Last night I posted a story about new allegations of sexual molestation of minors by Kevin Johnson, mayor of Sacramento, husband of Michelle Rhee, and former basketball superstar.
This story by an investigative reporter for an alternative weekly in Sacramento may be even more shocking, because the sexual allegations are not new. Why does this appear in a small alternative newspaper? The Sacramento Bee has been a reliable cheerleader for Mayor Johnson.
Cosmo Garvin of The Baffler describes in elaborate detail the way Johnson governed, with patronage, cronyism, a private email system that kept most governmental decisions secluded from public scrutiny, and money–lots of money–for those on the Johnson team.
He and his wife, Michelle Rhee—once the brightest star in the corporate-backed “education reform” movement—showed up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. An adviser told Johnson’s hometown newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, that the couple was a “modern-day version of Bill and Hillary Clinton.” There was talk about a run for California governor or U.S. Senate.
At his peak, KJ was a figure to behold, an urban policy entrepreneur and brander-in-chief selling #Sacramento 3.0, a “world-class” city where kids would take Uber vehicles instead of buses to their charter schools, “never check out a library book,” and have “more smart devices than toothbrushes.”
In July 2014, Johnson rented the Sacramento Convention Center and threw himself a big party—a twenty-fifth-anniversary fundraising gala for St. Hope Academy. He raised $1.2 million at the event, largely from real estate developers and others with business before City Hall.
St. Hope is Mayor KJ’s charter school and development company. More than that, it’s his brand—the foundation of his own career in educational reform and politics. The keynote speaker at St. Hope’s silver jubilee was the NBA’s biggest-ever star, Michael Jordan, whom Johnson interviewed on stage, fittingly enough, about “developing your brand….”
By the fall of 2015, Johnson’s political career was effectively over. He was under scrutiny, again, for allegedly molesting a sixteen-year-old girl two decades before. And he was facing a new allegation of sexual misconduct; a city employee had filed a sexual harassment complaint. The City of Sacramento’s legal advisers warned Johnson not to hug or touch anyone at city events. So Johnson, deciding two terms in office were enough, announced that he will not seek reelection this November. His exit will coincide with the opening of the new arena, easily his most significant mayoral achievement.
Meanwhile, debt service on the bond-financed arena will reach about $18 million a year, draining money from the city treasury. Sacramento’s city finance department is warning that the city’s spending is already “unsustainable” and budget deficits are imminent. For now, however, Johnson is being credited with a dramatic makeover of the new arena district—where a decaying shopping mall had been before.
Aside from the arena, Johnson’s other legacy is something I call KJ Inc. It’s a particular way of doing public business, and it’s also a political machine: a blended network of nonprofit auxiliary organizations, political cronies, and paid city staff, powered by unlimited donations from downtown developers and corporate benefactors.
Last year, Johnson sued me for filing public records requests for city emails, part of an ongoing project to better understand KJ’s mingling of public resources with his private nonprofits. The suit appears intended to economically damage the small alternative weekly I write for—the only media outlet in town to write critically about Johnson’s arena deal, or his educational reform campaign, or his use of city resources for his private agenda. We’re still in court.
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.
The mayor’s charitable vehicle is St. Hope, which runs charter schools. Johnson took over Sacramento High School and turned it into a charter. What had once been a comprehensive high school for 2,000 students became a school of 900, which required students to apply. Of course, test scores went up when the school was no longer open enrollment.
The flagship nonprofit of KJ Inc. is, of course, St. Hope. As mayor, Johnson has been able to leverage, from real estate and other local interests, about $3 million in donations to support the family business. The biggest donors include Sacramento’s biggest sprawl developer, Angelo Tsakopoulos; arena developer Mark Friedman and his family; and Kevin Nagle, part owner of the Sacramento Kings and majority owner of the Sacramento Republic soccer team. Nagle is also on the St. Hope board of directors. All these men have been big donors to Johnson’s election campaigns and to his strong-mayor ballot measure. But while they are limited by strict political campaign contribution limits, they can give unlimited amounts to Johnson’s nonprofits.
They, along with other business interests, also give heavily to Johnson’s Sacramento Public Policy Foundation (SPPF), which is more closely associated with Johnson’s job as mayor. SPPF collects donations from interested parties who want to curry favor with the mayor, and then distributes the cash to various policy initiatives under Johnson’s direction. For a time, these initiatives included an environmental brand called Greenwise Sacramento and an arts program called For Arts’ Sake. Neither of these groups ever did much, and both are now dead links on Johnson’s website.
The real project of SPPF is Johnson’s “Think Big” initiative, which the mayor advertises as a way to “promote transformative projects that catalyze job creation and economic development.” But Think Big would be more accurately described as a public relations shop for stadium subsidies, coordinated out of City Hall, with the labor of city employees.
The entanglement of public and private interests are by no means limited to Johnson. Other mayors have done the same, though so few adroitly.
This promiscuous mingling of public and private interests is now business as usual in Sacramento. Only rarely does it get Johnson in any trouble. In 2012 the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission fined Johnson $37,500 after learning that $3.5 million in behests to Johnson’s nonprofits from the Sacramento Kings and other donors had not been properly reported. Johnson called the nondisclosure a clerical error.
More typically, the operations of KJ Inc. go on with no public scrutiny at all. That’s especially true of Johnson’s use of City Hall to advance his brand of education reform, which seeks to roll back teacher protections and turn many more public schools into charters.
Johnson served on the board of the California Charter Schools Association. As president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Johnson pushed through pro-charter resolutions to speed the school privatization agenda on a national scale.
As it happens, the charter hustle is a Johnson family business. His (then future) wife and former St. Hope board member, Michelle Rhee, was hired by D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty as the first Chancellor of D.C. public schools in 2007. That year, the city passed reforms that took power away from D.C.’s elected school board and put control of the schools in the mayor’s office. This “mayoralization” of schools is a favorite KJ policy reform.
Mayor Johnson’s education reform organization is called Stand Up for Sacramento Schools, located in the same building as Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst offices.
Garvin says that “Stand Up for Sacramento Schools” does “next to nothing” for the public schools. It is funded by the Waltons and Eli Broad, to promote the corporate education reform agenda. It has showcased Teach for America, City Year, and multiple showings of “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” Last summer, it received $400,000 from the Walton Family Foundation.
It is mostly a political organization, leveraging the mayor’s office to promote Johnson’s ideological brand of educational reform, and to promote Johnson himself.
This prime directive is spelled out in a 2011 email from Johnson to a potential Stand Up recruit—cc’d to Johnson’s executive assistant, a city employee. KJ says a large part of Stand Up’s function is to support his efforts to “advocate for much-needed legislation around policies such as Race to the Top, ESEA [No Child Left Behind], and LIFO (‘last in, first out’).” LIFO is the practice of laying off teachers with less seniority, a policy much in vogue among educational reformers. Johnson also mentions Stand Up’s support for “parent trigger” laws in California, which enable parents to vote to turn neighborhood schools into charters.
Garvin goes on to describe how Johnson and his buddies managed to take over the troubled National Conference of Black Mayors, bankrupt it, and create a new organization led by–who else?–Kevin Johnson.
Mayor Johnson made a fine art of pay-to-play, as this paragraph shows:
In June 2014, Uber gave a $50,000 check to the AAMA. In August, Mayor Johnson penned an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle praising Uber as an exciting part of “Cities 3.0” and arguing against new regulations for such ride-share companies. In September, at the USCM fall meeting in Sacramento, Johnson held an entire session on the “sharing economy,” featuring Uber CEO Travis Kalanick as a speaker. Days before, the Sacramento Kings had announced that Uber was the official ride-sharing service of the Sacramento Kings.
There is more, much more.
One wonders, on reading this long and alarming story, where was law enforcement? Does California have ethics laws for public officials? Does no one care about the use of taxpayer dollars? Why was the Sacramento Bee quiescent? Were there no civic watchdogs?
In 2012, the University of Hawaii invited Michelle Rhee and Kevin Johnson to lecture on the subject of “Ethics in Education.” The video is posted here, if you are a glutton for more.
Ironic that what finally ended Kevin Johnson’s ascent was not his public-private deals, not his financial transgressions, not his political machinations, but allegations of sexual abuse of children.