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On the night he became mayor, Johnson and Christa drove up to Paul Sr.'s farm in Prescott. Johnson päre was smiling, and said, "So you're the mayor?"
"I guess so," the son answered.
The father hitched up his pants and snorted, "Well, that's a bunch of bullshit, ain't it?"
Paul Sr. came to Phoenix from Pennsylvania at age 7 with his own father after his mother died. Later, when he was 15 or 16, he and his brother hitchhiked back to Phoenix from Florida after his father had moved the family there. The two brothers married two sisters, bought houses in Sunnyslope, had nine children apiece--Johnson's "double cousins"--and went to work building homes for John F. Long.
Paul Johnson Jr., populist, tells an abbreviated version of the story in which his father and uncle hitchhiked to Phoenix alone when they were 7 and 11 years old. It's hard to tell if it's one of those family legends that have become distorted over the years or if it's an Abe Lincoln tall tale grounded in truth that has grown to help shape an emerging political persona.
There are other such tales: Over the years, the two pairs of shoes he wore out while knocking on every door in his district for his first, unsuccessful campaign for council have become three pairs of shoes, for example. He boasts of having been a small businessman, but by the time he was 26 he was already a full-time politician.
Though he speaks endlessly about the closeness of his family, he never mentions that his parents have been divorced for 15 years and have both remarried. His mother, Yvonne DeLisle, owns a redneck shot-and-a-beer tavern at 19th Avenue and Camelback. The smoke inside is so thick it nearly obscures the side-by-side photographs of Paul Johnson and Jack Kennedy on the back wall. When New Times came to call at the tavern, a great hooting and cries of "Shark attack!" broke out among the regular patrons. DeLisle frowned at her customers' exuberance, but politely declined to be interviewed.
"That's why my brothers and sisters and I barely drink," Johnson says. "We've seen the people at the bar whose lives have been ruined by alcohol." He remembers getting drunk only once in his life, when he was a teenager, running to the top of Squaw Peak at midnight, then coming home and getting sick; his father woke him at dawn the next morning, and without a lecture, deliberately put him through a day's hard labor to better savor his hangover. A lesson was learned, because now Johnson describes himself as "a three-beer man: I drink the first, spill the second and pass the third one on."
Sunnyslope is a few scant miles from City Hall as the city streets run. Metaphorically speaking, it's a distance of light-years that Johnson travels every day. He doesn't need Abe Lincoln stories because he really is "of the people," a solid man from solid roots, and that rings truer than any stylized persona he could cultivate.
@body:On a weekday evening in early July, Christa and Paul Johnson sit in the stands at the baseball field behind Paradise Valley High School at 40th Street and Bell Road to watch the Sunnyslope Little League All-Stars--which Johnson helped coach--play against the Moon Valley team.
The mayor has come straight from City Hall without stopping at home to change; the infield dust settles on his black dress shoes as he walks through the dugout to cheer the boys on, until the umpire notices there are too many adults on the sidelines and sends the mayor and a reporter back to the grandstand. Being mayor of Phoenix does not allow him to get away with much of anything.
Johnson's wife, Christa, is petite and cheerleader pretty with blond hair and dimples deep enough to sink a finger in. She shys away from public attention, and gives the impression that she supports her husband, but would just as soon he had a less-public career. When their younger son, Justin, impudently told a grown-up neighbor that he could ride his bike wherever he liked because his father was mayor, Johnson took him aside and said, "You've got it wrong, son. I work for that man."
Christa paints her husband as a devoted father and an affectionate, poetry-writing romantic. She says he's messy around the house and a terrible driver because he's so preoccupied. "If you see him on the road, get off," she warns.
The Johnsons met during the summer before their senior year in high school. Christa and a girlfriend were walking home from Roadrunner Park at 34th Street and Cactus when a pair of geeky boys called after them from the window of a house under construction. Christa wanted to ignore them, but her friend, "who didn't have a lot of dates," went to talk.
Paul Sr. drove by just then and saw the boys lollygagging out the window, so he walked over, tore the corner off a scrap of Sheetrock, handed it to Christa and said, "Why don't you girls write your phone numbers down so these boys can get back to work?" Johnson called her as soon as he got home from work, but "he was too tall," she says, and she put him off until late fall when she finally agreed to go out with him.