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Magic Still Coming to Laguna, Despite Political Flap : Politics: Controversy erupts after flyers link visit to fund-raiser for council candidate Mel Owens, but Johnson will still speak to high school students.

October 18, 1994|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — Political flap or no, Earvin (Magic) Johnson is coming to town.

Johnson plans to speak at a Laguna Beach High School assembly today, despite an uproar created by flyers linking the event to a fund-raiser for City Council candidate Mel Owens, a former Rams linebacker.

A spokeswoman for Johnson said the former Los Angeles Lakers basketball star was shocked Monday when he learned of the controversy surrounding his visit, which he saw as focusing on local youth, not politics.

"The last thing Magic would want to do is disappoint the children of Laguna, so he will be there," Denise Villanueva said.

The city has been abuzz about the event visit since flyers began circulating throughout town late last week saying Johnson would give "a motivational anti-drug, anti-gang message" followed by a fund-raiser at a local art gallery for the Owens campaign and the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna.

Laguna Beach Unified School District officials, seeking to distance the school from any political campaign, said Monday that when Owens presented the plan to have Johnson speak at the high school, he did not mention the fund-raiser afterward.

Supt. Paul M. Possemato said Owens called him at home Sunday and promised to cancel the fund-raiser so the assembly could proceed without involving the district in politics.

Owens "misunderstood the rules and has canceled" the fund-raising event, Possemato said.

Owens could not be reached for comment.

The Boys & Girls Club was also taken aback by the flyers, which named the club as co-sponsor of the $90-per-person fund-raiser. The club, which prides itself on staying out of politics, wants no part of the event or the money, former executive director Pat Barry said.

"We're trying to distance ourselves from this as far as possible," said Barry, whom Owens first approached with the idea. Barry said he asked Owens to put something in writing, but that he never did. The club never endorsed the event.

"We got mud thrown on our name and we don't know how to scrape it off. . . . This community is absolutely in an uproar."

On Monday, still bristling from being drawn into a political debate, club leaders fired off a letter to Owens saying the organization's tax-exempt status could be threatened by such involvement and insisting that "our association with the event be immediately terminated."

Villanueva said Johnson is interested only in speaking to the city's youth. She said Owens also asked Johnson to attend what she described as an already arranged political fund-raiser afterward, and Johnson said he would if time permitted. The flyers say the fund-raiser is in Johnson's honor.

"He was approached by a fellow former athlete to come down to speak to the children of Laguna and (he) accepted, and that's where it was left," Villanueva said. "His commitment is to attend the high school and greet these children, and that is going to take place. Whatever the misunderstandings are, it sounds like they've been cleared up by the appropriate people."

The Laguna Beach HIV Committee also has jumped into the fray, complaining that Johnson, who is HIV-positive, doesn't plan to talk about the disease.

"We have no gangs in this town, even though we are threatened by outside gangs perhaps," member Johanna Feldera said Monday. "However, we have a very high HIV incidence. For Magic to come to Laguna and not speak about HIV is really missing an opportunity to educate our students."

This is Owens' second stab at a Laguna Beach City Council seat. In 1992, then a political newcomer, he placed third after outspending all other candidates.

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