The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

February 4, 2010
Kevin Johnson, Frank Luntz, and Willie Brown, oh my

Leave it to Sacramento's unconventional mayor to put two rather unusual political bedfellows on the same stage in service of his push for more power.

That's what Kevin Johnson did today, calling on Republican political consultant Frank Luntz and former Assembly Speaker and diehard Democrat Willie Brown to back the strong-mayor initiative.

The two headlined a noon, $1,000-a-ticket fund-raiser hosted by Sacramentans for Accountable Government, the vehicle behind the initiative, in a curtained-off back room of the Cosmo Café. Then, the two sauntered across K Street to the Crest Theatre for a forum.

(All the chumminess came before word came that the 3rd District Court of Appeal had rejected a request to delay a judge's decision blocking the strong-mayor initiative from the June 8 ballot, likely meaning the vote won't happen then.)

The mayor said he wanted to bring "a little spectator sport in Sacramento."

The slightly rumpled Luntz and the dapper Brown didn't disappoint. Sitting in facing burgundy armchairs, they traded one-liners and jabs over the 2008 presidential election, the Democratic stranglehold on the Legislature, and the wisdom of writing so many laws through initiative.

But Luntz and Brown agreed that voters want accountability from their elected officials -- and for Sacramento, that means giving the mayor the power to hire and fire lots of employees, to submit a budget, and more.

"Let the voters decide," Luntz exhorted, adding, "What are the opponents afraid of?"

Brown, who was an extremely strong mayor of San Francisco, declared that democracy is "winner-take-all," so elected mayors should get carte blanche and the voters can get rid of them if they don't like what they're doing.

Johnson stayed out of the fray. Instead, in introducing the two men, he explained how they entered his unusually wide political orbit.

The mayor said he idolized Brown since his days playing basketball for Cal. And back in 2007, when Johnson said he was trying to figure out how to get Sacramento to "the next level," he asked Brown whether he would be interested in running for mayor.

"He said, 'What's the salary?'" Johnson recounted.

Brown said he couldn't buy a good tie for that, and when he found out that Sacramento didn't have a strong mayor, that was the end of that conversation.

"It's your fault I'm the mayor of Sacramento," Johnson joked, saying that if Brown had run, he wouldn't have.

As for Luntz, Johnson said he met him at the NBA All-Star weekend last February in Phoenix, where Johnson starred for the Suns and was in town to receive a legends award.

After his speech, Johnson found himself surrounded by autograph seekers, and one particularly hyperactive fan told the mayor he did a great job. The man looked awfully familiar, Johnson said. It dawned on him that he was Luntz, the author of "What Americans Really Want," which Johnson had at his beside to read.

"So when he came up, rather than him getting my autograph, I got his autograph," the mayor said.

Luntz gave another story: "We actually first met at Betty Ford (rehab clinic to the stars), but I'm not allowed to say that," he teased.

"That was when I was dating Betty," Brown joked. (Guffaws from the audience of more than 100.)

Before the rumors start flying, Johnson and Luntz said that the pollster is not working for the mayor in any official capacity.

"We have one thing in common," Luntz said on the way into the fundraiser. "We both like basketball."

Well, make that two: they both like strong mayor.


-- Foon Rhee

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About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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