There’s a price for taking on Mayor Kevin Johnson in Sacramento, Calif., and the Sacramento News & Review is now paying it. The small weekly paper has consistently taken the lead in exposing Johnson’s abuses of the public trust—and now, for its troubles, finds itself in a bizarre racism controversy contrived by the mayor’s cronies.
Two weeks ago, Betty Williams, a vice-president of the Sacramento chapter of the NAACP, sent out a press release on the group’s letterhead blasting the News & Review for “racially biased news coverage” of Johnson. The statement, which you can read in full here, focused on a caricature the paper ran in which the former NBA star—now dealing with yet another in a long run of scandals involving a variety of sexual, financial, and ethical improprieties—reads critical N&R coverage. “The NAACP is outraged at the racist SN&R cartoon lampooning Mayor Johnson,” it read. (The cartoon in question can be seen at left.) “Caricaturing images of the Mayor with a crazed and violent look reinforces what many believe is the persona of many African American males.”
Williams, a former president of the NAACP’s Sacramento chapter, then fronted an anti-News & Review publicity campaign. “It’s almost like the blackface and the Sambo look,” Williams said on KFBK, a local news radio station. The group has since threatened a boycott of the paper.
All of this has, so far, worked out just fine for the mayor, who would surely much rather have people talking about cartoons than his legal issues. As is often the case when it comes to how Kevin Johnson is covered in Sacramento, the facts—that Williams is a Johnson agent in long standing; that her campaign is straight out of a playbook written up long ago by Johnson operatives; and that local activists are incredulous at the idea that the N&R did anything wrong—don’t seem to much matter at all.
A well-timed break for Kevin Johnson
Betty Williams’s charges came right as the News & Review was, as it has been, rightly hammering Kevin Johnson for using public resources for personal business. On July 1, apparently seeking to slow down coverage of the scandal, Johnson filed a lawsuit against the paper and its top political reporter, Cosmo Garvin, naming his own city as a co-defendant. That suit, which is still pending, seeks to prevent the release of emails from the mayor’s office related to Johnson’s self-styled “coup” against the National Conference of Black Mayors, an Atlanta-based non-profit. (Johnson is now also suing and being sued by NCBM officials.)
Legal bullying didn’t knock the N&R or Garvin off the beat, however. Days after the suit was filed, the paper ran a cover story mocking Johnson’s tactics; several days later, it posted a story in which R.E. Graswich, a former Johnson aide, confessed that during his time with the mayor, the staff was encouraged to use private email accounts specifically to keep their messages off the city’s servers, and thereby avoid public scrutiny of their activities.
“Gmail was our bulletproof method of communication, beyond the reach of the city and the public,” Graswich said.
There was already plenty of evidence that Johnson viewed transparency as Private Enemy No. 1, but having an insider explain a key tenet of the mayor’s strategy of secret governance was a great scoop. And the Graswich bombshell came with Johnson in the middle of the worst stretch of his political career. He’d only recently fought off yet another accusation of sexual malfeasance with an underling, and at the end of June he confessed on the witness stand to having ignored a court order and deleted text messages related to the arena deal that kept the Sacramento Kings in town. Under oath, Johnson claimed that he didn’t understand that the judge’s order covered private text messages. That episode now threatens to blight the one thing about his mayoral reign that most townies agreed was a positive.
Johnson caught a well-timed break, though, when the NAACP leveled the racism charges mere hours after the Graswich story was published. The Sacramento Bee—the town’s major daily, which has a well-deserved reputation as a very Johnson-friendly shop—ignored the Graswich story, but wrote two pieces trumpeting the racism allegations.
The News & Review released its own statement following the NAACP charges, referring to both the cover illustration above and the interior illustrations below, all by artist Hayley Doshay.
The illustrations of Mayor Kevin Johnson in SN&R’s July 9 issue depict him as sweaty and nervous while reading about his lawsuit against this paper and allegations of email misuse. These illustrations are based on an actual photo of the mayor. We refute the NAACP’s assertion that the illustrations are in any way racist, violent, or perpetuating negative stereotypes, or that our coverage of the mayor is racially biased. Such accusations are unfounded and without merit.
Nick Miller, co-editor of the News & Review, asserts that the charges against his publication aren’t sticking.
“Ever since the lawsuit, and now this, we’re hearing, ‘Fuck KJ!’” Miller told me early last week. “It’s been near-unanimous support. People really are saying that. It’s not me saying that. People are that upset with their mayor. Now, they just don’t trust him. It’s pretty wild.”
Mac Worthy—a local gadfly and self-proclaimed “real spokesman” for Sacramento’s black community who’s known around town for never missing a political gathering—is among those defending the newspaper. He went to the Sacramento city council meeting last Tuesday and railed against the NAACP’s actions, taking the floor (go to 2:58:45 mark) during the public comment period and projecting the News & Review’s Johnson cartoon on an overhead screen alongside a shot of the mayor that ran with a Sacramento Bee story about him improperly deleting texts.
“Which lips are larger? These lips or that lips?” Worthy asked. “So what is the issue?”
Worthy told the council he’d been at the recent NAACP chapter meeting where the issue first surfaced, and brought a copy of that meeting’s agenda to show that the News & Review matter was not scheduled to be discussed.
“Betty Williams put this on the agenda!” he says. Asked why he took his very public stand, Worthy tells me that he was peeved, as a member of the NAACP chapter, that Williams was using the group’s resources to slander the newspaper on Johnson’s behalf. “She’s a crony,” he says.
Kevin Johnson, MC Hammer, and Carlos Santana at June’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; photo via AP
Berry Accius, who runs a youth group in the city, also told Miller, the N&R co-editor, to keep giving the mayor hell. Accius says he had gone to the NAACP chapter’s press conference about the caricature, and came away unimpressed by the evidence.
“It’s a farce,” Accius says. “I consider myself to be at the forefront at abolishing racism in my city, wherever I see it. I didn’t see anything racist in that drawing. I saw it and laughed. But to me, they look like they’re trying to be a shield for Kevin Johnson. This is Johnson’s cronies saying, ‘Forget about what they’re trying to report! Look at the drawing!’ It’s beyond suspect.”
The NAACP chapter doesn’t seem particularly organized or active. The group’s web site prominently features an invitation to the NAACP’s national convention in Detroit from 2007 and information on a summer jobs program from 2010. Accius says that over the years chapter leaders have ignored his attempts to get them involved in local protests, like rallies against a gun shop in the Elk Grove neighborhood that hung a confederate flag outside the store earlier this summer. So why does Accius think the group roused itself to action over a cartoon?
“Because they’re the mayor’s cronies,” he says.
A friend of the mayor
Betty Williams, who is a volunteer at the NAACP chapter, was Kevin Johnson’s hand-picked candidate to run for the city council in 2012. Her campaign manager was Andie Corso, deputy director of Stand Up, a pro-charter school non-profit group founded by Johnson. (The News & Review reported in 2010 that Corso was provided office space in City Hall while working for the mayor’s non-governmental non-profit.) R.E. Graswich tells me that he, too, was tasked to the Williams campaign while he worked for the mayor. Williams’s platform mainly involved promoting Johnson’s strong-mayor initiative and a publicly-funded Kings arena proposal Johnson supported at that time. The mayor made appearances for her and put up an endorsement for Williams on his own campaign website, and Garvin reported during the 2012 council campaign that Williams had received a $25,000 donation from the Better Sacramento Political Action Committee, described as “a group of businessmen and developers who formed to support strong-mayor and other Johnson initiatives.” The cover photo of Williams’s Facebook page is a shot of her standing next to Johnson, taken from a fundraiser for Williams during the council race. Williams lost despite the mayor’s support, but Johnson has appointed her to various task forces.
Williams certainly seems like just the sort of friend a besieged politician might be able to rely on to create a distraction in his time of need. Strangely enough, other Johnson associates have, in the past, created precisely this sort of distraction.
After his stint with the city, during which he learned how the mayor’s staff used private email accounts to keep stuff from the public, Graswich took a job with Think Big Sacramento. That’s the non-profit that Johnson set up to lobby for a new publicly-funded arena for the Sacramento Kings. The executive director of Think Big—and the lead public relations strategist for that very successful campaign—was Chris Lehane, a crisis-management mogul who earned his reputation as a by-any-means-necessary fixer working for the Clinton administration and Al Gore’s presidential campaign. Lehane calls himself a “master of disaster.”
In the book The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell, consumer activist and author Jamie Court recounts working with Lehane on a fight against a ballot measure in California that would have limited consumer class action lawsuits. The main backer of that measure was Intel. Lehane’s group became aware of a print advertisement that Intel had used overseas showing a white man standing amidst a group of kneeling black sprinters. Lehane, Court recounts, produced a spot for the group to run on cable stations in Silicon Valley as part of a campaign featuring the slogan “Is Intel Racist Inside?” Lehane’s commercial showed the company’s track advertisement as a voiceover intoned, “Intel had been using advertising that has been called offensive, even racist.” Lehane’s group had targeted an Intel board member—former Yahoo CEO Susan Decker—as “vulnerable,” and his commercial for the campaign gave out her name and phone number and requested that viewers not in favor of racism call her up. Whether coincidence or not, Intel pulled its ballot measure the same week the commercial ran, according to Court.
Lehane remains on Johnson’s team, having rejoined Think Big last year to work on getting an MLS soccer franchise for the city. He did not return a request for comment on the mayor’s current situation made through his crisis PR firm, Fabiani & Lehane. Nor did Ben Sosenko, spokesman for the mayor’s office, respond to questions about the mayor’s involvement in and opinion of the local NAACP’s campaign against the News & Review.
What remains at stake
For all the anti-cartoon campaign’s usefulness to Kevin Johnson, it doesn’t appear to have ramified much past Sacramento city limits. Take the national NAACP. Jamiah Adams, spokesperson for the national NAACP, says that officials at the group’s D.C. headquarters are aware of the Sacramento chapter’s press release and support the effort. She also says they haven’t actually investigated the charges.
“Nobody has looked at the cartoon,” she says.
For its part, the N&R seems to want to squeeze some lemons into lemonade. Late last week, Nick Miller put out another statement about the campaign against his newspaper. “We stand by the work of our writers and designers,” he wrote, but he also said that conversations inspired by the racism charges convinced him that the paper, whose eight newsroom staffers are all white, needs to diversify immediately. The publication, he announced, would establish a new paid internship program in its office, hoping to “inject SN&R with more voices from aspiring journalists of color.”
Finally, two other things seem worth noting. One is that just more than a week ago, at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s annual awards ceremony, the News & Review’s Hayley Doshay—the artist who drew the disputed Johnson caricatures—won first place in the cover art category. Among the package of three works that got her the top prize, which was decided in April, was another caricature of Johnson, seen above. It accompanied a story lampooning his strong-mayor initiatives.
The other is what’s at stake in Johnson coverage, a reminder of which came via the N&R’s pages after the Sacramento NAACP chapter’s press release, when reader Erik Jones sent in a pep talk in the form of a letter to the editor. The paper’s reporting, it turned out, had reminded him of his own dealings with Sacramento’s mayor.
Wanted to commiserate in your recent speaking truth to K.J.’s power. I too once spoke up using my legally mandated responsibilities in dealing with one of K.J.’s many indiscretions—this time regarding his oldest known problem: keeping his hands to himself. How I was met—with threatening attorneys, categorical denials and personal attacks—feels eerily similar to what you are presently enduring. Keep the faith. I learned, in my time working alongside him, the more smoke he blows, the more you know you are close to real fire. Let him feel the burn of truth. Or least revel in a soon-to-be-coming covert attempt to pay you off!
Jones is a former teacher for Johnson’s St. HOPE charter school. In 2007, a student in distress told him Johnson had molested her. As he was legally mandated to do, he took down the girl’s story and turned it over to the police.
From a suspected child abuse report filed in April 2007.
No charges were ever filed in that incident, or others at the school where similar accusations were leveled against Johnson. Jones, though, quit his job, saying he was disgusted that Johnson’s fixers and St. HOPE administrators—which at the time included Johnson’s then-future wife, charter school mogul Michelle Rhee—showed no concern for the alleged victims.
“St. HOPE sought to intimidate the student through an illegal interrogation and even had the audacity to ask me to change my story,” Jones said in his resignation letter, portions of which were included in a Congressional report detailing many of the allegations of fiscal and sexual wrongdoing made against Johnson before he became mayor.
He’s still damaged by his stint at the business end of the Johnson machine.
“How he’s been able to maintain a position of power with this behavior, well, I’ve been to therapy to wrestle with that,” Jones told me several months ago.
“I tried to stop him once, and it almost killed me.”
Know something we should know about Kevin Johnson or anything else? Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Top photo via AP