Kevin Johnson’s pro-bono California Dream Team

When District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee spoke at the Sacramento Press Club on Monday, it was a chance to see one of the political world’s up-and-coming power couples. The outspoken Rhee is Kevin Johnson’s fiancé — but she is hardly the only powerful person to take an interest in Sacramento’s mayor.  

Veteran consultant David Townsend managed Johnson’s successful 2008 campaign to become mayor. Adam Mendelsohn, a partner in Mercury Public Affairs and a former deputy chief of staff to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a key advisor. Steve Maviglio, a top staffer to both a governor and an Assembly Speaker, served as Johnson’s campaign spokesman during the 2008 election, still consults occasionally for the mayor and is now working with a trio of city council candidates, including one who is a key Johnson ally.

And they’re all doing it for free.

“We work with Kevin Johnson because he’s finally bringing some luster to the state capital,” Maviglio said. “I think it’s good for state government and it’s good for Sacramento.”
Maviglio said Johnson paid him during the 2008 campaign, while he was on leave from his job in the Legislature, but not since. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, said he sees his work with Johnson in the context of the friendship that has formed between them — and his plans to make his own career in Sacramento for the long term.

“I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old,” Mendelsohn said. “I want my kids to grow up in a great city. What initially attracted me to Kevin wasn’t getting close to a political superstar.”

Doug Elmets, a Sacramento-based political communications advisor who works on both local and statewide issues, said there could be other motives as well: “None of these guys would be doing it for an also-ran mayor. He’s got a bright political future.”

Whatever the reason, few mayors of mid-sized cities can boast the kind of “dream team” of political advisors that Johnson can. While Mendelsohn said that he, Maviglio and Townsend formed Johnson’s “core group” of advisors, there are several other heavy hitters in the mix.

Jason Kinney of California Strategies provides occasional advice. So does Phil Giarrizzo, a former staffer to Speaker Willie Brown who directed statewide field operation for the Alliance for a Better California’s No on Propositions 74 – 77 campaigns in 2005. Political consultant Chris Lehane, who is working on both a marijuana legalization initiative and a labor-backed independent expenditure campaign meant to help Jerry Brown’s campaign for governor, has been helping Johnson with his “strong mayor” initiatives. San Francisco-based political public relations consultant Ace Smith, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and ran strategy for Antonio Villaraigosa when he was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 2005, opines sometimes on media matters.

For those of you keeping score at home, Mendelsohn ranked 70th last month when the Capitol Weekly released our Top 100 list of “California political power brokers.” Townsend ranked 79th, while Kinney was 65th. Maviglio grabbed the No. 86 slot on last year’s list.

“He’s blessed with being the mayor of politics central here in California,” Kinney said. “This is ground zero for people thinking about political innovation.”

“Whether it’s political, community, or business leaders, I’m honored people are supportive of the change I’m trying to bring to Sacramento,” Johnson said. “I want to tap the best and brightest, regardless of what side of the aisle they’re on.”

Both Kinney and Mendelsohn say their relationships with the mayor are pretty informal. For Kinney, it may be as simple as running into Johnson on the street and chatting for a few minutes. Mendelsohn said there are weeks he speaks to him on the phone once or twice a day, followed by periods where they don’t talk at all for a couple of weeks.

Local and state politics have long been intertwined, with city councils and county boards of supervisors providing the training ground for the Legislature and statewide offices. But in Sacramento, the talent also flows the other way.

Legislative staffs and other Capitol-related offices are dotted with people holding local political posts. Among those running for Assembly this year are Craig DeLuz, who has been pulling double-duty as a Robla School Board trustee and capitol director for Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Riverside; he’s running for the Republican nomination in the 5th Assembly District.

Sacramento City Councilman Kevin McCarty worked for former Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, and was also a consultant on the Assembly Budget Committee. He’s one of the Democrats seeking to replace Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, in the 9th Assembly District.

Speaking of McCarty, he has been a key opponent of Johnson’s “Strong Mayor” initiative. This was an attempt by Johnson to put an initiative on the November ballot that would have given the mayor’s office many new powers over the city’s finances, and would have put the city manager directly under the mayor’s supervision.

Labor opponents managed to block that effort in Sacramento Superior Court in January, though Johnson has come back with a new, more limited proposal. Ironically, it was this conflict that brought Giarrizzo into the mayor’s informal group of advisors. Giarrizzo worked for the labor-backed Save Sacramento group that stopped the effort.

But Johnson has reached out to him since, Giarrizzo said, in order to learn more about organized labor and its concerns. He’s been talking to Johnson about labor issues informally for at least a month.

Giarrizzo is also working for an independent effort backed by the local police and firefighter unions on behalf of Angelique Ashby, the Natomas-based attorney and political neophyte who is taking on incumbent city councilman Ray Tretheway, another opponent of the Strong Mayor effort. Johnson formally endorsed Ashby two weeks ago, something Tretheway characterized as payback. Maviglio is working pro bono for Ashby’s campaign, but also for that of Steve Cohn, another councilman who has often opposed Johnson’s efforts.

Tretheway is also one of the remaining allies of the incumbent mayor Johnson defeated two years ago, Heather Fargo. Some have characterized Fargo as running city government as if Sacramento weren’t a capitol city.

“Sacramento is blessed with having a lot of talent, personality and experience outside city hall,” Kinney said. “I wasn’t here during the Phil Isenberg [former Sacramento mayor and Assemblyman] era, but he’s the first mayor in my experience who has really attempted to leverage that.”

Kinney added, “I don’t think she [Fargo] knew who Adam, Steve or I were, or cared.”

Giarrizzo did note Fargo’s longtime association with Richie Ross, another longtime Sacramento super-consultant more known for his work with legislators. But Giarrizzo said the breadth of Johnson’s associations, and his desire to pick the brains of a variety of people, sets him apart.

In an early meeting with Johnson, Giarrizzo said, the mayor recognized the words of Saul Alinsky when Giarrizzo quoted the late labor organizer. When he asked Johnson how he knew the quote, Giarrizzo said, Johnson told him how he used his travels during his basketball career to try to meet famous people from other walks of life. On a team trip to San Antonio while he was playing for
UC Berkeley, Johnson managed to contact and meet Henry Cisneros, the former federal Housing and Urban Development secretary from the city. Cisneros recommended Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” to the young point guard.

But radical is the last word most people would attach to Johnson, which also may be part of his appeal to some. Kinney said Johnson speaks regularly with another mayor who is on the moderate end of the Democratic Party, at least on economic issues — San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom. Kinney is working on Newsom’s campaign for lieutenant governor.   

Even though Johnson is a Democrat and Mendelsohn is a Republican, Mendelsohn said that they’re both moderates and agree about 85 percent of the time. He said that he particularly likes Johnson’s work on education reform and charter schools — the exact same issues that have drawn so much fire from the many in labor and the Democratic establishment.

“I believe in his vision,” Mendelsohn said. “I’m very much a centrist Republic, and he’s a centrist Democrat.”

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