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No limits for woman of substance

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2008

Under the bright Middleburg, Va., sun, Sheila Johnson crouches before two nameless and mildly grouchy swans, the newest residents of Salamander Farms.

"What should I name you?" she asks the long-necked birds, her voice soaked with sucralose.

Ms. Johnson turns to Peter Baysdell, the manager of the 200-acre estate and the birds' de facto caretaker.

"Where are they from, Oklahoma?"

"Actually, they're from Chicago," Mr. Baysdell replies.

"Chicago? Ooooh! How about Michelle and Barack? They're Michelle and Barack Obama!"

A friend points out with a chuckle that the birds are white, but that's irrelevant. Ms. Johnson is comfortable with her whimsical homage to the senator and presidential candidate from her home state of Illinois, who she has supported with both her money and influence. As easy as it was for her to ship in swans to add character to the pond of her estate, she also has traveled to South Carolina and other locales to lend support to the presumptive Democratic nominee.

"I am thoroughly impressed by him," Ms. Johnson says. "I am impressed by his passion. I am impressed by his vision. I am impressed by his mind. He's just an amazing human being."

Ms. Johnson does not, however, spend her typical day toiling for Mr. Obama, or anyone else for that matter. There's a company, Salamander Hospitality, that needs running. Someone needs to look after the Washington Mystics basketball team. There are also films to produce and promote and a number of philanthropic causes begging for attention.

On this day, Ms. Johnson has allowed herself to take it easy, having flown back the previous night after helping her son, Brett, go through orientation at the University of Arizona. Tonight, she will host a dinner for an old friend traveling up from Florida. Tomorrow, she may drop by a party hosted by her friend Mark Ein, a local venture capitalist and owner of the new Washington Kastles tennis team.

But her attention is never too far away from her businesses. Lately, she has spent considerable time going over plans for a new luxury hotel up the street in Middleburg. The $130 million Salamander Resort and Spa is scheduled to open in about two years; most recently, Ms. Johnson has been reading voraciously on the new spa trend of "body detoxification."

Travel + Leisure Magazine named Salamander's Woodlands Resort and Inn, near Charleston, S.C., as No. 1 in service among North American resorts. It is one of the few American properties to earn a five-star rating from the Mobil Travel Guide. Salamander also last year bought the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Tampa, Fla., which recently became host to a new PGA Tour golf event.

"I want to capture a unique market, where people can feel a total escape," Ms. Johnson says. "Anyone can go to any midsize or midlevel hotel. That's not what I want to do. Everything I do I try to aim for excellence. Because that's what I feel is important. I want to have my handprint, my thumbprint on anything I put out there."

Even the dinner on this night will have Ms. Johnson's fingerprints all over it, literally. Donning a green apron, she coats a tray of Cornish hens with oil and herbs, turning them over in her hands like duckpin bowling balls. She has not bothered to remove the diamond rings that glisten on her fingers.

"I love to entertain," she says, as if the words are part of a song.

It is the entertainment business that helped launch Ms. Johnson into prominence as a businesswoman in Washington. Her ex-husband, Robert L. Johnson, was the founder of Black Entertainment Television, and the two became billionaires when Viacom bought the network in 1999.

The couple divorced in 2002, and she immediately gained status as one of the wealthiest black women in the United States, with a net worth approaching $1 billion. She remarried in 2005 to William Newman, a judge in Arlington County.

She since has become a force in business in her own right, with her most high-profile position as president and managing partner of the Women's National Basketball Association's Mystics. She took over control of the team in 2005 and remains one of the few women with an ownership stake of a WNBA franchise. She has become fast friends with new female owners in Los Angeles and Seattle and has pushed for more independent owners to enter the fray.

"For so long, the WNBA has been an extension of the NBA team and really has been the dirty rag at the end of the season," Ms. Johnson says. "So we have whatever's left of whatever energy the NBA staff has. They throw them out there and say, 'OK, let's make this work through the summer.´ By me taking it over and having my own staff, we run that team year round."

Ms. Johnson talks effusively about the Mystics players and their ability to serve as role models, particularly to young women. And much of her work revolves around supporting the advancement of women in society.

Last year, she worked with CARE, a global humanitarian organization, on a campaign to connect with women in impoverished countries. She produced a documentary, "A Powerful Noise," that chronicled the stories of such women, and she currently is helping develop a documentary about female matadors in Spain.

Ms. Johnson also assisted Ted Leonsis, the former AOL executive and the majority owner of the Mystics and Washington Capitals, with the financing for "Kicking It," a film about an international soccer tournament for homeless people.

"Whatever she does, she gets totally committed to," said Mr. Ein, another co-producer of "Kicking It." "She throws her mind and her energy and her passion behind all her projects. And she does it in a really nice way that makes everyone else feel supportive of whatever she's doing."

But Ms. Johnson does not wholeheartedly embrace the notion that she is influential. Unlike her friend Mr. Obama, she has no interest in running for public office. And she is particularly demure when asked about her status as female, black and rich.

"I don't even look at that, I don't like to look at my own press releases," she says. "I just do what I want to do in life, and however things fall it's the way they fall. Because if I concentrate on being the first African-American to do something, you're paralyzed from doing anything else. If opportunities open up, you go for them."