Before a crowd of 400 at the Coliseum, Kevin Johnson was highlighting the diverse backgrounds of his development team vying to remake St. Petersburg’s 86-acre Tropicana Field site when the slideshow behind him skipped ahead.
Johnson asked the person manning the slides to go back a click.
“Designers and engineers, diversity from top to bottom,” he repeated.
Then the slide skipped again.
“Gimme the clicker,” Johnson said, chuckling. “Point guard, point guard!”
It’s his nature: Johnson can’t help but run point, whether it’s on a basketball court, as the head of a major American city, or while manning a slideshow in downtown St. Petersburg. The former NBA all-star and two-term mayor of Sacramento has turned his attention to Florida as a principal of Sugar Hill Community Partners, finalists in the multi-billion-dollar race to remake the Trop site.
The Sugar Hill proposal is led by San Francisco developers JMA Ventures, in which Johnson is a partner. But he’s their public face — the person who speaks first in meetings, who makes quick connections, who can share firsthand insights about navigating the civic waters around a major stadium project.
This wealth of public experience comes with no small share of controversy. Johnson has faced investigations of allegations ranging from sexual assault to misuse of federal funds to neglect of the neighborhood he once called home.
Still, with St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch expected to name his preferred development proposal on Jan. 30, Johnson’s team sees him as an asset.
“Having someone actively involved as part of the pursuit here who really understands what this looks like from the mayor’s seat, we felt was tremendously valuable,” said David Carlock, Sugar Hill’s development manager. “It’s a close to unique, certainly very unusual set of skills.”
Through a Sugar Hill spokesperson, Johnson, 56, declined requests for an interview. In response to questions about Johnson’s past, JMA president Todd Chapman called him “a strong, mission-driven leader who will continue to use his resources to lift up others.”
“Kevin has gone through intense public scrutiny since those unfounded accusations decades ago,” Chapman wrote in an email. “Before embarking on its partnership with Kevin, JMA reviewed all public documentation regarding the historical matters and had extensive discussions with Kevin and developed confidence in his ethics and capabilities.”
For a man who has starred in both sports and politics, remaking St. Petersburg’s urban core and baseball identity would be a remarkable, unexpected third act.
“I have fallen in love with St. Pete, the community, the interaction, the vibe, the charm, the breweries, the energy — incredible,” he told the Coliseum crowd. “For us, and me, this is personal.”
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‘An intense salesman’
Johnson grew up in a historically Black part of Sacramento called Oak Park, which he likens to the Gas Plant District, the St. Petersburg neighborhood that was razed to make room for the Trop.
“In my community, there were broken promises, promises not kept, no different from what happened in the historic Gas Plant District,” Johnson said at the Coliseum. “This isn’t just about doing a big mixed-use project that’s going to be cool. It’s got to have all those elements, but we’ve also got to make good on the promises of the past.”
Johnson was a baseball player first, and a good one; he played a little bit at the University of California and had a minor-league cup of coffee with the Oakland A’s.
As a basketball star, however, he was unstoppable. Charitable and intellectually curious off the court, as a high schooler, he played with a confidence bordering on cockiness. The label bothered him, though he didn’t dismiss it.
“The worst thing is that people that don’t even know me prejudge me,” he told the Sacramento Bee in 1983. “They think I’m big-headed or a showboat. I guess that goes with all of it. But I’m not going to say anything to make people think that way.”
In 1987, the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted Johnson seventh overall, two spots behind Scottie Pippen and four ahead of Reggie Miller — Hall of Famers, both. He was traded midway through his rookie season to Phoenix, where he thrived: 11 playoff appearances, five All-NBA teams, three All-Star games and one Most Improved Player award. The Suns retired his No. 7 in 2001.
Johnson had studied political science at Cal, and quickly put what he had learned to work, opening an after-school program in Oak Park called St. Hope Academy in 1989. After President George H.W. Bush highlighted Johnson and his community work as one of his “thousand points of light,” the program grew; by the time he retired in 2001, he was pushing to make St. Hope a charter school. The project had wide support and a broad network of benefactors, and Johnson was seen as a rising political star.
The conversation changed when he ran for Sacramento mayor in 2008. During the campaign, allegations resurfaced from an old Phoenix New Times report that in 1995, Johnson had inappropriately touched a 16-year-old girl, later paying her $230,000 to stay quiet. No charges were filed, and Johnson vehemently denied the allegations, though in recorded phone conversations from that time, later broadcast on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” he appeared to acknowledge that some intimate contact took place.
There was more. A 2007 Sacramento Bee investigation into dozens of code violations at his Oak Park properties led to opposition mailers labeling him a slumlord. He faced a federal lawsuit alleging the misuse of more than $800,000 in AmeriCorps funding earmarked for a volunteer program at St. Hope. The resulting investigation brought to light two more allegations of sexual misconduct, including one involving a 17-year-old girl. Police investigated that case and did not bring charges. Johnson and St. Hope settled the AmeriCorps suit to the tune of $424,000.
Once in office, Johnson pressed for more city control over public schools — such as his alma mater, Sacramento High School, which in 2003 became a public charter overseen by St. Hope. (Johnson’s wife, former Washington, D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, is a polarizing education reform advocate who was featured in the documentary Waiting for Superman, and who later served as an education adviser to U.S. Sen. Rick Scott when he was Florida’s governor.)
Johnson often used private email accounts and cell phones for official city business, as well as city resources for personal matters — and on more than one occasion went to court with local media, and even the city itself, over requests for the release of public records. One such lawsuit came in 2015 after Johnson reportedly used city resources in a push to take over the National Conference of Black Mayors, a then-40-year-old organization that, shortly after Johnson’s time at the helm, filed for bankruptcy.
And in 2015, scandal again broke when a city employee filed a harassment complaint against Johnson. He denied the claims. Although a city investigation found them unsubstantiated, he was advised to “refrain from hugging or touching anyone” while on city business, according to the Bee.
Through it all, Johnson remained popular enough to be not only reelected by a landslide in 2012, but named president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2014. R.E. Graswich, a longtime Sacramento journalist and media consultant who worked for Johnson at city hall, called him a “good mayor,” intense and tenacious, with a life story that commands attention.
“Because of who he is, he’s able to open these doors that nobody else can open,” Graswich said. “He’d probably deny this, but he was seriously going to run for governor.”
Johnson’s signature achievement: Keeping the NBA’s Sacramento Kings in town by brokering the sale of a struggling downtown mall to a San Francisco real estate development group that would later flip it to the Kings, paving the way for what is now the Golden 1 Center.
That development group: JMA Ventures.
When Sacramento’s city council voted to approve $255 million in public funding for the stadium, according to the Bee, Johnson leaped from his seat, pumping his fist.
“I consider this Sacramento’s finest hour,” he said.
Since leaving office, Johnson has partnered with JMA as an equity or general partner on other projects, including a luxury residential development in Phoenix a couple of blocks from the Suns’ home arena. He founded a restaurant, Fixins Soul Kitchen, that has locations in Sacramento and Los Angeles. And he started a venture capital fund aimed at investing in minority-owned businesses, with JMA’s Chapman among his co-investors.
But even while working on the Trop bid, Johnson hasn’t managed to avoid negative headlines. In December, the independent Hawaiian news outlet Honolulu Civil Beat reported that Johnson has for years pressed state officials and appointees to approve a controversial biomass power plant fueled by burning locally grown eucalyptus trees, all without formally registering as a lobbyist. The power plant’s biggest financial backer is a friend of Johnson’s named Jennifer Johnson, the CEO of global investment firm Franklin Templeton, which has a large campus in Sacramento — and another in St. Petersburg.
Aside from the restaurant, Johnson has kept a low profile in his hometown, Graswich said, and it’s unlikely many there know of his work on the Tropicana Field project.
“I think all the sex stuff coming back on him, it disgusted people, and they just had enough of him,” said Graswich, who fell out of Johnson’s orbit after writing a book about the Kings that included inside details about the arena deal. “He’s such an intense individual, an intense salesman when he wants something, and he just pushes and pushes and finally you just say, ‘I’ve heard enough. Just stop talking, please, leave me alone. Go away.’”
For Johnson, “I think there’s zero legacy today” in Sacramento, Graswich added. “No one ever talks about him. It’s as if he never really existed beyond the arena.”
The public eye
The parallels between the public-private deal involving the Kings — another small-market franchise that, without a new stadium, might have relocated — and the Rays’ Tropicana Field saga are obvious.
“We wanted them to stay,” Johnson told the Tampa Bay Times in December. “But I have a responsibility as a mayor that’s bigger than a team, with all due respect. As much as I wanted them to stay, number one, the taxpayers come first. So I have to do right by them.”
That perspective may be a factor in Welch’s decision, Carlock said. (Welch, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.)
“It’s not as if there are hundreds of people who’ve had exactly that same job in this size city, and particularly as it relates to Kevin and Mayor Welch, who both were the first African American mayors of their respective cities,” Carlock said. “I think for sure there’s some common perspective and understanding, or at least appreciation, for what the job entails and what it takes to be successful.”
All the controversy that dogged Johnson in Sacramento has largely remained in the background during this second round of Trop redevelopment bidding. Sugar Hill Community Partners twice has won the endorsement of a coalition of local pastors who visited Sacramento as Johnson’s guests, touring “a once blighted and potentially gentrified community” where the “challenges were extremely similar to ours in St. Pete,” according to a letter to the city last May.
“We were able to live the experience by eating in locally Black-owned restaurants, and shopping in a locally Black-owned bookstore and stores,” read the letter, signed by pastors Brian Brown, Kenneth Irby, Frank Peterman Jr., Manuel Sykes and Clarence Williams. “These experiences brought great energy to our group as we imagined the possibilities for our community, if we have the right stakeholders involved.”
At least one public comment to the city regarding the Trop — submitted the night Johnson outlined Sugar Hill’s proposal at the Coliseum — directly references Johnson’s Oak Park properties, noting that he’s been “accused in the past of being a slumlord ... (and) halting the very kind of progressive development that (he is) claiming to champion here.”
Another resident emailed Welch and other city officials last summer asking why the sexual assault allegations against Johnson didn’t constitute a mark against Sugar Hill.
“Why are we falling prey to cheap antics by developers?” the email read. “What is going on? Are we OK with this man leading the redevelopment of the Trop? He is gallivanting all over town, greasing our religious leaders’ hands, and we’re just saying it is OK. Our actions communicate that the voices of those young women do not matter.”
Welch forwarded the email to his former communications director, adding an “fyi,” but it’s unclear whether any action was taken. Asked last summer by the Times about the allegations, Welch declined to comment. A St. Petersburg spokesperson said this week that the city could not find evidence that any city official ever responded to the email.
Carlock said none of the missteps Johnson may have made in his career have come up in any meetings with community members or elected officials.
“If you’re out in the public eye and you have this kind of exposure, it’s impossible to bat a thousand,” he said. “We wouldn’t in any way diminish any suggestion that there was anything untoward, but we certainly do our diligence and have been completely satisfied that he acted properly.”
Even those who don’t support Sugar Hill’s plan have come away from meetings with Johnson impressed.
“I hope Kevin and Michelle find a home here and live here forever, because we need great families like theirs here,” said Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the Greater St. Pete Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed a plan from the Tampa Bay Rays and global real estate firm Hines. “They’re good people. They want to do the right things. He has great experiences that we can all learn from.”
If JMA wins the Trop project, Johnson will have a stake in the development, with his compensation “aligned with the success of the project over the long term,” said Chapman, the company’s president.
“He will have invested equity capital at risk,” Chapman said.
Carlock said Johnson will remain an active partner, guiding outreach and engagement efforts, and helping implement community benefits programs, particularly those involving minority-owned businesses. He also could be involved in negotiating a development agreement with the city. He’s even explored opening a Fixins Soul Kitchen in St. Petersburg.
“He understands the pressures of being in the seat of a mayor on a major project like this,” Carlock said at a recent community engagement meeting, “and he’s prepared to do the right thing as we, as the Sugar Hill team, remain obligated to the commitments we make to you as a community.”
Graswich, who has covered or worked with Johnson since his days as a Sacramento high schooler, isn’t convinced. Outside of the Kings deal, he said, he never saw Johnson display much interest in big development projects. He could pitch a deal like no one else, but once he’d made the sale, he moved on. It was up to others to get the job done.
“If he gets this deal done in St. Pete, or if he doesn’t, you’ll never see him again,” Graswich said. “He gets excited about something, and then he walks away.”
Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.