KXJZ file photo/Ben Adler
At the start of the year, Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo had a clear path to a third term, with no serious challengers. But she’ll leave office Tuesday after losing to Mayor-elect Kevin Johnson by 15 points. So what went wrong?
**Part One of a two-part series**
Heather Fargo had a problem. It was early 2008, and she had a campaign to run – but no major competition.
Fargo: “So all of my efforts to get volunteers, to get endorsements, to get contributions – were all kind of met with the lukewarm, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s gonna be fine.”
And though talk of Kevin Johnson was swirling around town, Johnson himself didn’t decide to run until early March. Even Fargo’s campaign manager, Dale Howard, got a late start.
Howard: “The first conversation I had with anyone from the mayor’s team about having on board was the week before he got in the race. I actually took the job maybe three days after.”
Fargo then found herself with two more problems. First, she was vastly out-fundraised – and therefore, out-staffed, by about four to one. And second, early polls showed Sacramento residents didn’t really care about the mayor’s track record.
Fargo: “The flood protection improvements hadn’t mattered, the increased nightlife and activity we’d added downtown, the increased security and safety – people felt none of that was as important as what you were going to do.”
Yet Fargo still spent a lot of time touting her past accomplishments. Political analyst Doug Elmets followed the race closely.
Elmets: “Through the vast majority of the campaign, she did rest on her laurels, thinking the fact that she was a two-term incumbent and that she was a known quantity in this city would carry her over the finish line. But it just doesn’t work that way.”
Fargo sees it differently.
Fargo: “He was able to set the agenda for the campaign.”
Johnson especially used the issue of crime. In May, visiting the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, Fargo made what Doug Elmets calls a huge blunder.
Elmets: “One of her biggest mistakes was saying that the city doesn’t have a crime problem. That’s reminiscent of John McCain saying that the fundamentals of the U.S. economy are sound. That was as much an albatross around her neck for the remainder of the campaign as anything else.”
In fact, Fargo tried to say she wasn’t hearing from voters that crime was a problem. But Johnson pounced, calling her out of touch. The mayor also seemed to never quite figure out how to deal with all the allegations and investigations surrounding Johnson. Campaign manager Dale Howard:
Howard: “There was a long period of just trying to decide exactly how to respond, because it’s not something any of us had ever faced before.”
The mayor mostly declined comment. But when she did respond, it backfired. Two weeks before the primary election, Fargo asked the police chief to re-open an old sexual misconduct investigation against her rival. Johnson campaign manager Erin Lehane was surprised and delighted.
Lehane: “That, to me, would have been done by somebody that was eight points down, not eight points up. It was a move that a frontrunner shouldn’t have done.”
And at that point, Fargo was the frontrunner, though she didn’t know it. A new poll showed the mayor in the lead, but it wasn’t public yet – and her campaign couldn’t afford its own research.
While Fargo struggled to control the dialogue, Johnson blamed her for almost everything that went wrong with the city – even though most of the power lies with the city manager. It wasn’t until the first runoff debate in early October that Fargo fought back.
Johnson at Oct. 6th debate: “You have your own set of issues that I think –”
Fargo at Oct. 6th debate: “Oh, we don’t wanna discuss my priorities. Compared to what you’re up against, Kevin, what’s been going on in the city is pretty mild.”
Howard: “At first, there was tremendous reluctance to go there.”
Campaign manager Dale Howard.
Howard: “If she was going to be held accountable for things she wasn’t even responsible for, she thought it was only fair to hold him accountable for things he’s directly responsible for.”
Or as the mayor puts it:
Fargo: “I was getting pounded enough it was time to dish some back.”
In a different campaign, that could’ve leveled the playing field. But Johnson’s financial advantage was just too strong. In the primary, he had a massive turnout operation – while Fargo had to trust her supporters would vote. Johnson topped her by seven points.
Fargo: “There were just a lot of people who frankly weren’t taking him seriously, assumed I would win and I guess just chose not to vote. And it’s still hard for me to explain that. If people had voted, I would have won in the primary. That’s what I think.”
Turnout again made a big difference in the runoff. As Election Day neared, Howard and Fargo both believed they were picking up ground.
Howard: “We were hearing a great deal of positive things going into the election. At worst, we thought we might lose by two or three points, maybe four.”
Fargo: “I actually thought I was gonna win until about eight o’clock, nine o’clock on Election Night.”
Crowd chanting on Election Night: “Heather! Heather! Heather!”
But by the time the mayor addressed her supporters a couple hours later, the votes were in – and it wasn’t close.
Fargo on Election Night: “I’m congratulating Kevin Johnson on his election to mayor of the city of Sacramento.”
Fargo and Howard say Johnson’s star power, fundraising and the thirst for change sparked by Barack Obama were simply too much to overcome. But political analyst Doug Elmets says it was more than that.
Elmets: “People don’t want to know what has transpired. They want to know where we’re going now. And she was unable to really capture the hearts and minds of the voters. It was true on Election Day – she lost, and she lost a very big campaign.”
And Tuesday, Fargo’s 20 years on the city council will come to an end.