It should have been a high point in a career of high points: the premiere of a documentary chronicling how Kevin Johnson – the former NBA All Star who as mayor helped rejuvenate this once-ailing capital city – kept the Sacramento Kings from leaving for Seattle with a gleaming new basketball arena.
But hours before the premiere last week, the ESPN network, which produced the documentary, “Down in the Valley,” announced it would delay indefinitely the national release of the film. The network cited the re-emergence of an issue that has shadowed Johnson since his first campaign in 2008: a claim by a 16-year-old girl that he sexually abused her 20 years ago while he played for the Phoenix Suns.
On Tuesday night, Johnson, a Democrat, announced that he would not seek a third term next year, saying, “The city is headed in the right direction and is ready to embrace the exciting changes ahead.” No mayor in this city has ever served three terms.
Johnson has repeatedly denied the accusation and made no mention of it in his statement. In an interview Friday, he asserted that the case was being dredged up by his opponents – including the teachers’ union, with which he has battled over the years – to hurt him politically.
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“There are no truth to the allegations,” he said. “If you go back 20 years ago, they were investigated. Law enforcement obviously didn’t feel there was merit there. For me I’ve just tried to move on and go forward.”
The Phoenix Police Department investigated the claim but closed the case without filing charges. Johnson entered a draft settlement that included a $230,000 payment to his accuser. The mayor declined to comment when asked why, if the charges were unfounded, he had agreed to make a payout.
What is different this time is a videotape of a police interview in which the girl, speaking in a calm voice, describes in disconcerting detail what she said Johnson did to her, including fondling and undressing her. The release of the video, posted on Deadspin, a website devoted to sports news, put a young and vulnerable voice to claims that until now had been only a detached account found in court filings.
“People have so desperately wanted to believe in him that they’ve given him a pass on a lot of things, and I think that has worked out generally to the city’s advantage,” Steve Hansen, a Democratic City Council member and critic of Johnson’s, said before the announcement. “The wall of not knowing how to deal with his problems, but choosing to ignore the failures in hopes of the promise, has begun to collapse. Once you saw the video and read the story, it was hard to pretend it never happened.”
Johnson, 49, has long been a polarizing force in this city.
For his admirers, he is the vibrant face of a new Sacramento – epitomized by the $500 million arena going up on J Street, surrounded by a burst of construction inspired by the project. He is a former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and a regular guest of President Barack Obama at the White House. He is married to Michelle Rhee, the high-profile school superintendent who, like Johnson, has a history of battling teachers’ unions. He can barely walk from City Hall to a favorite hangout a block away, the Grange Restaurant and Bar, without getting stopped with a request for a photograph.
“These are minor distractions,” Rick Jennings, a member of the City Council, said of the allegation. “They are not in any way going to keep Sacramento from going forward. The people I’ve talked to don’t think it’s significant. They are looking at a 20-year-old issue versus what’s being done here now in Sacramento and what he’s done to make Sacramento a better place.”
For others, the videotape has only reinforced their aversion to this mayor.
“This has been an ongoing issue in Sacramento,” said Kerri Asbury, who is the county’s Democratic leader and a longtime critic of Johnson’s. “As a woman, as a teacher and an aunt to teenage girls it’s just disgusting and horrifying the allegations that are out there.”
“Sacramento is getting the wrong kind of attention,” said Asbury, a special-education teacher. “I love my city. I would like to see us in the news for something other than a political scandal.”
If this was proven true or there was an indictment this might be different story. This is Sacramento. We have drunk legislators being arrested all the time. People are like, “Whatever.”
Steven Maviglio, Kevin Johnson’s political adviser
Although Johnson argued last week that the accusation had not hurt him with voters, officials in both parties said the video would have made it hard for him to win a third term. After ESPN announced it was shelving the documentary, Asbury urged Johnson not to seek re-election.
The video came at a time of heightened scrutiny of the kind of behavior that once might have been disregarded, as other figures in American public life have been discredited by accusations of sexual misconduct.
As it was, a former City Hall worker this year accused Johnson of sexual harassment. While the claim was dismissed, the mayor was told by city lawyers to “refrain from hugging or touching anyone,” according to The Sacramento Bee. Johnson, who denied the city worker’s claim, said in the interview that had voluntarily undergone sexual harassment training, along with other City Hall officials.
Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant who directed an independent advertising campaign against Johnson in 2008 that invoked the sexual misconduct accusations, said on Monday that if the videotape had been released during that campaign, “the race absolutely would have turned out differently.”
Johnson, in a news conference Wednesday, said the accusation was not a factor in his deciding not to run. He said he had long been leaning against seeking a third term.
“It had nothing to do with my decision,” he said, adding, “I would never have run if those allegations concerned me.”
The mayor, who has been mentioned as a potential candidate for statewide office, said he had no desire to run for any other position.
Johnson suggested that the attacks were being orchestrated by political opponents, starting with the teachers’ unions. Before he took office, a nonprofit organization he created wrestled control of the Sacramento High School and turned it into a charter school, ousting the unionized teaching staff.
“I ended up turning the high school I went to into a charter high school,” he said in the interview before his announcement. “And as a result I probably made a lot of enemies in the teachers’ union. California and Sacramento are ground zero when it comes to one of the strongest special interest groups in the country. I did what I thought was right for kids. I created problems and enemies back then and they have been enemies for life.”
The wall of not knowing how to deal with his problems, but choosing to ignore the failures in hopes of the promise, has begun to collapse. Once you saw the video and read the story, it was hard to pretend it never happened.
Steve Hansen, a Democratic City Council member and critic of Johnson’s
The mayor said he realized this issue would come up when he considered running for office in 2008, eight years after he retired from professional basketball. “It was very clear to me that when I had to make a decision on whether I was going to run for mayor or not that the allegations would resurface,” he said. “I didn’t have any inkling that they would dog me throughout my political career, but that’s the reality of it.”
The accuser, identified by Deadspin as Mandi Koba, recounted the episode in an interview after years of keeping a low profile. Deadspin said Koba was now the mother of three children, and quoted her as saying she was speaking up because “I just felt like I wasn’t doing anything but protecting him.”
Koba, who now works as an advocate for sex abuse victims, did not respond to a request for an interview sent through her website.
Johnson said he had not seen the video.
“I can only say – and I’m not trying to be a broken record – this is 20 years ago,” he said. “An unauthorized video gets reviewed, it drums it all up again. We don’t shy away, we deal with it, and then we have to get back to work.”
Steven Maviglio, Johnson’s political adviser, said that the video had not dissuaded the mayor from running, and that he had little doubt he would have won re-election.
“He put this city on the map,” Maviglio said. “If this was proven true or there was an indictment this might be different story. This is Sacramento. We have drunk legislators being arrested all the time. People are like, ‘Whatever.’ ”