to go to the next level, but what that will be – we don’t know. I’m not sure he knows.”

Melissa Corker is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @MelissaCorker.

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