Johnson vs. Fargo? Speculation swirls
Ex-NBA star's possible challenge to mayor gets lots of abrupt attention.
By Terri Hardy - email@example.com
Last Updated 12:28 am PST Saturday, January 26, 2008
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A1
Nothing electrifies a political town like the abrupt possibility of a high-profile figure entering a race once thought to be locked down by the incumbent.
And so it was in certain circles in Sacramento on Friday as chat sites, cell phones and a great many lunch conversations swirled with the news that former NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson is "seriously considering" a challenge to Mayor Heather Fargo in the June mayoral primary.
Suddenly, a campaign that had been shaping up as a dull, by-the-numbers re-coronation of Fargo had become very interesting indeed.
"Everybody's talking about it," said Shawn Eldridge, a contractor and midtown activist. "Kevin Johnson has money, he's articulate and he has power, so this is a real challenge. Fargo's vulnerable."
Matt Mahood, president and chief executive officer of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said "virtually everyone I've seen today has asked me about it."
Despite some rumblings about Fargo's perceived lack of leadership in recent months, no one seemed to think Fargo could be beaten. On Friday, political hobbyists were re-evaluating Sacramento's political landscape because Johnson has strong name recognition and rumors were circulating that he has significant backing from developers and the business community.
Johnson on Friday issued a written statement through Kris Deutschman, a local political consultant working with him on a pro bono basis. Johnson said he's been overwhelmed by the "outpouring of support" he's received since he publicly addressed his interest with Bee columnist Marcos Bretón on Thursday.
"It is a tremendous responsibility which warrants deep and serious consideration," Johnson said. "I will be making my decision in the next couple of weeks."
Fargo, who was at a conference in Washington, D.C., was energetic and confident in a phone interview. Fargo said she had heard rumors of Johnson's interest a few days ago, and welcomes a challenge.
"I'm looking forward to a spirited debate of where we really want to go with this city," she said. "Campaigns are a way to talk to people about their vision and your vision, and how to bring that all into focus."
Fargo's consultant, veteran tough-guy Richie Ross, was a little less delicate. Although he acknowledges Fargo isn't charismatic, he said she is a seasoned politician with broad-based support and an ability to lead quietly and by consensus.
Up for scrutiny, Ross said, will be Johnson's record as a property owner and landlord, and the way in which his nonprofit St. HOPE Corp. took over Sacramento High School and turned it into a charter school.
"Kevin is in for the rudest awakening of his life," Ross said.
In October, The Bee reported that half of Johnson's properties in Oak Park had been cited for code violations in the past decade. Vacant lots were left fallow, with no firm plans for redevelopment, prompting some residents to demand he sell or move forward.
Ross charged Friday that behind Johnson's foray into local politics are political consultant David Townsend and Sacramento's former City Manager Bob Thomas.
The mayor and council ousted Thomas in 2005. Now a consultant, he has an office in Townsend's midtown firm.
"They blame Fargo and they want to square things," Ross said.
Townsend has said he commissioned a recent poll gauging voter interest in a Johnson candidacy and found Johnson would win. Townsend said he paid for the poll himself. He declined to release the poll questions or the results Friday.
Johnson's interest in a possible mayoral bid sets up the prospect of a classic clash between two heavyweight political consultants – Townsend and Ross. Some wonder if Johnson's gambit shakes other candidates loose.
Assemblyman Dave Jones, believed to be a threat to Fargo, said through a spokesman Friday he's not running. Some wonder if that pledge will hold.
County Supervisor Roger Dickinson recently announced he's not interested. City Councilman Rob Fong, sometimes described as Fargo's heir apparent, said Friday he isn't entering the fray.
"I support Mayor Fargo, and I think the council and the mayor make a good team," Fong said.
Two announced candidates, Eldridge and Leonard Padilla, aren't expected to mount serious challenges.
Barbara O'Connor, a political analyst at California State University, Sacramento, said Fargo has been weakened by a number of factors, including the city's budget crisis, the failure of some high-profile downtown developments, and the announcement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it would place the Natomas area in a flood hazard zone, essentially halting construction.
"The city was led to believe by the mayor that the (FEMA construction halt) wouldn't happen, and it did," O'Connor said.
O'Connor and Doug Elmets, a local media consultant, agreed Fargo is vulnerable to a well-funded challenge. Fargo, a Democrat, has her base support in neighborhood, preservation and environmental organizations. Johnson, also a Democrat, is likely to get his support from business, the consultants said.
Mahood, the chamber head, wasn't taking sides Friday, but he stressed Sacramento needs strong leadership. "Having a competitive mayor race where those issues get discussed and where leadership is defined is, in the end, good for the city and the region," he said.
Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council – another key source of support for candidates for municipal office – wasn't showing his cards either. He said his organization would be keenly interested in talking to Fargo and Johnson, if he enters, to gauge their commitment to working families.
"They speak to the city – they set the vision."