Kevin Johnson's winning streak: NBA, Sacramento City Hall, Michelle Rhee's heart

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; C01

SACRAMENTO -- For months, Kevin Johnson walked around with an engagement ring wrapped in tissue. He wanted a sweet movielike moment to give it to his Michelle.

He and Michelle Rhee were in Seattle together, but the timing felt off. On another day in Sacramento, "I'd just gotten off a long flight," Rhee recalls. "Maybe he saw I was exhausted. Anyway, he didn't give me the ring then, either."

Johnson drew it out for so long that Rhee's daughters -- Starr, 11, and Olivia, 8 -- began asking him what that suspicious lump was.

Then on Oct. 30, after the couple saw "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Kennedy Center, Johnson suggested they catch some night air and visit the Capitol.

"I said, 'It's cold! What do you want to go over to the Capitol for?' " Rhee recalls.

I just want to go, Johnson answered. And there they were, two souls shivering, when Johnson dug into his pocket and popped the question.

But truth is, this is about as romantic as it gets between Johnson, a former NBA all-star and hard-charging first-term mayor of this Northern California city, and Rhee, the take-no-prisoners chancellor of the D.C. public school system.

They are not Romeo and Juliet. Let others get weak-kneed over love poems.

He's got homeless souls to get off the streets. She's got thousands of schoolchildren to rescue. Conferences and urban-themed seminars and books and position papers and think-tank get-togethers dominate their lives. This is the way they roll, Johnson and Rhee. There's work to be done.

Save Sacramento.

Save the schoolkids of D.C.

"We're both reformers," Johnson says proudly.

Meet Mother Rose

The Rhee-Johnson love affair, begun in 2008 with stealthy bicoastal visits, is something of a mystery back in Washington. But drive down Broadway in this city, turn at the corner of 35th, and stroll into Underground Books for a chat with the owner, "Mother Rose." Then it all begins to make sense.

John Legend is crooning from some hidden speakers inside the bookstore, which seems both modern and retro, old tomes about H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis on the shelves. There's a flier on a wall: "21st Annual Northern California African American Young Male Conference -- Theme: Man UP!"

Mother Rose's real name is Georgia West, but no one uses it anymore. "Kevin started calling me Mother Rose when he was playing in Phoenix," she explains. "He wanted a name to separate me from all the other players' mothers . . . so he started calling me Mother Rose."

Mother Rose has a Ruby Dee tough-sweetness about her, reminiscent of the Oak Park neighborhood where Johnson was raised, full of black-owned businesses and honey-this and honey-that, with some serious urban edge thrown in. Johnson was born in 1966, at the tail end of the '60s psychic dramas; war and death, the civil rights movement, wrapped themselves around him. In those days, Oak Park had a cultural swagger. The Black Panthers made their presence felt in the city, and young Johnson looked up to the risk-takers attempting to change a nation.

There was drama in Johnson's own life, too, Mother Rose will tell you.

Mother Rose first met Kevin Johnson's father, Lawrence Johnson, in high school. When she became pregnant, she was younger than she'd like to admit.

She looks at her visitor. "Oh honey," she says. "Long time ago. You gotta write that? Oh well."

She was 16.

She felt she was too young to marry.

She goes on:

Lawrence Johnson was "very smart," Mother Rose says. She liked the way he'd gab about community goings-on.

Lawrence went into the Army for an 18-month tour, then returned to Oak Park. On a fishing trip with friends on the Sacramento River, he decided to swim the 25 yards back to shore and drowned in a whirlpool. Kevin was 3. Not long after, Mother Rose decided to go on a year-long tour in Vietnam with an all-female singing group called Ranee & the Soulettes. She left her firstborn with her parents.

"I don't think not having a father hurt him," Mother Rose says. "He had a grandfather."

That grandfather was George Peat, Mother Rose's stepfather. Mother Rose's mother was white, and her biological father was a black man whom she never knew. Mother Rose's mother, also named Georgia, subsequently married Peat, a white man, and thus Kevin Johnson came to have two white grandparents. George and Georgia Peat apparently felt little discomfort living in mostly black Oak Park.

Mother Rose returned to the neighborhood after her tour, but says she decided to leave Kevin with her parents so he'd have more stability. George Peat, in particular, was a powerful role model. A man with compassion for the underdog, he'd help inebriated souls trying to get home; he'd give homeless folk dollar bills.

Mother Rose would marvel at what young Kevin's grade-school teachers would say. "Honey, they even skipped him in the fifth grade!"

In high school, Johnson's athletic gifts in basketball and baseball were much talked about. But he had other gifts, too, says his mother, including a preternatural talent for promoting harmony.

"I can remember being at a game and Kevin's team lost," Mother Rose says. "And other parents were screaming, all upset and everything. And Kevin would tell the parents, 'Hey, it's okay. Really, it's all right.' And then he'd go over and shake the other team's hands and we'd still be yakking and yakking and all upset. He was different."

She goes on.

"I always told Kevin: 'You have to be different!' You're writing all this down! Oh Jesus. It's all right. Go ahead. You do know that Kevin built up this whole corner! The theater, the art gallery, the barbershop, the bookstore."

In 1983, Johnson enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. It wasn't the '60s, but it was still Berkeley. "We were out there on Sproul Plaza, yelling, 'Free Mandela,' " Johnson remembers. It wasn't the only way in which his experience at Berkeley would spark the reformer in him.

"He'd always tell me that when he got to Berkeley, he wasn't academically ready," recalls Rhee. "He didn't want that to happen to other kids from Oak Park."

The start of something big

After college, Johnson went on to an all-star career in the NBA, playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Phoenix Suns. After he retired, he returned home and founded the Kevin Johnson Corp., a real estate and business development company that provided him with a launching pad for public speaking.

But this is how Johnson's stature truly grew in Sacramento: In 1989, he founded St. Hope Academy, a nonprofit community development corporation. It evolved into a conclave of independent local charter schools, with St. Hope High, Johnson's alma mater, as its flagship. The academic reputation of the schools soared as high school students gained admission to elite colleges. Johnson, who became the schools' chief executive, began inviting talented educators to come to Sacramento and talk to his staff.

Michelle Rhee was among them.

"He heard me speak in Sacramento," Rhee says, "and he said, 'We gotta get you to come talk to our teachers!' " A onetime Baltimore schoolteacher, Rhee had become highly regarded in education circles for her founding of the New Teacher Project in New York in 1997. The program recruits and trains teachers willing to teach in inner-city schools. "If I had been a teacher," Johnson says, "I would have been in the New Teacher program."

Rhee joined the board of Johnson's charter school organization. Through the years, both Johnson and Rhee would become emotional when talking about schoolchildren from desperate backgrounds.

Johnson remembers one particular conference a few years ago: "We're at Aspen and sitting in a room with some of the brightest reform-minded people in the country. [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan -- who was then with the Chicago school system -- was there. It became clear to me and Michelle, during those discussions, that until one of us, from the outside, goes inside the system, we're not gonna change it. And she told me that someone like me needs to get inside a political system and change it. So it's ironic that we both end up being the two people doing it!"

Those kids in Oak Park.

Those kids in Anacostia.

It was in early 2008 that Johnson, 44, and Rhee, 40, say they started sensing something deeper between them. Although Rhee has been married before, Johnson's relationship with Rhee is his first truly serious one, says Mother Rose. Unlike some, he was no womanizer in the NBA. "He had always said it was too hard in the NBA with all the traveling to have a serious relationship," she says.

When Johnson told Rhee he was going to run for mayor -- Johnson had suddenly decided he could take his reform agenda to City Hall -- her reaction, like that of many, was surprise, and then support. She arrived in Sacramento from D.C. to help advise his campaign.

"They're both very focused and driven," says Robert Graswich, 54, a mayoral assistant. "When you see them together, they're very loving. She's always looking out for him. Clearly, she's a hard-charger -- and brilliant. She'd need to be to keep up with him."

A former reporter for the Sacramento Bee, Gaswich says he "was one of those people encouraging him to run for mayor."

Everyone concedes that Heather Fargo has long loved this city. Her two terms as mayor gave her ample time to prove her affection. But not everyone agreed on how she ran Sacramento.

"She ran the town like it was Mayberry RFD," says Graswich, referring to the tiny backwater town popularized on "The Andy Griffith Show," a '60s-era sitcom.

"She was a great mayor, in my mind," says current councilwoman Bonnie Pannell.

But then came Kevin Johnson, itching to get involved in local government, and fresh from think-tanking himself back and forth across the country.

Johnson, a Democrat, decided to take on Fargo.

"I was stunned when he announced," Pannell says, "because he had no experience."

He used the cachet of his NBA career to get college students to work on his campaign and woo voters. He pulled in some aging activists from the old Oak Park environs.

Mother Rose was everywhere.

Negative publicity

Then came the darkness: The local press wrote about a 1995 case in Phoenix in which a 16-year-old accused Johnson of fondling her in a sexual manner. Police declined to bring charges following an investigation. In 2008, there was a similar allegation made against Johnson by a high school student at his St. Hope Sacramento High School. Rhee considered herself familiar with the inner workings of St. Hope High and didn't believe the charges against Johnson.

"It was a hard thing for me," she says. "I actually knew firsthand about the accusations. I knew them not to be true. Kevin just said, 'If people want to throw stones, let them.' " Johnson's accuser later recanted and no charges were filed.

There was yet another embarrassment when the federal government investigated Johnson's school over its accounting practices with government grants. No charges were filed, but the school was forced to pay a settlement of more than $400,000.

All along, Johnson raced the ball upcourt. He was all over the city. When his campaign drew short on cash, he reached into his own pockets.

He was helped along by a mantra sweeping the country, begun by then-candidate Barack Obama at his campaign stops: Change. Change. Change.

Fargo witnessed the blur of KJ. And the city of Sacramento voted for change.

Johnson became the city's first black mayor.

And yet, there is the question: Who'd want to be mayor of Sacramento? The mayor's position, which became full time only in 2002, is rather toothless. The power to hire and fire lies with the city manager. The mayor has one vote, like council members.

Johnson developed a strong mayor initiative, but a judge blocked putting the measure on the ballot this June, ruling that such a revision to the city charter cannot be proposed by ballot initiative. "It's a blow" against him, Pannell concedes. Johnson allows that some people have asked him why he wanted the job, given its weak form.

"I knew the strengths and weaknesses of this system," he says. "But I do have the bully pulpit. The visibility. I'm a convener. I can bring people together."

He's got four paid staff members. He pays for most of his out-of-town flights himself.

He's begun tackling the city's homelessness problem by bringing banking and civic leaders together and hosting meetings about affordable housing. Pannell, a sometime critic of the mayor, admits that Johnson's nonstop momentum has gained admirers. But she abhors what she calls his dependency on consultants. "He has consultants outside the city working on issues, and we find out about it from the newspapers," she says of the council.

Johnson now has plans to put the strong mayor issue before voters in November, but some of the mayor's allies feel the city is caught in a time warp and many are just fine with the status quo. "A lot of people," says Graswich, the mayoral assistant, "like Mayberry."

The bicoastal couple

On the mayor's office wall is a round-faced clock that keeps Washington, D.C., time.

There's a fine portrait of labor leader César Chávez on one wall; there's a photo of Bobby Kennedy on another. Remembering the '60s.

There's a photo of the mayor and President Obama; the mayor and Vice President Biden. In an adjacent office, there's a picture of him and Rhee on Inauguration Day in 2009. Huddled together. Baby, its cold outside.

"She's an amazing woman," he says of Rhee. "I'm blessed to have this woman in my life."

His mother approves. "She takes care of business," Mother Rose says of Rhee. "It's all about business. Black people do a lot of talking and sometimes nothing gets done! . . . Michelle is someone he can also talk to. He needs someone to edify his mind."

Ronnie West, the mayor's brother, is also pleased -- and relieved. "Now at least I don't have to answer the question I used to hear all the time: When's your brother getting married?"

The fact that not everyone likes his fiancee, and some accuse Rhee of arrogance and overly harsh tactics in her role as D.C. schools chancellor, carries no water with Johnson.

"That school system in D.C. has been failing children despite the blood good people have been pouring into it," he says. "Now you got a woman who doesn't look like them -- fighting for them!"

Rhee returns the compliment. "I'll tell you," she says, "what really impresses me about Kevin. He works hard. He could be someplace lounging on a beach."

The couple plan on carrying the reformist torch into their marriage.

"My true north is here in Sacramento," Johnson confesses. "So we'll have a bicoastal marriage for a time. But we're lucky we get a chance to see each other a couple times a month. It's not ideal, but when you're in love, you climb the highest mountain. You know how the song goes."

Rhee says she and Johnson intend to be married sometime this year, although the details of when and where are unsettled.

"With my schedule," Rhee says, chuckling the words out, "I don't have a lot of time to plan a wedding!"

Romeo and Juliet, they're not.

"I guess," says West, "you can call them a power couple."

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