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March 20, 2011

The New American Couple

the new american couple
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Michelle Rhee, 41, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools System and founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, an advocacy group for children in public education, and Kevin Johnson, 45, former NBA player and current mayor of Sacramento, California

How did you initially get together?
Kevin: Michelle and I met in Washington, D.C. at a Teach for America event. Ironically, we both ended up in public service, which we never imagined.

Michelle: We had a business relationship for three years. I was on the board of the charter school he founded, St. HOPE Academy, in Sacramento. When Kevin asked me out — after I became chancellor of D.C. schools and quit the board — I said, "That's crazy. We disagree a lot." He said, "That's just work. It doesn't have to be that way." We were in Denver for the 2008 Democratic Convention and had dinner on the rooftop of a Mexican restaurant. He was very different from what I thought he would be.

What was the attraction?
Kevin: Our passion for education.

Michelle: Definitely the work ethic. He had e-mailed, asking me to get involved with his school. I e-mailed back and said I couldn't do it. It was 2 a.m. when I sent the e-mail, and just a few seconds later, I heard the ding! on my computer. He'd e-mailed back one word: "Nope." I was impressed that he was working so late. And I loved the fact that he wouldn't take no for an answer.

What were your first, false impressions of each other?
Kevin: Michelle can answer that.

Michelle: I knew that he was a former basketball player, and I assumed he was just this NBA figurehead who didn't do any actual work and wasn't really engaged. It was astonishing to learn that he was running this organization — he was passionate about education reform and a very hard worker.

How compatible are you?
Kevin: Very. She'd probably say I'm neater and better organized than she is. Also, that I'm more health-conscious. Michelle has an incredible metabolism. She's tiny, yet eats whatever she wants. I'm proud to say we work out together.

Michelle: I love food! Kevin doesn't love food the way I do. I say, I live to eat and Kevin eats to live! He was a professional athlete, so he's generally more aware of what he eats; I love junk food.

Your relationship is bicoastal, and you spend lots of time apart. What do you text each other?
Kevin: We text and e-mail "lovey-doveys" throughout the day.

Michelle: [laughs] Nothing R-rated. But we are loving and affectionate with each other. Also, we're news junkies, so we text each other current events.

What's the first thing you do when you get off the plane?
Kevin: We text to let the other know we've landed and ask, "Are you here yet?" And when we see each other, we hug and smooch!

Michelle: I usually fly in late, so we have a late dinner — usually at Mikuni's, a sushi place. Then we go to sleep.

What's date night like?
Kevin: We're homebodies.

Michelle: We go out with his mom! That doesn't sound romantic, but I really love her. We'll go see a movie or stroll around looking at sidewalk art sales. We're obsessed with Mad Men, and on Sunday nights we'll watch it before I get on a red-eye back to D.C.

Who wins the arguments?

Kevin: One person is always right. If we disagree, I say, "Yes, dear."

Michelle: Well, I like to think that I'm always right, but all those pre-dating years of arguments taught us how to fight fair.

How do you protect your bond against public scrutiny? For example, in a Time magazine story, Michelle was called "just plain mean," while critics have labeled Kevin "power hungry."
Kevin: We have thick skin. It's harder for me when people criticize Michelle unfairly. I've had to restrain myself from firing off an e-mail or making a phone call. Michelle fights hard for kids, which is why she's characterized as "mean." But she's a big softie!

Michelle: I don't care when it happens to me, but I'm very defensive when Kevin is criticized. He's not power hungry. He has very little power to change things. His predecessors never fought for the power it takes to make real changes. But if the criticism is valid, we're honest with each other.

Why did you call off your wedding last September?
Kevin: We wanted to get married in Sacramento — the publicity would have been good for city business — but it quickly became a media circus.

Michelle: The local paper got a hold of our invitation and printed it. There were security issues.

You both always look so polished. Who chooses your outfits?
Kevin: That's Michelle's department.

Michelle: I like clothes and make an effort to ensure we both look nice. Before leaving Sacramento, I lay out Kevin's out fits for the week, and he often calls me right before an event, asking, "Which tie should I wear? Which shoes?" But I also ask his opinion on what to wear, and he's always right. He has very good taste.

— Andrea Todd

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