Johnson readily volunteers that he does not come from the kind of family that breeds politicians. "I was not born and bred for this job," he says. "My dad wasn't a senator or a governor." The latter remark is clearly a swipe at Goddard. Then he continues, "My mother literally came to this state to pick cabbage. My dad shined shoes in front of what's now the Omni hotel. My parents didn't send me to Harvard or Yale, because we're lower-middle-class folks."

In fact, his parents didn't send him anywhere; one prominent local politician, when asked of Johnson's aspirations for higher office, snapped, "One usually starts by going to college." Johnson has attended ASU and now stands a year's credits away from finishing his degree at the University of Phoenix.

Johnson is highly intelligent without being intellectual. Despite his political sophistication, he is parochial. He has spent his entire 33 years in working-class Sunnyslope, and when he travels to New York and Los Angeles, he is surprised at how big and bad and dirty they are.

His political talents, Johnson says, are "a bolt of lightning for me, the greatest gift I've ever had and I want to do something with it." It caps a lifelong fascination with politics. He quotes extensively from what he has read, all of it about politics and public life, from Talleyrand to Kennedy.

Even when he was 9, Johnson was fantasizing about holding office; his childhood scrapbooks are filled with Kennedy photos torn out of news magazines. Johnson ran for student council in high school and lost, but it didn't matter because he spent his free time working for his dad until, by his senior year, he was earning $250 a day after school hanging drywall. Jim Kieffer, his high school government teacher, however, remembers him as a serious student, clearly fascinated by the government process.

Somehow, by force of will and by knocking on doors, Johnson got into mainstream politics without paying the usual dues--the law degree, the years of public service, the bureaucratic training. His brother Rob, with whom he shared a construction business, still can't understand why anyone would want to go from making $250 a day hanging drywall to $250 a week as a councilmember; the latter job pays only $18,000 a year.

"You want to find someone to nail me?" Johnson jokes. "Talk to my brothers."
But Johnson ran for councilmember anyway, in 1983 against Barry Starr, who defeated him soundly, but adopted him as an apprentice; then successfully against Ann Lynch in 1985. Almost immediately he started talking about being mayor, and his political allies, including Starr, thought he was jumping the gun. When Terry Goddard resigned in 1990 to run for governor, councilmembers scurried to see which of them would be selected as interim mayor.

The money was on longtime councilmember Howard Adams, but Johnson was already perfecting his knack at back-room alliances. He met secretly with Republican councilmember Skip Rimsza at Baxter's restaurant near the Paradise Valley Mall. Rimsza scribbled options and alternatives and flow charts on the back of a menu, "and the end result of all of them was Paul becoming mayor," Rimsza recalls.

When Adams realized that Johnson had Rimsza's vote, he stepped aside and the council elected Johnson unanimously. Then, in last year's general election, Johnson was so strong politically he ran unopposed.

It was a political ascent that still stuns his Democratic contemporaries. "Paul didn't come through the party," says one prominent politician. "He just ran.

"It's like Jesus," says one city councilmember. "Where was he from age 10 to 30? And where did Paul Johnson come from?"
@body:Two guys pour concrete by the side of the road at 28th Street and Windrose, six-foot-plus burly construction workers with big chests and bigger bellies. The older of the two is Paul Johnson Sr., the mayor's father; he's got a gray beard and wears a white cloth tied around his forehead like an Indian headband to keep the sweat out of his eyes. The younger man, blond and ruddy-faced, is Johnson's younger brother, Rob.

Johnson Sr. is of the basic and unimpressed sort, and the mayor describes his dad by saying, "The only way you can tell he's dressed up is he changes his work shoes for dress shoes. Other than that, his shirt isn't tucked in and his Levi's are hanging lower on his hips than they should be, showing parts of his derriäre that embarrass the kids."

Brother Rob remembers that he and Paul once invited their father to go to the health club with them. "If you want to get strong, go work on the job," Paul Sr. said, but went anyway. On their way out of the locker room, they passed a man shaving, standing nude and pressed up against the countertop as he scraped the angles of his face.

"Hey! Get your dick out of the sink," the elder Johnson shouted matter-of-factly. "People wash their face there." It came out authoritative, not vulgar, and the man did as he was told.

Though he has helped his son with his campaigns--both father and brother use the pronoun "we" whenever they speak of the elections--the elder Johnson doesn't think much of politics. He thinks his son should be working to make money to put his kids through college. He has no idea where the political gene came from, but he shrugs it off and says, "Kids . . . you let em do what they want."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets