The Bench Warmer and the Straggler

Gubernatorial candidates have been playing the usual political game. One of them lost a long time ago.

Johnson has worked hard to attract the gay vote, a constituency that's generally supportive of Democrats. Last week, after Johnson had attended numerous gay functions and pledged to seek nondiscriminatory benefits for domestic partners, Echo and the Arizona Human Rights Forum endorsed him.

Ofstedahl says Johnson only recently won his support. He'd leaned toward Hull after the governor approved half a million dollars in state spending for AIDS victims and made it a regular budget item, the first governor to do so, he says. But her unwillingness to fill out questionnaires from gay organizations and her silence on such issues as domestic-partner benefits made Ofstedahl reconsider.

Johnson has had to work equally hard to capture other support that Democrats normally rely on. Some of it no doubt is due to Hull's strength as an incumbent who has worked for moderate legislation. But some Democrats say they just don't like Paul Johnson.

"I think a lot of Democrats, those that follow politics, are still upset about his behavior in the last election," says a Democrat active in the party. "To people not in politics, he just looks like a climber."

Four years ago, Johnson entered the gubernatorial primary only six months before election day and, playing catch-up against Terry Goddard and Eddie Basha, hit Basha with a negative ad that backfired. As a member of the state Board of Education, in 1989 Basha defended the board's right to restore licenses to teachers convicted of felonies. Johnson suggested that meant Basha favored convicted felons--even child molesters--in the classroom.

Basha responded with an emotional ad, saying he was shocked by Johnson's attack: "You know, Paul, some things are more important than your political career. Like our children . . ." Basha came off as a man who wasn't running for the sheer enjoyment of it; when things got dirty, he took it hard. That single ad, Democrat insiders say, probably won Basha the 1994 primary.

Despite his impressive ability to talk policy from morning to night (and perhaps because of it), Johnson still too easily resembles the candidate who runs out of a love for the fight itself, who enjoys a scrap over something as arcane as river water allocations.

The result: Even when he's right, he can't shake the perception that he's a pure strategist, hitting Hull just to gain traction in the polls.

Eight years ago, he had a different reputation: for taking political risks and making them pay off.

He'd defied expectations by becoming mayor of Phoenix at the age of 30, pulling off a surprising coup by leapfrogging over more veteran councilmembers for the post.

After five years as a councilman, Johnson realized he could put together the votes for mayor in 1990 when councilman Skip Rimsza, a Republican, agreed to back him.

Johnson details the behind-the-scenes scheming that got him the mayor's seat in a self-published autobiography he had printed last month. It's titled, appropriately enough, Longshot.

It opens with a scene from Johnson's mayoral days, when he had met with the visiting Archbishop of Canterbury who, before the two emerged to meet the press, let Johnson know his fly was open.

It's a nice piece of self-deprecating humor, but it also sets a slightly maudlin tone for the piece, reminding the reader that at one time, Johnson hobnobbed with such personages when he was a popular public official. We get Johnson, the populist, fighting fires and doing police work and climbing into roach-infested sewers as part of his "Operation Occupation." It's a gimmick he continues to use in his race for governor, working the jobs of working-class Arizonans to score points as a politician who cares.

We also see the consensus-builder who convinced the city to beef up curfew laws and persuaded the council, despite its pro-gun leanings, to pass a law prohibiting children from carrying firearms.

Like Hull, Johnson led during tough economic times. The former mayor says it's the reason he's considered a conservative Democrat; in a stronger economy, he would have been labeled a "traditional" Democrat. But Johnson's coziness with the business community is still remembered by the public and helps to undermine him when he attacks Hull for her connections to special interests.

When Johnson left the mayor's office, the press lauded his tenure, calling him "a good mayor in tough times," and chiding him for only one black mark--his pet project, Forestry for Phoenix.

Launched by Johnson, Forestry for Phoenix intended to plant a million trees in the city between 1990 and 1995, mostly with private contributions. But nearly $500,000 in city and federal funds were misused by the nonprofit group, which had been staffed with Johnson friends and political allies. A city audit found that the program had spent lavishly on its officials but couldn't prove that it had planted as many trees as it claimed. Johnson cut off city funding to the program when the audit was made public.

If Johnson's a long shot today, it's probably of his own doing. In 1994, he walked away from the mayor's office--with no strong competitor--to enter a three-way primary race for governor.

It was bad timing. He left office early but joined a campaign late. He launched negative ads that backfired, and he lost. Four years later, his timing is lousy again, going up against a popular incumbent when the economy is strong.

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