Mayor's Race Still Up in Air, but Strong Night for Johnson

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Here’s what we know as of Wednesday morning about the Sacramento mayor’s race: Based on the votes counted so far, Kevin Johnson had a good night Tuesday. With all the precincts counted, the former NBA star leads Mayor Heather Fargo 47 percent to 40 percent. It takes 50 percent to win outright. The catch? There are still more than 15,000 vote-by-mail ballots to be counted – enough to change the outcome either way. It all added up to an eventful night that may or may not close the book on the campaign.


Okay, you can only take an Obama-Clinton metaphor so far, and it doesn’t exactly apply to the Sacramento mayor’s race. But on the night Barack Obama declared himself the Democratic nominee for president, Kevin Johnson spoke of making history as well. And some lines in his speech – on the patio of his 40 Acres Art Gallery in Oak Park – sounded awfully familiar.

Johnson: “It’s very clear tonight that Sacramento has embraced change. Sacramento says we want a leader to take us in a different direction. They’re speaking very loudly and clearly tonight. Change!”

Johnson entered the race just three months ago with immediate name recognition. He loaned his campaign a half million dollars and vastly outspent Mayor Heather Fargo. But in an election where turnout was incredibly low, Johnson says grassroots campaigning made all the difference.

Johnson: “We said that we were gonna run a field operation, that we were gonna go out door to door. We’ve been to over 20,000 household doors in over 40 neighborhoods.”

The sharp differences in style between the two campaigns were clear was once again Tuesday night. Johnson’s party had a live band, risers, a professional backdrop – and even searchlights with beams crossing in the nighttime sky. Fargo’s, at Vallejo’s Mexican restaurant in downtown, had none of those, though it did have several dozen people, and plenty to eat and drink.

Perhaps epitomizing a night Fargo called “disappointing,” a massive limb from a nearby tree fell directly onto the Vallejo’s patio – injuring one of her supporters. Afterwards, back outside her campaign headquarters in midtown, Fargo said she believes there will be a runoff – and said she’ll make changes in the next stage of her campaign.

Fargo: “I guess I need to work a little harder at reminding them of some of the things that are better in their neighborhoods that they might not have had if I hadn’t been mayor. So I’ll be working on really defining what the record has been and where we’re going in terms of the next steps.”

Up until three months ago, the mayor expected to coast to a third term. Now, she’s in her toughest fight since she won her first mayoral race in 2000. Fargo thinks a lot of her voters stayed home this time around, and hopes the runoff will be different.

Fargo: “We have plenty of chance to win still in November. I’ve been behind before; I’ve been outspent before. Obviously I have a lot of support in the community and hopefully I’ll be able to grow that into a victory come November.”

Assuming there is a runoff, local political analyst Doug Elmets says voters are sending a message: they didn’t see enough of the candidates over the last three months.

Elmets: “The voters want more. The voters are gonna get more. They’re gonna have an opp to really see more about what these candidates want for the city – what they want as a future vision for this region.”

So what would each candidate have to do in the runoff? Johnson only agreed to a single one-on-one debate in the primary, and Elmets says there will likely be more in the race to come. He also says Johnson will have to continue to deal with personal questions, while Fargo must do a better job connecting with voters.

Elmets: “She needs to be looking at the road ahead, not at the rear view mirror. KJ’s done a pretty good job of looking down the road and not in the rear view mirror. The mayor’s gotta do much the same thing.”

Three months is an awfully short time for any campaign – for the candidates, for the media and for the voters. Now, it could be another five months before the race for City Hall comes to an end. And the November election will be worlds apart from Tuesday’s vote: a much higher turnout, several controversial ballot initiatives and a presidential race dominating the headlines.