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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

He battled the local teachers union, as well as parents concerned that the new Sac High took too much of a faith-based approach. They question the school's improved graduation rate, saying low achievers are nudged elsewhere.

Last fall, the Sacramento Bee reported that several of Johnson's properties awaiting renewal had been fined $32,000 for trash, weeds and decay.

Unbowed by the publicity, Johnson went into the mayor's race focused on fixing the city's worsening crime problem while vowing to help Sacramento shed its cow-town image and become a first-class destination for business and tourism.

"I have the ability to instantly elevate the profile of the city," said Johnson, endorsed by interests as disparate as the Chamber of Commerce and public employee unions.

But problems soon began pulling him off-message.

In April, an old Phoenix police report surfaced with allegations that Johnson had molested a 16-year-old girl named Mandy in 1995. In wincing detail, it describes how the girl met Johnson, then 29, while shooting a public service TV spot, and their friendship blossomed over the course of a summer. The girl told police that Johnson fondled her several times, though they never had sex.

Johnson enjoyed hero status in Arizona's Maricopa County, and the district attorney didn't press charges. The case failed to attract much attention, other than a story in the alternative Phoenix New Times. Lawyer Fred Hiestand -- the father of Johnson's friend -- told the newspaper that KJ had done no wrong and that his accuser was mentally unstable and had been swayed by a zealous therapist.

With Johnson running for mayor, the old story got a fresh spin in Sacramento, pairing up in the press with more recent allegations, most notably that Johnson had molested a Sac High student by touching her breasts while hugging and kissing her. After a one-day investigation concluded that no crime had been committed, Sacramento police declined to seek charges. Hiestand said the girl's words had been twisted by the teacher who reported the allegations.

Two weeks before election day, Fargo entered the fray with demands that Sacramento police renew their investigation. The mayor was spurred by a Bee story that said Johnson had paid the girl in Phoenix $230,000 to settle the matter.

Police Chief Rick Braziel announced Wednesday that the case would not be reopened and an investigation report would remain sealed.

Out on the streets, Johnson is still running.

During his afternoon jaunts, people stop their cars to say hello. They run out from homes to pose for pictures with him. No one mentions molestation, mostly admiration.

Later, over a glass of ice water in a Mexican restaurant, Johnson talked of life's destinies.

"My goal was always to be more than a basketball player," he said.

Before and after the NBA, he said, "I was just a kid from Oak Park in Sacramento. . . . I'm still that kid who lives a mile from where I grew up, trying to do my part."

--

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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