Former NBA Star Campaigns to be Sacramento Mayor

Kevin Johnson wants hometown to have higher profile

A bid by a former NBA All-Star to become mayor of California's capital city has drawn basketball celebrities to a town that is often overshadowed by the state politics that unfold here.

Kevin Johnson is campaigning on a pledge to raise the profile of his hometown after years of watching it get outshined by flashier cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. The contest pits him against a two-term incumbent who has taken a decidedly slower approach.

Because of the presidential race, a record number of voters is expected to cast ballots for either Mayor Heather Fargo or Johnson, a political novice who would be the capital's first black mayor.

"It's not a traditional mayor's race," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento. "It's a metaphor for what's going on in the other (national) races."

Both candidates are Democrats campaigning in a nonpartisan race.

Johnson, 42, doesn't like people describing his hometown merely by its geography: halfway between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe.

"We should be a destination place," said the former Phoenix Suns point guard who built a reputation as a scrappy player.

He envisions a place where he can raise a family while, at the same time, entertain visitors with upscale shops and restaurants. Guests at his rallies have included other basketball stars such as Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson.

Fargo is quick to point out improvements made during her eight-year tenure.

"If you could have seen midtown or downtown in 1989 compared to where it is now, you would be converted," said the 55-year-old former community activist, who was forced into a runoff against Johnson when neither candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote in the June primary.

The attention on Johnson's bid hasn't all been positive. After spending the primary season fending off old sexual abuse allegations, Johnson is now wrestling with a federal investigation into a nonprofit community development corporation he started after retiring from the NBA in 2000.

The group called St. HOPE is credited with transforming the failing Sacramento High School into a successful charter school and drawing businesses to the commercial heart of Oak Park, one of the city's roughest neighborhoods.

But federal officials say Johnson used AmeriCorps grants to pay volunteers to engage in political activities, run personal errands and even wash his car. The agency that oversees the grants has barred Johnson from receiving federal money while an investigation is under way.

Johnson, who handed over management responsibilities for St. HOPE this year so he could focus on his campaign, insists he has done nothing wrong. He said the federal ban would not affect his ability to govern as mayor because the city manager handles city finances.

The next mayor will preside over two major redevelopment projects and the possible construction of a new basketball arena. Complicating those efforts is the burden of a $58 million budget deficit, rising crime, persistent homelessness and education concerns for the city of 475,000.

Just as the economic downturn has shaped the presidential election, so too have declining sales and property taxes shaped the mayoral campaign. The city's recent decision to furlough nearly 900 workers and make deeper cuts to public safety has alarmed some residents, leading Johnson to sharpen his attacks on Fargo.

"It's time for Mayor Fargo to stop playing the blame game. She voted to slash the police budget, and these cuts are the direct result of her vote," Johnson said recently in a statement.

The mayor offered to take a 10 percent cut to her $111,000 annual salary in response to the police budget cuts. She called the cuts outrageous but accepted the police chief's recommendations to scale back services, which could lead to longer 911 response times and a drop in routine patrols.

After Johnson won 47 percent of the primary vote to Fargo's 40 percent, even some of the incumbent's supporters have conceded that a fresh face appears to be resonating with residents.

Fargo supporter Susie Shields said she thinks Johnson could win. "He's very confident," she said. "And charm goes a long way."

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