By Matthew Hendley
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Three days a week at 5:30 in the morning, with the sun not yet up, Mayor Paul Johnson laces up his Asics Gel running shoes for a ten-mile run. He meets a coterie of city employees, staff members, police officers and the occasional local politician, and 10 to 15 at a time, they run in the North Mountain preserve, sometimes at South Mountain, sometimes the Papago Buttes. On Thursdays they start at the mayor's house in Sunnyslope, at the base of North Mountain, and jog the ten miles downtown to City Hall.
Johnson stays in the middle of the pack, his long legs plodding slowly and purposefully at 10 to 11 minutes per mile, a head above the others. His gait, as one of his aides puts it, is "a little better than George Bush's, a little worse than Bill Clinton's." Johnson admits he is hooked on running, which is as addictive as any drug.
He is even more hooked on running for office, politics being an even stronger, more addictive drug. "I love everything about politics," Johnson says unguardedly. He was a councilmember by the time he was 25, mayor by 30, and though by all accounts he is a brilliant political tactician, even his allies worry--off the record, of course--that his political ambition is all-consuming, that he is "born of the politics-for-politics'-sake generation," that he's "a political watercolor artist," or "a retail politician," or that he's "always wanted to be JFK II."
Johnson is already building his public persona. He calls himself a "no-tax Democrat." He paints himself as a lower-middle-class boy who made good, a budget balancer who understands small business, the son of a carpenter who's going to stamp out big government. He is driven, not by a yearning for power, perhaps, but by a sincere, Miss America longing to do good, to prove his self-worth, to leave a legacy. He is a nice man, so clean-cut and deliberately uncontroversial that he annoys his more liberal colleagues in the Democratic party.
His greatest strength or greatest weakness, based on your perspective, is that he's a consensus builder, that he hammers on all sides of a disagreement until he can present the done deal at a city council meeting. Critics worry that it's the end of "open government" or public participation in the decision-making process, but his supporters see it as democratically expedient, as reasonable people sitting down and coming to agreement in a Socratic manner.
"Of course, civic leaders killed Socrates," quips Louis Rhodes of Arizona Civil Liberties Union.
Certain civic leaders of Phoenix would like to do Johnson in, too. They say he's too young, too naive, undereducated, that he has no "clear vision of the world," no guiding ideology except his quest for office.
@body:"Should one have a position on every issue?" Johnson asks half-jokingly, his six-foot seven-inch frame folded onto a couch in his office atop City Hall. "Ronald Reagan did, didn't he?" His blue eyes flash with the barb, then seem to go off somewhere far away. Johnson's got a way of listening that seems distant, and yet he hears everything and plays it back later.
Off-duty, Johnson is a man of much warmth and candor, but his office conversation tends toward political rhetoric, "Four score and seven years ago," but with a blue-collar, populist bent.
Take responsibility: "I can influence what my son learns more than any teacher." "A neighborhood block watch can do more to prevent crime than any police patrols." Don't expect government to do everything for you, a municipal variant, perhaps, of "Ask not what your country can do for you . . ."
This business about not taking stands he's heard before, and it rubs sore. "Ask me about any issue, and I've got a position," he says testily. "You want to know where I stand on abortion? I'm pro-choice. Ask me anything, I'll give you an answer."
What positions should one hold as mayor of Phoenix? With a salary of $37,500 a year, it is not the career job it is in other major cities. Johnson's top aides make nearly twice that amount. Most of the day-to-day decisions that make the city run are made by the City Manager's Office, and the municipal departments are staffed by career bureaucrats independent of any political patronage. The city council decides policy for the city manager to follow. The mayor presides over the council, and though he only has one vote--same as any councilmember--he gets to set the council's agenda.
"It's the strongest city-manager system in the country," says former mayor Terry Goddard. "The mayor can't even tell his driver to turn left or right. Any direct order to a city employee is grounds for dismissal."
Goddard and Johnson are a study in contrasts. Goddard is the Harvard-educated son of a former governor. Johnson is a construction worker from Sunnyslope who had to drop out of college to support his family, the sort of guy who comes home from work to play with his kids instead of going to the symphony.
While Goddard's tenure as mayor was marked with debate, Johnson avoids controversy, but he is consolidating what power the office holds. Johnson is said to understand and manipulate the chemistry of the city council in ways that Goddard never could. As Johnson points out, "With Goddard, they said, 'What did he do?' Me, they say, 'Where does he stand?' But you can see what I've done."