Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson to Lead Mayors Group

After Mesa, Ariz., Mayor Scott Smith stepped down from the presidency to run for governor, Johnson assumed the top position this week for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
by | April 17, 2014 AT 2:15 PM

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson assumed the top role at the U.S. Conference of Mayors April 16. Johnson is taking over for former Mesa, Ariz., Mayor Scott Smith, who resigned as mayor and as president of the group two months early in order to run for governor of his state. Johnson's term is scheduled to end in June 2015.*

“I want to be very inclusive,” Johnson said. That will mean increasing the group's membership and giving more of a voice to rural mayors, Republican mayors and female mayors, he said. Though the Conference of Mayors is a bipartisan group, it is often associated with Democrats who run large cities, such as Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, all recent presidents of the group. Of the past 10 presidents, only two were women. Smith, of Mesa, was one of the few big city mayors who was also a Republican. Johnson is also a Democrat from a big city: Sacramento is the 35th most populous city in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with slightly more than 475,000 people.

The Conference of Mayors is one of two national associations that advocates on behalf of cities on federal issues. In the past few years, the group has lobbied Congress on immigration reform, gun control and the ability of states and local governments to collect online sales taxes. Johnson said he was still contemplating what the policy focus areas of his tenure would be, though he expected to tackle education and workforce development in some way.

The fact that Johnson is mayor of a state capital may give him a head start in working on state and federal legislative issues. "There's no way a mayor in a capital city can operate effectively without having a good relationship with and understanding of the legislature," he said.

In anticipation of taking more trips to the District of Columbia, the Sacramento city council named a vice mayor and, for the first time, a mayor pro tem. Though Johnson expects to be out of town more often, he framed the presidency as opportunity to market his home city to businesses across the country and as a way to forge stronger relationships with the White House and federal agencies. "This brings great national exposure to Sacramento," he said. From wiping a budget deficit to cutting crime, the position could allow Johnson to tell the Sacramento story. "We'll be a megaphone to broadcast what we’ve done in Sacramento."

Johnson is a former professional basketball player and the husband of Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools and a prominent figure in national debates over education reform. He was elected mayor of Sacramento in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. He is the city's first black mayor.

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that Scott Smith resigned as mayor of Mesa, Ariz., on April 16 -- the day that Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson became president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.