Former NBA basketball star Magic Johnson threw his support behind Phil Angelides on Tuesday in a move that heightens the visibility of the state treasurer's bid to unseat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger next November.
"Phil is the only qualified candidate to run the state of California," the former Laker player told about 100 people gathered near a popcorn stand in his Magic Theatres complex at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles.
Angelides is vying in the June primary for the Democratic nomination to challenge Schwarzenegger, who is running for a second term.
So far, state Controller Steve Westly is the only other major candidate in the Democratic primary.
Johnson's endorsement has become one of the most coveted in California politics, especially in Los Angeles. Candidates in the recent mayoral race -- including the ultimate winner, Antonio Villaraigosa -- competed fiercely for his support earlier this year. Johnson endorsed Villaraigosa, who featured the athlete-turned-entrepreneur in cable television advertising.
On Tuesday, Johnson said Angelides would be a governor who "serves the many, not just the few." Taking a swipe at Schwarzenegger, Johnson said the treasurer would not divide Californians "with a wasteful special election," referring to the Nov. 8 ballot in which all the statewide initiatives, several of them supported by the governor, were defeated.
"I love him as an actor and I love him as my friend, but I don't love him as the governor," Johnson said. "We need a man that is qualified. We need a man that can balance the budget."
The value of Johnson's endorsement was apparent in the media attention it drew for a campaign that so far has stirred little public interest: Five television crews showed up to cover the announcement.
Garry South, a senior strategist for Westly, said Johnson was "a great guy," but minimized the importance of his effect on the governor's race.
"He's not going to determine who wins the Democratic gubernatorial primary next year," South said.
For candidates, Johnson's popularity offers appeal across a wide spectrum of voters, but especially among African Americans, a crucial constituency in a Democratic primary. At this early stage of the race, his marquee name also adds to the edge that Angelides has built in establishing viability among donors and other political insiders.
"This is about the race for campaign contributions and establishing yourself as a really credible candidate," said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego assistant professor of political science.
Angelides, a former state Democratic Party chairman, has deep ties with the party establishment in California. For years, he has raised money for many of the Democrats now backing him. His supporters include California's two U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles.
Angelides is also a longtime proponent of Johnson's urban redevelopment projects. In 1999, Angelides supported investing $50 million in state pension funds in Johnson's projects with developer Victor B. MacFarlane, said Brad Pacheco, a spokesman for the California Public Employees' Retirement System.
But Johnson said Angelides' support for his projects played no role in his decision to back the treasurer's campaign.
Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, described Johnson's endorsement as part of "a rather disturbing pattern taking shape of Phil Angelides using retirement pension investments for his own personal political advantage." She cited campaign donations that Angelides has collected from MacFarlane and others who received state pension investments.
"Now he's also finagled a high-profile endorsement out of it," she said.
Angelides spokesman Dan Newman said the treasurer did not make pension decisions to garner favor from Johnson or other beneficiaries of state retirement-fund investments. He cited Johnson's lauding of Angelides, a former developer, for business experience, leadership skills and vision.
In his appearance with Johnson, Angelides made no reference to the June primary, focusing instead on the general election. He called Schwarzenegger a "failed governor" and said he had stood up to him on school spending.
"For that, I was labeled the anti-Schwarzenegger, and I'm proud of it," he said.