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Ex-NBA star finds politics can be a rough game too

Kevin Johnson is an unlikely underdog as he runs for mayor in his native Sacramento.

June 02, 2008|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In the NBA and in life, Kevin Johnson always seemed the guy who would do the right thing.

This was the kid who survived Sacramento's toughest neighborhood to study hard and set scoring records, graduating to matchups with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.

This was the man who returned to his old Oak Park neighborhood to work at restoring a place pockmarked by poverty.

This was the charismatic native son whom President Bill Clinton once urged to get into politics, whose accolades and connections made him the one to beat when he announced his candidacy for Sacramento mayor.

But with election day almost here, Johnson is in the unlikely role of underdog, his poll numbers plummeting, his golden reputation sullied.

Reports circulated by foes and the local media have shattered Johnson's choirboy image. In the grainy netherworld of hit mailers and scandal-fanning websites, he's been rebranded as a child molester, slumlord, creep. He's accused of letting properties rot, of fondling young girls.

For an altruistic athlete named one of the "15 Greatest Men on Earth" by McCall's magazine, who received the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award and was named a "Point of Light" by former President George Bush, the fusillade has been tough to take.

"Politics are dirtier and more physical than the NBA," said Johnson, 42.

Johnson, known to friends and fans simply as KJ, is trying to overcome the hurricane headwinds of this campaign the only way he knows how: with hustle and determination, by running hard, literally.

A recent afternoon found him on the streets and sidewalks as the temperature edged past 95. Some candidates walk a neighborhood to hand out brochures. Johnson dons black sneakers and -- in slacks with shirt and tie -- runs from house to house, voter to voter.

"I'm Kevin Johnson, and I'm running for mayor," he announced while shaking hands with Warry Vogelsang, a 64-year-old retired truck mechanic who knows exactly who he is. In Sacramento, KJ is as high-profile as they come.

"I hope to get your support in June," Johnson told him. "God bless you."

Vogelsang was left with the stunned expression of a true believer fresh from a papal audience. Despite the mudslinging, "he might win," Vogelsang said. "He's pretty good."

Johnson may be burning the running-shoe rubber, but a recent Sacramento Bee/KXJZ News poll found that his early lead out of the gate had evaporated, leaving the erstwhile hoops star 7 percentage points behind two-term incumbent Mayor Heather Fargo.

The smart money is that Fargo, whose tenure is marked more by nuts and bolts than big vision, could take it all Tuesday, garnering the 50%-plus-one-vote margin needed to avoid a November runoff.

But some political observers aren't so sure.

Barbara O'Connor, director of Cal State Sacramento's Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media, believes Johnson's door-knocking campaign could turn the tide. With $1 million, he's poised to outspend Fargo 3 to 1.

His hometown devotion also might help, she said. "With Kevin, you have someone who could have gone out and lived the jet-setter life after the NBA. And he didn't."

Johnson's back story is legend around the capital city.

Born to a 16-year-old mother, KJ was raised by his white grandparents. His grandfather, George Peat, was a union sheet-metal worker who instilled in him a steely work ethic and devotion to good deeds: money for the needy, help to a stranded motorist. "His actions spoke so loud," Johnson says today.

At UC Berkeley, Johnson earned good grades and became a devout Christian.

In the NBA, he spent most of his career with the Phoenix Suns, a three-time All-Star on the court with a straight-shooter reputation off it.

Early on, Johnson made a habit of returning to his old neighborhood, bent on philanthropy. He set up a charity, St. Hope, and began mentoring Sacramento teens after school.

He also established a development company, using Magic Johnson's multi-pronged business model, and began the painstaking task of tapping government money to spur urban renewal in Oak Park.

His biggest success is the 40 Acres project, which transformed a decaying block into a home to businesses missing from the threadbare neighborhood: a bookstore, a 225-seat theater, a Starbucks.

"Kevin is the hardest-working individual I've ever met in my life," said lawyer Kevin Hiestand, a Johnson friend since junior high and, with his father, a longtime legal advisor.

Johnson retired in 2000 and moved back to Sacramento for good. Soon, he took on his most ambitious effort: assuming control of his old high school.

With test scores and spirits flagging at Sacramento High, Johnson's St. Hope in 2003 won the right to convert the campus into a charter school. His campaign brags about the results: Seven of 10 graduates go on to college.

But his efforts haven't been free of controversy.

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