Seriously, how did Kevin Johnson end up running Sacramento like his own personal fiefdom?

The Baffler, the magazine that published what remains the best article I’ve ever seen on the scam that is the internship economy (and which remains even more of a scam today, if anything), has just published a long article by the Sacramento News & Review’s Cosmo Garvin on the disaster that has been Kevin Johnson’s political career, highlighted by spending $300 million on a new Kings arena that will open this fall. (Okay, also highlighted by charges that he’s a serial sexual abuser/harasser. Or maybe that’s a lowlight. Or maybe they both are.) It also talks about the lawsuit that Mayor KJ filed against Garvin and the N&R over his public records requests for city emails, and includes one of the best nut grafs you’ll ever see:

The lawsuit, the arena, KJ’s talent for diverting public resources for private gain, even the sex-creep stuff: to me, these facts seem to hang together under a common theme. The guy has boundary issues.

This gets into an area that I’ve always been curious about, which is: Why is it that so many local politicians, once they get into office, behave so much like, you know, politicians? Individuals who might have seemed perfectly sane in private life suddenly start mouthing platitudes and kowtowing to the usual moneyed interests and carrying out policies that are the exact opposite of what they’d promised. It’s incredibly common and fairly creepy, and a big reason why so many Americans don’t trust politicians as a group, even as they keep voting for them based on their promises.

Some of this, no doubt, is due to the political system itself: If you want to get re-elected, you need to say certain things and suck up to certain donors and make sure your daughter goes to a politically acceptable school, and so on. But I suspect that there’s a self-weeding aspect here as well. Think about it: There are thousands of former NBA players, many of which could use their celebrity to run for mayor of some city; why KJ? He certainly doesn’t need the money, or the fame. It takes a very special combination of ego, need for attention, and yes, lack of boundaries to decide that you’re going to merge your city with your personal brand, and declare that anyone opposed to one is opposed to both. And then sue them.

Obviously, not every mayor in the U.S. has set up their own secret government or molested teenagers — KJ is clearly special at this. But I think there’s a particular draw for people like that to run for public office: Anyone who can put up with the pressures of the political spotlight is going to require some, er, special characteristics, and they’re not necessarily ones that make for good management of the public interest. KJ is, by all accounts, a dangerous loon, but the system that put him in charge of a major American city is the bigger concern.

Not that I have any solutions to propose. Other than to ban unpaid internships, because that shit is seriously unethical and illegal.

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24 comments on “Seriously, how did Kevin Johnson end up running Sacramento like his own personal fiefdom?

  1. I defer to Douglas Adams here:

    “It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
    …[A]nyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
    ― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

    The same applies to Mayor of Sacramento, it would seem.

  2. “My dream — and this is like the long, long, long, long shot — is to build an arena 20 stories up in the air, where every seat has a view of downtown, whether it’s north, south, east or west,” Cuban said.
    Asked how he came up with this vision, Cuban laughed and said, “That’s what I do.”
    He compared the possibility of a high-rise arena to that of New York’s Madison Square Garden (not coincidentally, the Knicks were in AAC on Wednesday night to face Cuban’s Mavericks), which is built atop Pennsylvania Station.
    “Imagine being 20 stories up, taking a page from ballparks like Pittsburgh and other places that have amazing views,” Cuban said. “That’s ‘a vision.’ It’s not necessarily a slam dunk. But that’s part of the thinking process.”

    I’m interested to hear what Neil thinks of this lol

  3. “LOL” about sums it up. I look forward to hearing how Cuban will get concert gear 20 stories up, let alone elephants when the circus comes to town.

  4. “Individuals who might have seemed perfectly sane”. Considering millions of Americans have been trying to elect one for president who does not seem sane at all, should we be surprised? Actually, the process we use to encourage, select, train and support those who should run for office is apparently highly flawed. I would suggest he was handpicked by some power brokers for the NBA.

  5. No mystery. He’s always been corrupt – even with his “charities”, before he was Mayor – and unlike most local politicians, he’s protected by friends in the absolute highest of places. Flashback, June 2009:

    “St. HOPE had received an $850,000 AmeriCorps grant, which was supposed to go for three purposes: tutoring for Sacramento-area students; the redevelopment of several buildings; and theater and art programs. [U.S. Inspector General Gerald] Walpin’s investigators discovered that the money had been used instead to pad staff salaries, meddle politically in a school-board election, and have AmeriCorps members perform personal services for [Kevin] Johnson, including washing his car … Last Wednesday, [Walpin] got a phone call from a White House lawyer telling him to resign within an hour or be fired … Having failed to pressure Mr. Walpin into resigning (which in itself might violate the law), the Administration was forced to say he’d be terminated in 30 days, and to tell Congress its reasons … In this case, the evidence suggests that [Obama’s] White House fired a public official who refused to roll over to protect a Presidential crony.”

  6. “Ambedkar (father of Indian Constitution) believed hero-worship was a sure way to the degradation of democratic institutions, and would eventually lead to dictatorship.” Maybe too many sports fans voted him in with little information or exposure on other issues.

  7. “…but the system that put him in charge of a major American city is the bigger concern.”

    One look at the parade of doofuses (doofi?) that held the mayoralty of Sacramento before KJ came along will go a great length toward answering that concern.

  8. Neil: Is KJ any different than a president whose administration fabricated evidence to start a decade long war and subsequently benefits financially from that conflict? Honestly, mayor KJ may not be an angel. But his tenure as Sacramento’s mayor hasn’t resulted in thousands of lost American lives. In addition, why not conduct a thorough investigation of most municipal governments in this country? I’m more than certain you will find corrupt and unethical politicians at over 90% of the cities you research.

  9. Okay, when I wrote a post this morning discussing a corrupt accused child molester as an example of what’s wrong with American politics overall, I somehow didn’t think I would get the response “Why are you picking on the child molester? American politics overall is a mess!”

    Strange thing, this Internet.

  10. To understand Sacramento, you have to understand that it is 90 miles from San Francisco, and has a serious inferiority complex. (That it is inferior to San Francisco is true, but irrelevant.) Because of this, our local elite is always trying to turn us into a “world-class city,” which makes people who have lived in or visited world-class cities roll their eyes heavenward. KJ is the only celebrity Sacramento has, and his decision to run for office made the local worthies giddy. Surely we were on our way, and would soon be ranked with London, New York and, yes, San Francisco. That it required our local elite to overlook problems like charges of corruption and sexual misconduct was a small price to pay to have a genuine celebrity in office.

  11. JC,

    I guess the obvious follow on question would be–exactly how many mayors have the authority to order soldiers into combat? Since the answer is “none,” I’m not sure how effective of an evaluation tool it is. Straw man, actually.

  12. No, he’s got an excellent point: Kevin Johnson did NOT in fact use his powers as Mayor of Sacramento to start any wars in the Middle East, and in that light, his arena boondoggle, (alleged) misuse of taxpayer and charity funds, and sexual abuse of underage women seem pretty innocuous. Quaint, really. In fact, we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

  13. The Sacramento mayor would have to be directly responsible for half a million plus deaths before I would compare to the former MLB owner who BTW received millions in public subsidies.

  14. In 1950, 77% of Americans trusted their government.
    In 2012, only 19% of Americans trusted their government(s).

    It’s not hard to see why that trust has eroded, nor where we as a society are going. And even though it is likely to be “really bad” for everyone, I must say that those in power deserve every bit of it.

    KJ is just one example of bad and untrustworthy people being ushered into power not on their ability but their celebrity. Would you really be surprised if Paris Hilton or one of the Kardashians runs for president in 2020? And wins?

  15. The reality is corruption has existed in American society ever since the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. There is one general reason as to why our political system has eroded:WE HAVE ALLOWED IT TO ERODE!!

    Politicians and professional sports team owners are very similar. They love to use the element of fear in order to get what they want. So long as they can continue to scare us, the public will cave into their demands.

  16. I think it says a lot about the end of David Stern’s term running the NBA, that he was doing business with people such as KJ and Aubrey McClendon.

  17. “I think it says a lot about the end of David Stern’s term running the NBA, that he was doing business with people such as KJ.”

    The Kings moved to Sacramento in 1985. Sacramento voters, not David Stern, elected KJ Mayor of Sacramento in 2008. Should Stern have refused to “do business with” the elected Mayor of an NBA city? (A retired NBA star, no less?)

  18. Solvang,

    I’m sure that’s just being fun, but if the standard of evaluating anyone is going to be whether he or she started a war in the Middle East, we’ve pretty much ceded our ability to justifiably criticize anybody in politics or business.

  19. The mistake most of us make is referring our elected officials as leaders. They are not leaders. Rather, their purpose is to enact policy for the good of the public benefit and be the responsible stewards of our tax dollars. It has been our fault for putting many of these people on a pedestal.
    I don’t believe there should be varying degrees of culpability and fault. That will euphemize the wrongful acts committed by those who are elected to public office. However, is there any coincidence the one issue most every elected official never wants debate is campaign finance reform? Have you ever noticed the Democrats and Republicans rarely ever discuss it? They know that would be the first step in cutting the lifeline to corruption.

  20. Stern did business with Donald Sterling through his entire 30 years as commissioner, so I don’t know that much changed near the end of his tenure.

  21. “I look forward to hearing how Cuban will get concert gear 20 stories up, let alone elephants when the circus comes to town.”

    Let’s all hope that whenever Mark Cuban’s vision does become a reality that we’re no longer subjecting elephants to the torture of the circus.

  22. One thing KJ has always done at his annual St Hope Charity Dinner is mix his position as mayor with his position as founder of St Hope Academy. I always thought it was wrong that he would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars with this dinner while saying “I’m the mayor” multiple times, while not doing a thing to help out the public high schools in the area.

    If you only knew how big a mess St Hope has created for McClatchy and Kennedy high schools — among others — while touting “his” charter school system, you’d be even more upset. It’s disgusting.

    And for what? A well below-average high school. Moreover, it’s a below-average school that, miraculously, fields very good basketball teams every single year.

    I always thought the goal of high schools was to get students into colleges. It sure isn’t working out that way.

    I’m surprised you didn’t say anything about the Bee article last week about the handicap parking problem in downtown Sacramento. It seems that a huge percentage of cars that park in meters in downtown Sac use them; in some areas, it’s 70%. Now some officials are saying they’re “worried” about this.

    Well, duh. They already want part-time downtown employees to help pay for the arena with higher parking rates. It’s sickening. My forecast was that this financing plan would fall short by $8M or more per year. I’m sticking with that. But to blame “fraudulent” handicapped drivers? That is very low.

  23. Dave McKenna over at Deadspin finally put the nail in KJ’s coffin last Fall:

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