As the mayor of Phoenix, he pushed for a dress code in local public schools. As a candidate for governor, he called for a statewide dress code. Now Paul Johnson may finally get his wish--at least at one Phoenix public school. Shortly after his third-place finish in the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Johnson found work as the executive director of Stardust Foundation, a private philanthropic effort created by local entrepreneur Jerry Bisgrove.

The foundation will serve as a vehicle for Johnson to stay involved in public policy and push for the kinds of change he touted in his gubernatorial campaign, he says.

Call it privatized politics.
His thoughts about the Stardust Foundation sound an awful lot like a standard Johnson stump speech.

Johnson says, "The foundation's focus is kind of on individual responsibility. . . . Through the implementation of values, morals, honor, ethics, which come about through what I used to call the hammer and the hug, or compassion and consequences. And it can be implemented through government or churches or synagogues, or any one of a number of things."

The former Boy Mayor is still crafting a mission statement, but the board of directors is in place and Bisgrove says the foundation will dole out up to $1 million a year.

Bisgrove says, "The Stardust Foundation deals basically in trying to give people a hand up versus a handout. We're trying to enhance the self-esteem of family as a unit, which means we're working on things like affordable housing, we're working on youth programs, we're working on jobs within the community."

A dozen projects are in the works, but Johnson would just discuss three.
The Stardust Foundation has been approached by parties involved at Phoenix Preparatory Academy, Phoenix Elementary District No. 1's junior high school, to develop a plan where students would be required to wear uniforms, Johnson says.

"We're willing to buy a school uniform, we're willing to provide the pro bono legal defense. The parents and the school are kind of excited about it. We know that they'll be sued. We know that there are some kids that can't afford the uniform. But we're trying to work with that to try to solve their problems," Johnson says.

Johnson has often said that school dress codes promote respect and cut down on problems associated with gangs. Ramon Leyba, the school's principal, says he isn't ready to publicly discuss the strategy. He stresses that the uniform concept is in the "extremely exploratory" stages.

Attorney Gary Peter Klahr, who represented a seventh-grader who sued the Osborn School District in 1992 over the district's policy regarding sports insignia on clothing (the suit was dropped when the district backed off the policy), doesn't like the idea.

He says, "If they [Stardust Foundation] really want to help kids, then they should just help them buy clothes."

Klahr adds that the uniform policy would be a real intrusion because--other than magnet schools--Phoenix Preparatory Academy is the only junior high school in the district.

He says, "There's no other place for seventh and eighth grade. To put them all in uniforms would certainly be outrageous, and I certainly would oppose it."

Johnson says he doesn't mind criticism. "The foundation's not afraid to take on controversy," he says. Indeed, Stardust Foundation is already involved in a doozie.

Bisgrove and Johnson say the foundation's most significant commitment is to Habitat for Humanity, specifically, a controversial project that would provide 196 low-income homes in South Phoenix. Some South Phoenix residents oppose the development because they do not want to see a low-income subdivision in the already depressed neighborhood ("NIMBYism, South Phoenix-Style," September 1, 1994).

Debi Bisgrove, Jerry's wife, is the president of the local arm of Habitat for Humanity. Finally, Johnson says the Stardust Foundation will offer partial funding for a study to determine the feasibility of starting a charter school. The school, to be located in an economically depressed area, would serve as an alternative to the Phoenix Union magnet schools and would boast a high-tech curriculum and code of honor. On the campaign trail, Johnson often voiced his support of charter schools. Along with Johnson, the board of directors includes Jack Henry of Arthur Anderson; Jerry Kackley of K Group; and Chris Heeter of Stardust Development. Bisgrove serves as president of the board.

Johnson says he will continue to work with his construction business, Johnson Company.

He says, "I have my private business that I'll still be working in, and hopefully that's where I'll make most of my income, but this gives me an outlet to still be involved in public policy in a way which is kind of fun."

So is this a way to stay in the spotlight 'til he makes another bid at public office? Johnson demurs, retreating to his favorite campaign topic: his kids. "I've got two little boys. I have an eighth-grader and a junior in high school, and I'd kinda like to get them both through high school before I make any decisions to run again.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at