California Forum

Kevin Johnson and Judge Roy Moore are very different, but they share a similarity

Kevin Johnson's history of sexual misconduct allegations

Allegation of sexual misconduct have dogged Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson for decades, ever since he was a star basketball player for the Suns in Phoenix.
Up Next
Allegation of sexual misconduct have dogged Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson for decades, ever since he was a star basketball player for the Suns in Phoenix.

A drama over sex, power and morality is playing out in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama where Judge Roy Moore faces voters on Tuesday.

It’s the story of a man accused of preying on teenage girls. And it hits close to home in Sacramento because of similarities to a former local politician.


Moore is a character plucked out of central casting: white, southern, Evangelical, wears a cowboy hat. But what matters most right now is that he’s a Republican.

He was sailing to certain victory in his senate campaign until a few weeks ago, when, as often happens during campaigns, there was an October surprise.

The New York Times reported that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein paid off multiple women for sexual harassment and assault. The allegations shifted the nation’s conscience. Lurid and shocking, the stories set into motion the Weinstein Effect. To my surprise and that of many people, the public believed the victims.

Within a few news cycles, the shroud of secrecy protecting celebrities, politicians and business moguls was shredded. And, snap, the Weinstein Effect empowered women in Alabama to tell their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of Moore decades earlier. He was in his early 30s. They were teenagers; one was 14.

Touching the 14-year-old would be considered unlawful, if there were evidence. While some Republicans shun Moore, many in the Alabama GOP and elsewhere, most notably President Donald Trump, argue that rather than elect a Democrat to a closely-divided U.S. Senate, a vote for Moore is a vote for the “greater good.”

To its credit, the Alabama Media Group, which owns three major papers in the state, editorialized, “This election has become a referendum on whether we will accept this kind of behavior from our leaders.”

We’ll know soon whether a majority of voters in Alabama feel that way.

I cannot help but wonder what would have occurred if the Weinstein Effect had been applied to Kevin Johnson when he was running for Sacramento mayor in 2008.

Johnson was a 29-year-old NBA star playing for the Phoenix Suns in 1996 when a 16-year-old girl told police he molested her. He sent her flowers on her 16th birthday, brought gifts to her house and took her to his house to watch movies, with her mother’s permission.

When she told Phoenix police about the relationship, they arranged a “confrontation call” and recorded it, though the recording did not become public until 2015 when Johnson’s tenure as mayor was almost over.

Over the phone, the girl says: “Well, I was naked and you were naked, and it wasn’t a hug.” Johnson responded that he couldn’t recall being “a hundred percent naked” but admitted to “poor judgment” when his victim referenced a shower they took together. Police filed no charges.

Although voters did not know all the details in 2008, they elected Johnson even though they were aware of allegations that he molested a minor and that he had paid the girl $230,000 to keep quiet.

Johnson’s defenders were saying in 2008 what Moore’s defenders are saying today: there’s no proof, he was never charged with a crime, it happened more than a decade ago.

If Kevin Johnson were running for office today, would voters hold him accountable? Or would they do what I fear voters in Alabama will do in a few days and elect a man accused of molesting a teenager because they refuse to believe the victims – or overlook their stories for what they think is the greater good of keeping a Republican in that seat?

I’m as guilty as anyone of voting for flawed candidates, often for the sake of the “greater good.” But sometimes – as with Johnson and now Moore – the cost is great. It certainly sends the wrong message to victims of abuse.

In this recorded phone clip from 1996, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, then a Phoenix Suns basketball player, and Mandi Koba, 16 at the time, disagree on what happened between the two of them. In the call, Koba contends that it was more than a hug

Karen Hanretty worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger when he ran for governor in 2004, and was National Republican Congressional Committee communications director. She lives in Reno and represents clients in Sacramento,

Related stories from Sacramento Bee