By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Christa tells of going parking with Paul at North Mountain one night, and as they looked out at the lights of the city, he said, "Some day I'm going to run this town." She laughed and thought he was goofy. Even now he says, "If I remembered saying that I wouldn't admit it." But it didn't dissuade Christa from going out with him, and the relationship heated up so much her father sent her away to a Christian school in Kentucky because he thought the couple was getting too serious.
The separation didn't work. They married that summer when she was still 17 and he just 18. And if he was too tall when they met, he grew another five inches after they married.
Johnson says now that he intended to go to law school, but he never even finished college, because their older son was born seven weeks prematurely. Christa had to quit her job to take care of the baby full-time and Johnson had to quit school to make ends meet.
There were other setbacks. When he was just 20, a contractor wheedled out of paying him $10,000 for a job, and he and Christa had to sell their house and car to pay off debts. Just a few years later, when he was a councilmember, the same contractor came to Johnson, without recognizing him, to discuss zoning for a project. When the matter came before the council, Johnson voted in the project's favor because he felt it was the right thing to do, but was so angry he excused himself immediately from the meeting and went home to lie down. He might be a fair man, but he couldn't forget the hardship the man had caused his family.
With a mayoral salary of $37,500 and some modest rental income, Johnson has always had to watch pennies. He admits that someday he'd like a job that pays better. Christa claims her husband is tight, and as proof she offers that they and their two children spent ten years in a 670-square-foot house with a broken swamp cooler. After Johnson became mayor, she'd had enough and sold it out from under him.
And so they built their own big, new house on a lot 100 yards away, leaning on every one of the Johnson brothers and cousins until all their relatives were afraid to answer their telephones. They bought toilets at garage sales. Johnson had some plywood campaign signs left over from the election and used them to close in the house. The stucco contractor was late, and Johnson lived a week of embarrassment waiting with larger-than-life portraits of his family sprawled upside down and sideways across the front of the house with the words "Johnson for Mayor" in white letters on a blue background. One of his brothers talked Salt River Project workers into dumping a couple of truckloads of sludge dredged from the Arizona Canal to fill a wash in the backyard. "The house smelled like fish for a long time," says Christa, "and we have seashells in the yard."
@body:Late in August, Johnson sits in the kitchen of a firehouse on North 23rd Avenue. He's wearing a blue golf shirt with a fire department logo on it, because he's sitting in with the boys overnight. His face is ashen, because he's just come from a serious traffic accident at 27th Avenue and Camelback, and a young woman they'd treated for a broken sternum and shoulder had screamed in pain all the way to the emergency room.
Johnson rides with the firefighters, the police department, the water department as part of a program he calls "Operation Occupation." He claims it keeps the various city departments real in his mind, and that when related council decisions come up, the city workers and facilities are more than abstractions and numbers on paper. It's given him some great anecdotes:
A water department crew sent him down a manhole to show him how they snake out the sewer lines. "It was pitch black and it looked like the walls were moving, but I figured it was sludge," Johnson remembers. "When my eyes adjusted, I realized the walls were an inch thick with big sewer roaches."
The men up top warned him not to stir them up or they'd start flying and swarm on him. One worker kicked dirt down the back of the mayor's shirt collar to make him think the roaches were crawling on him. "Pull . . . me . . . up!" Johnson ordered, but they insisted he scoop out the sludge first. As proof that Phoenix city jobs don't depend on political patronage, those men are still alive and employed.
One night Johnson cruised Van Buren with a vice squad detective and picked up a young hooker named Peaches. Peaches was 14 and wore her hair in pigtails, but she audaciously ordered the mayor to "whip it out" to prove he wasn't a cop. Then she lectured both the mayor and officer on the importance of condom use and gave one to each of them before the cop arrested her.
Christa was already sleeping when Johnson got home that night. He threw his clothes over a chair in the bedroom, and the condom fell out of his shirt pocket. At about three o'clock, he woke up. Christa was thumping on his chest, and when his eyes focused, he realized she was holding the condom and demanding, "What's this?"