Behind the Scenes: How Kevin Johnson Won

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

**Part Two of a two-part series**

When the chamber of commerce floated his name as a potential challenger to Mayor Heather Fargo late last year, Kevin Johnson wanted nothing to do with politics.  But a few months later, Johnson went to see his friend and neighbor, Democratic political strategist David Townsend. 
Johnson: “I sat down and said, people are encouraging me, or saying I should think about running for mayor.  What do you think?” 
For years, Townsend told Johnson he’d be crazy to run.  But now, his polling showed Fargo was vulnerable: Only 40 percent of voters wanted to give her a third term.  Townsend saw an opening. 
Townsend: “Kevin was enormously popular – as much for his community work as being a basketball player.  So I said to Kevin, if you want to do this, there’s a chance you could win this.” 
And Townsend was eager to help.  Besides, he and Fargo strategist Richie Ross really don’t get along.  But first, Townsend warned Johnson about life in politics. 
Townsend: “I told him that he had to watch a city council meeting and do one psychiatric visit.”
Johnson: “Because if you run for mayor, it’s – in politics, it’s a crazy business.  You need to make sure you’re not crazy and that you want to do it.  And if you have the stomach for it, you’ll be very good at it.”
Townsend: So he says, I’m gonna go think about it.  He comes back about a week later, came back and says, let’s do it.”
Johnson: “I did a lot of soul-searching, talked to my family and friends.  But once I made the commitment, I was ready to withstand or take on any challenge that would come my way.” 
And Johnson faced a lot of challenges during his 90 day primary campaign, from allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor to a federal investigation into his non-profit. It all made big news – and often caught Johnson off-guard. 
Johnson: “I think the political campaigning was tougher than I expected.  You hear how dirty politics are.  You hear all the stories.  And it lived up to it and exceeded it in many respects.” 
Meanwhile, Johnson struggled to adapt to the world of politics.  Insiders say he would overrule his top advisors or take too long to approve his daily schedule.  His campaign limited his availability to the media. And he was so slow to respond to negative news stories that they festered for days. 
Elmets: “It left people wondering, really, what’s going on?” 
Local political analyst Doug Elmets followed the race closely from the start.  He saw other problems with Johnson’s primary campaign. 
Elmets: “If your scheduling is off, if your candidate isn’t getting to the location on time, if he’s not conveying the right message, if he’s stepping on his message, other people arestepping on his message, that’s a prescription for disaster.” 
All that would have sunk many campaigns. But this one had a trump card: Kevin Johnson’s half-million dollar loan to his operation.  He hired staff and consultants to turn out young voters, minorities and … Republicans.  He used an army of volunteers to make phone calls and go door to door.  And Johnson stumped a different neighborhood just about every day.  It worked. 
Crowd chanting on Primary Night: “We want change!  We want change!”
Late on Primary Night, Johnson addressed a packed crowd in Oak Park. 
Johnson on Primary Night: “Sacramento has spoke loud and clear.  We want change.” 
Johnson shattered expectations in the June primary, beating Heather Fargo by seven points.  But there would still be a November runoff.  And, according to political analyst Doug Elmets, the Johnson campaign needed fixing. 
Elmets: “Right after the primary, it’s clear that Kevin Johnson realized his campaign staff – particularly, his press operation, those that deal with the news media, and his scheduling operation – were a disaster.” 
Strategist David Townsend looked for a campaign manager who could put Johnson over the top. 
Townsend: “And so who’s the best person in the world to do that, right?  Steve Maviglio.” 
Maviglio is one of the toughest Democratic operatives in town, and he brought discipline to the campaign – and the candidate.  He cleaned up the scheduling operation, made Johnson available to the news media and responded to negative stories quickly.
That plus what the campaign calls the largest get-out-the-vote operation in Sacramento history led to a 15-point rout on November 4th.  Johnson claimed victory just before 11 o’clock to an overflow crowd. 
Johnson on Election Night: “Tomorrow ushers in a new day of city government in Sacramento – a government that’s energetic, action-oriented, flexible and wanting to be held accountable.” 
Elmets: “He conveyed a sense of hope.  And good politicians convey a sense of hope.” 

And, says Doug Elmets, despite all the allegations and controversies and Johnson’s own shortcomings as a candidate, voters simply tuned out the negative stories and honed in on Johnson’s star power and positive message. 
Elmets: “What people want is somebody who is going to look ’em straight in the eye, give ’em some hope and – generally, I think people will give politicians and others a pass, in part because everybody is fallible.  And in this case, they gave Kevin Johnson a pass.”
And it sure didn’t hurt to be the change candidate in an election year like this one.