SACRAMENTO - Former NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson is hoping voters are willing to trade his experience as an inner-city developer and school administrator for that of a two-term incumbent mayor who has been criticized as uninspiring and underachieving.
Johnson returned to Sacramento after his playing days were over to reform his old high school and rebuild his struggling Oak Park neighborhood. He then set his sights on politics, believing his hometown was failing to reach its potential.
Last night, he was to learn whether voters agree that California's capital city needs a new direction.
His campaign to unseat two-term incumbent Heather Fargo has been short but furious, featuring more mudslinging than substantive discussions about the future of the city of 475,000.
Johnson, 42, has been dogged by sexual-abuse allegations since he announced his candidacy in March. He also has faced complaints about his nonprofit development agency and criticism from gay activists after saying he doesn't support same-sex marriages.
Johnson upset local gay and lesbian activists recently when he said marriage should remain restricted to a man and a woman.
Activist Steve Hansen said gay rights are a key issue in California's seventh-largest city, where there have been several high-profile hate crimes against gays.
Fargo, 55, also was put on the defensive when the Sacramento Bee reported she had taken numerous international trips to environmental conferences of dubious benefit to the city.
Critics said she needs to concentrate more on fixing Sacramento's problems, but Fargo said she has been doing just that, noting increased commercial development over the past 8 years.
There are 1,000 new housing units and two libraries under construction.
Johnson has canceled three scheduled interviews with the Associated Press but said during a debate last month: "I would stand my character up against anybody. It's unfortunate that when you decide to run for public office, there are going to be a lot of allegations and mudslinging and things that aren't true."
Johnson, who earned a political-science degree while playing basketball at the University of California, returned to Sacramento after playing 12 seasons with the Phoenix Suns to launch redevelopment projects and turn his former high school into a charter school with ambitious goals.
He said he became disillusioned with the city's leadership and bureaucracy, frustrations that prompted his run for mayor. The rough-and-tumble of a high-stakes political campaign has proved far scrappier than any NBA matchup he was part of, Johnson said.
Shortly after he entered the race, challengers made public two previous police investigations into whether he behaved inappropriately with teenage girls.
Phoenix police investigated an allegation that Johnson, then 29, molested a 16-year-old girl in 1995. No charges were filed, but the Bee obtained a legal document that showed Johnson paid the girl $230,000 in a confidential settlement.
In 2007, a student at the school Johnson helped develop, Sacramento Charter High, accused him of touching her inappropriately. Police investigated and found the claims to be without merit. As in the Phoenix case, no charges were filed.
Johnson emphasizes that he was not charged in either case and has cited confidentiality in declining to address the accusations in detail. But he said he has knocked on nearly 20,000 doors in his grassroots campaign, and voters have only rarely brought up the allegations.
That demonstrates they're more concerned about issues such as rising crime and downtown development, he said. Johnson characterized the attacks against him as part of a "dirty campaign" designed to deflect attention from the issues.
Fargo, a former community activist who ran largely unchallenged in 2004, also has had her image tarnished during the campaign.
She refused to denounce a negative union mailer that attacked Johnson's character and last week asked the city's police chief to reopen the investigation into the girl's allegation at Sacramento High. The police chief declined.
She has acknowledged acting slowly on two major city projects that have been stalled for years: remaking a contaminated former railyard into a housing and entertainment complex and transforming the run-down K Street corridor a block from the Capitol.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent in a field that also includes some lesser-known candidates, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff in November. *