Boy Wonder

updated 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

AT 6'7", PHOENIX MAYOR PAUL JOHNSON Jr. can't help but stand tall among administrators of U.S. cities. But it certainly isn't just his height that has taken him and Phoenix to the top of the heap. Mostly as a result of Johnson's "quality management," says a survey in the current issue of City & State magazine, Arizona's capital placed first (in a tie with San Diego) as the most fiscally sound among the 50 biggest U.S. cities.

None of that came as a surprise to his constituents. Though unusually young as mayors go, Johnson, at 32, won election in October with an astounding 99.8 percent of the vote. Granted, his opponents were only write-ins, but Johnson had already served a successful, appointed two-year term (the previous Mayor, Terry Goddard, left his seat to run for Governor). No longer bothered by the "boy Mayor" tag, Johnson now says, "As long as 99 percent keep voting for me, people can call me whatever they want."

At a time when many mayors are buffeted by financial crises in a recession, Johnson succeeded in slashing Phoenix's budget last year by five percent, or $20 million. And he managed that without alienating his city employees, in part thanks to his Operation Occupation, in which he goes on the job one day a month with firemen, for example, or vice-squad officers. Armed with a bucket, Johnson recently slipped into a harness and allowed sewer workers to lower him by crane into a manhole. As he descended into the filth, he realized he was surrounded by an inch-thick carpet of winged cockroaches. "Pull me out!" he shouted, but his chuckling coworkers-for-the-day did so only after he had finished scooping out the debris at the bottom. "I had to do the job," the Mayor said good-naturedly afterward.

Pluck has been a Johnson trademark since boyhood. The eldest of nine children born to Paul Sr., a construction-company owner, and Yvonne Johnson, who owns a small tavern (they are now cattle and alfalfa ranchers), the future Mayor was married after his high school graduation in 1977. He was 18, and his wife, Christa, was 17, and soon Johnson had to suspend his college studies and work in construction—eventually starting his own company—to support a family. Their first child, Paul 111, now 14, was born prematurely and was hospitalized for six months with severe respiratory problems. "We grew up together," Christa recalls of those first "tough" years nursing their child to health. Their second son, Justin, now 10, was born in 1981. Two years later Johnson, who had dreamed of a career in government, ran for and lost a city council seat, then ran again and won in 1985. "We knocked on 45,000 doors," he recalls, "every registered door in the district."

Johnson, who is a Democrat and earns $37,500 a year, insists that professionalism among employees, not partisan politics, plays a key role in the city's fiscal success. Government, Johnson says, is only a "catalyst and tool" in attacking urban problems—with people and "individual accountability" providing the real solutions.

LEE POWELL in Phoenix

From Our Partners