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

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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But his efforts haven’t been free of controversy.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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eric.bailey@latimes.com


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