Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the basketball star whose business moves have made him a significant civic figure in South Los Angeles, said Tuesday he will play a major role in Mayor James K. Hahn's campaign against secession movements in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.
The involvement of the former Laker great is a coup for the anti-secession effort and for the mayor, who angered Johnson and many other African Americans when he opposed a second five-year term for former Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks this spring.
Johnson said in an interview Tuesday that he remains bitter about the mayor's handling of the chief's removal, but that African Americans must separate that issue from secession.
"We've got to understand that we can't let what Mayor Hahn did to Chief Parks consume us so much that we can't think straight," Johnson said. "This [secession] is a situation that will squarely affect African Americans and Latinos.... If I sat here and held a grudge against Mayor Hahn ... then I wouldn't be the man that I'm supposed to be."
The mayor, who will join Johnson at a news conference today, said Johnson will be a valuable asset to the campaign and that he welcomes his involvement. Mayoral aides, who said Hahn met privately with Johnson, said the mayor badly wanted Johnson to join the coalition.
"We think it's great to have Earvin Johnson aboard because he's someone who has demonstrated his commitment to Los Angeles," Hahn said Tuesday. "He's willing to put his time and, more importantly, his money into making this city better."
Johnson's charisma, coupled with his personal and professional interest in South Los Angeles, make him a critical part of the mayor's growing coalition against secession, political analysts said.
His popularity transcends ethnic communities and his appeal reaches across the city, said political consultant Harvey Englander.
Johnson also could bring others into the group, possibly including current Laker players. He also is involved in Parks' campaign for City Council; Parks has not indicated his position on secession. But Johnson said his backing of the anti-secession effort and the Parks campaign are separate issues.
The former basketball champion has built a solid business enterprise in South Los Angeles with his Magic Johnson Theatres at the Crenshaw Shopping Plaza and in other parts of the city and the country. His latest venture is a $125-million apartment and shopping complex at Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street in Hollywood, and he has opened a sports club in Sherman Oaks. His partnership with Starbucks Corp. is a highly profitable venture, and he has concentrated those in underserved parts of the city. He also purchased the Fatburger chain last fall.
Ken Lombard, president of Johnson's development company, was reelected Tuesday as president of the city Department of Water and Power Commission. Lombard said Johnson does not want to see the city split apart as he is trying to help move it forward.
Voters across the city will be asked to decide Nov. 5 whether to allow Hollywood and the Valley to create their own cities. If those efforts are successful, Johnson said he believes the result would be a city with fewer resources in minority neighborhoods. And he said he does not believe the Valley could survive financially as an independent city.
Recognizing that his is a coveted endorsement, Johnson is seeking some concessions in return for his willingness to join the mayor's campaign. Johnson said Tuesday that he has asked Hahn to diversify his staff by hiring more African Americans and Latinos in high positions. Johnson said Hahn, who grew up in South Los Angeles, also needs to do more to improve his communication with the black community.
"I've been on him," Johnson said. "If he had an African American on his staff, they would have been able to tell him how we feel, whether it's Chief Parks or Inglewood," where a white officer slammed a black 16-year-old on the trunk of a patrol car and then punched him in the face.
"You need someone to understand the temperature of the African American community, what their needs and wants are," Johnson said. "You can't have a Caucasian telling him that, they're not in the community."
Hahn defended his record of hiring a diverse group of aides, including blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and Asians, among others, from the time he was city controller to his 16 years as city attorney, and now as mayor. Still, he said he is open to any recommendations from Johnson or Lombard.
With the secession vote approaching and some feelings still raw over Hahn's handling of the Parks matter, Lombard said the mayor must reach out to the African American community.
"It's like family," Lombard said. "You've had a falling out; it's our hope that the mayor is going to do all the work that he needs to do to mend those relationships and get them back on track."