Bringing a 'Green Tint' to Sacramento

Mayor Kevin Johnson has big ideas for California's capital. Will the drive that made him an NBA star serve him as he tries to remake his city?
by | January 23, 2013 AT 11:00 AM
Flickr CC/Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious

As an All-Star NBA point guard, Kevin Johnson had to be aggressive, drive to the hole and play to win. Those same traits seem to be working for him as mayor of Sacramento.

As the capital of California, Sacramento is the political center of the eighth-largest economy in the world. Yet its power status in the Golden State has been overshadowed by glitzy Hollywood, the hip Bay Area and high-tech Silicon Valley. Now Johnson, who was elected mayor in 2008, wants to put his city on the map as the major player he believes it can and should be: an economic trailblazer and an innovative hub with a vibrant civic life and a strong political profile. Re-elected to a second term in June of last year, Johnson embodies just the kind of energetic leadership it takes to raise up a city.

Strong leadership is the common thread that can be traced along Johnson's professional career and ultimately to his decision to run for mayor. A native of Sacramento, Johnson attended the University of California-Berkeley on a basketball scholarship and earned a degree in political science. He went on to a successful 12-season run in the NBA, playing with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Phoenix Suns. Along the way, Johnson made a parallel career out of his commitment to civic leadership, social justice and community development: He served as the CEO of the Sacramento-based St. HOPE ("Helping Others Pursue Excellence"), a nonprofit he founded in 1989 to promote education, civic life, and economic and urban revitalization.

While Johnson's career trajectory may appear unconventional, for him the transition from the basketball court to the mayor's office followed a natural synergy. What basketball and city government have in common, he explains, is that both are an ever-changing game; both require you to be aggressive, to think ahead and to play to win. In both endeavors, he observes, "if you are not paying attention, you will get clobbered."

Ironically, it's basketball that's Johnson's most immediate challenge. His efforts to head off the loss of the Sacramento Kings to Seattle cost him a trip to Washington, D.C., this week to be on hand for President Obama's second-term inauguration. The loss of the troubled NBA franchise certainly would be a blow for Sacramento, but Johnson's primary focus is on the bigger picture of Sacramento's economic recovery and future prosperity.

With a heavy reliance on construction and government jobs, the economic downturn and mortgage crisis meant sharp drops in revenue for California's capital ($250 million in budget cuts) along with double-digit unemployment rates. Johnson has made fiscal restructuring a first-order priority.

Beyond financial reforms, however, the mayor has been pioneering a forward-looking approach, one centering on the evolving frontiers of green technology and sustainability. Whether its diversifying the city's economy, creating jobs, attracting private investment, boosting construction and commerce, or enhancing civic life and public health, "everything we do, we put a green tint on it," explains Johnson.

With that vision in mind, his administration has developed an ambitious campaign to brand Sacramento as "the Emerald Valley." The city has great competitive advantages, with its geography and innovative tech culture, so Johnson is pushing aggressively to turn Sacramento into the country's green growth leader. In 2010, he launched Greenwise Joint Venture, a collective initiative bringing together experts, government and business leaders as well as the local community to develop and coordinate a Regional Action Plan.

That plan sets forth a detailed roadmap along which progress is measured against clearly set objectives, which include doubling the number of green jobs to 28,000 by 2020; investing $1 billion in the clean-technology sector; promoting green urban design (such as by retrofitting buildings and planting trees); and increasing the locally produced food supply from 2 percent to 20 percent.

Yet ultimately, as Johnson sees it, a true capital city must also be "a place that works for everyone." Therefore, along with the green tint, the mayor also is pursuing a range of policies centered on social justice, civic engagement and public education. On the basketball court as in city hall, it turns out, the best leaders understand that they can only go as far as a strong team will take them.

Veronika Zubo of the Governing Institute contributed to this column.