Barb’s Bold Spending

Hypothetical logo for Barb 2017.
I’ve known Barb Johnson was political magic since early last year, when she faced down the new members of the Minneapolis City Council, and cobbled together enough support to re-establish herself as President. But it wasn’t until very recently that I realized there’s a lot more to learn about Barb.

Newer residents of Minneapolis might be surprised to learn (as I was) that Barb Johnson is the daughter of former City Council President Alice Raineville; and that the Ward 4 seat has been in her family for the last 44 years. Meanwhile, our city’s longtime residents might be surprised to learn that Barb is a YouTube sensation (1, 2).

In the midst of looking into City Council fundraising for 2017, I noticed something else. Johnson’s campaign is sending an awful lot of money to Comcast, CenturyLink, Verizon, and Frontier Communications. In the last five years her campaign has spent a total of almost $21,000 on cable TV, internet, landline, fax, and cell phone service; this includes service for her Minneapolis home as well as a second residence. Since 2010, the amount spent on Johnson’s Comcast bill alone ($8,211) would nearly have funded her opponent’s entire 2013 campaign ($9,614).

Barb’s questionable campaign spending since 2010.

It’s not that Johnson spends vastly more than some of her big-spending colleagues, though she did spend the most in 2014: $15,820 (kind of a lot for a non-election year). Jacob Frey spends a bunch on consultants. Lisa Goodman funds a number of causes and events, and gives plenty to other political candidates. Barb Johnson’s spending stands out because of it’s dubious relationship to politics.

I’m not the first to notice Council President Johnson’s unorthodox spending. From a 2009 City Pages article:

“I consider myself to be campaigning continuously—all the time,” Johnson says. “I can’t go to the grocery store or to church without bumping into a constituent and being asked a question, which is the life of a politician.” 

That’s why, Johnson says, she feels okay about charging her campaign supporters for her dry-cleaning, haircuts, cell phone, internet and cable television service for her home, AAA coverage for her car, and a land line for her lake house.

Questions about her campaign-funded $90 haircuts led to Barb’s odd assertion (later debunked) that City Pages had altered her image in a 2004 cover story–to make her look better (raising the question: why pay if they’ll do the photoshop for free?).

2010: Johnson ordered to repay her campaign $2,563 in misused funds.

In the end, Barb was fined $200 by a panel of judges for using campaign funds to pay for hair-styling, dry-cleaning, and a AAA membership. She was forced to repay her campaign $2,563 in misused funds. But that same ruling found that her cable, internet, and phone costs were legitimate campaign expenses. While not found to violate campaign rules, much of this spending is pretty embarrassing. Johnson, undeterred, has continued to pay those bills with campaign money over the last five years.

On expense forms, Johnson’s campaign lists Comcast bill payments as “multimedia communication with constituents” (listing it as “XFINITY Double Play with Blast!” would probably raise red flags). That sort of labeling seems misleading, though I can’t discount the possibility that neighbors periodically crowd into the Johnson household to watch DVR replays of Barb holding court on Minneapolis’ public affairs Channel 79.

CenturyLink and Comcast expenses from 2013.

Johnson told City Pages in 2009 that she would not subscribe to cable television or internet service if she weren’t a politician in constant campaign mode. According to Barb, these expenses are related to keeping up with meetings of the Hennepin County Board and the City of Minneapolis. That’s a lot of money to pay for the likes of Channel 79 (it’s why I pirate the episodes off YouTube).

It’s hard to argue that all of these home entertainment and telecommunications expenses are campaign-related. I don’t buy the idea that your average non-councilperson with the means to afford a second home would go without internet access in the year 2015. Council President Johnson’s campaign pays for a cell phone and two landlines. Would average citizen Barb Q. Public go without any sort of telephone service at all?

Common sense says these expenses, or at least some significant portion of them, are personal, rather than campaign-related. There’s a reason we have rules against campaign donations going straight into a candidate’s pocket. Just because you can get away with it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be embarrassed enough to stop doing it.

Johnson campaign annual reports: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014

Leaning Tower’s Sidewalk-Obstructing Patio

We’ve got a patio situation. Leaning Tower of Pizza maintains a front sidewalk patio. Patios are great. I enjoy eating in the outdoors. But this patio is too big for this section of sidewalk. It has seemed lately that this patio is just a little more in the way each day. Now I have proof.

Four days growth. It’ll consume the coin laundry across the street by year’s end.
The Leaning Tower’s patio shoves you right into a bus bench. There’s no space for two people to walk side by side, complicating things for those traveling in opposite directions, not to mention the disabled. Now someone (Leaning Tower?) has pushed the bus bench practically into Lyndale Avenue. If you’re waiting for the bus, bring your knees up high–or a car will surely park on your toes.

In an effort to reclaim this real estate for transit riders and pedestrians, we’ve put in a call to 311. You should too.

One set of bus bench footprints prove it’s been moved. No evidence Jesus is responsible.

UPDATE 8/5/2015: The Leaning Tower patio has been reined in; pedestrians and bus riders have more space than ever. Minneapolis 311 works. No phone call required. Email them pictures of whatever you happen to be cranky about.

Developers Still Building Parking; Whittier Alliance Still Terrible

image: flickr

Sixty-four units of affordable “workforce” housing are coming to the Whittier neighborhood. This is good for Whittier, and Minneapolis as a whole, which has a need for affordable housing. The project will have plenty of parking, which is disappointing, but not surprising (I once made a bold prediction that we hadn’t seen the end of off-street parking in Minneapolis).

You might think Whittier–with over half of households cost burdened, a third living in poverty, and a quarter without cars–would be a logical place to make your affordable housing more affordable by building less parking. But in this case, the developer anticipates a building occupied by car owners, which means giving residents a place to store them. So much for the aparkolypse. Rest easy Chicken Littles, the sky isn’t falling nearly fast enough.

More surprising than the persistence of parking are comments directed at the developer from official representatives of the Whittier Alliance:

“I think you’re underestimating the neighborhood in terms of design, character and cost,” [Executive Director] Biehn said. 

[Board Chair] Christ requested larger units. She said families are desperate to find larger apartments in the neighborhood. She also suggested that the neighborhood could handle higher-priced rents.

Neighborhood associations like the Whittier Alliance are city-funded, and ostensibly tasked with advocating on behalf of neighborhood residents. In Whittier, that would mean advocating for the 83 percent of residents who are renters, most of whom already spend too much of their income on housing. But the Whittier Alliance doesn’t even pretend to do that; they come right out and ask for higher rents. Six months after implementing radically restrictive rules that exclude renters, the Whittier Alliance is still doing a terrible job representing neighborhood residents.

“We’re trying to build reasonably-priced housing.” N’hood org: “What about EV charging stations and a rooftop deck?”

— Anton (@anton612) July 23, 2015 

Analysis of Minneapolis City Council 2014 Fundraising

There’s still 846 days until the 2017 election, but Minneapolis City Council Members are already out there raising money. I have combed through 2014’s campaign finance reports to assess how each of them is doing on the financial road to 2017.

Keith Reich, Ward 1
2014 Money Raised: $250
2014 Cash on Hand: $9,869
2013 Campaign Spending: $12,671.98

Keith Reich doesn’t give flashy quotes like Jacob Frey or have Barb Johnson’s Channel 79 highlight reel. This is a man you think about so infrequently that you probably didn’t even notice his name isn’t Keith, it’s Kevin. And I bet you also didn’t notice that’s not a picture of Minneapolis Council Member Kevin Reich–it’s Indiana rheumatologist Keith Reich. Still, he’s got a respectable $10,000 in the bank which should enable him to remind his constituents who they voted for last time around.

Cam Gordon, Ward 2
2014 Money Raised: $845
2014 Cash on Hand: $1,238.32
2013 Campaign Spending: $4,052.02
Debt: $345.98

Doesn’t raise a lot, doesn’t spend a lot. Gordon spent almost exactly $1 per vote received in 2013 ($4,052 for 4,060 votes). This was the lowest dollar per vote ratio of any candidate.

Jacob Frey, Ward 3
2014 Money Raised: $45,365.32
2014 Cash on Hand: $48,591.33
2013 Campaign Spending: $122,022.07
Debt: $10,000

Frey raised double the amount of the next highest campaign. Frey’s debt is from a loan he gave his campaign prior to the 2013 election.

This is Minneapolis’ most expensive ward. In 2013, incumbent Diane Hofstede spent $107,000 and lost, flushing $72,000 of her own money in the process.

Frey’s opponent in 2013 lost nearly $72,000 in loans to her campaign.

Barb Johnson, Ward 4
2014 Money Raised: $18,400.00
2014 Cash on Hand: $10,908.41
2013 Campaign Spending: $68,777.43

Council President Barb Johnson ($31.94) came in just behind Jacob Frey ($32.74) in spending per vote received in 2013. She was the biggest campaign spender in 2014, and that’s surprising because the campaign doesn’t really start until 2017.

No other campaigns came close to being this bloated. Johnson spent $4,340 in 2014–not an election year–to pay for internet, cable TV, and landline service for both her homes, as well as her Verizon cell phone bill (this deserves a blog post by itself). In total, she spent nearly $16,000 last year. For comparison, Johnson’s top opponent spent $9,600 in 2013, which was an actual election year.

Ward 4 has the lowest turnout in the city at 23 percent. Combine this fact with Johnson’s seeming unwillingness to spend her substantial sums on actual campaign stuff, and, well, you probably still wouldn’t be surprised that Barb will almost certainly win reelection in 2017.

Blong Yang, Ward 5
2014 Money Raised: $9,609.60
2014 Cash on Hand: $0
2013 Campaign Spending: $40,845.13
Debt: 4,933.62

I would imagine 2013 was a hard fought campaign in Ward 5. Three candidates got more than 20 percent of the vote. Yang scrapped his way to 40 percent and came out ahead in the second round of tabulating ranked choice voting. This is another ward with shockingly low turnout (23.53%).

Yang had no cash at the end of 2014, so he may be vulnerable to a well-funded challenger in 2017. All the money raised in 2014 went towards fundraising expenses and to pay down part of a loan he gave his campaign in 2013.

Abdi Warsame, Ward 6
2014 Money Raised: $22,470.75
2014 Cash on Hand: $16,592.97
2013 Campaign Spending: $50,841.47

Second place to Frey for money raised in 2014, but this is a cheaper ward to run in.

Lisa Goodman, Ward 7
2014 Money Raised:  $19,049.66
2014 Cash on Hand: $95,389.74
2013 Campaign Spending: $49,927.87

Lisa Goodman has so much money she could win two campaigns simultaneously with both bank accounts tied behind her back. The thing I noticed about Lisa Goodman’s 2014 expenditures is that she sponsors a lot of events ($5,290), and donates to other campaigns and organizations ($1,270). If you have an event or campaign that needs sponsoring, ask Lisa.

EDIT: I somehow overlooked that Lisa Goodman spent $50,000 in 2013 running unopposed.

Elizabeth Glidden, Ward 8
2014 Money Raised: $4,755.00
2014 Cash on Hand: $7,501.69
2013 Campaign Spending: $20,444.82

Doesn’t need money. Raises it anyway. Won 84 percent of the vote in 2013, the highest of any candidate citywide. Admittedly, her challenger was named “undervote.”

Alondra Cano, Ward 9
2014 Money Raised: $4,380
2014 Cash on Hand: $1,478.01
2013 Campaign Spending: 2013 report not available

Received less than 40 percent of first choice votes in 2013, which may indicate vulnerability.

Cano spent $1,200 on email in 2014, yet only $125 on tortas. I’d prefer to see an operation where those numbers are reversed; she may need a campaign shake-up.

Lisa Bender, Ward 10
2014 Money Raised: $14,277.71
2014 Cash on Hand: $16,645.99
2013 Campaign Spending: $61,099.47

Bender is running a super-lean operation. Her only expense for 2014 was $288 to keep the website running. Her 2013 spending seems like a lot, until you realize her incumbent opponent spent 35 percent more money ($82,559) to get less than half as many votes.

Facebook conspiracy theorists might be interested to see the $250 donation from someone listing their name only as the “Boegemann” (guessing it’s Dutch for “developer”).

John Quincy, Ward 11
2014 Money Raised: $.18
2014 Cash on Hand: $1,099.77
2013 Campaign Spending: $10,114.21

Quincy’s fundraising haul for 2014 looks tiny. The real story: it’s interest accrued on funds left over from 2013. The legend: John Quincy wrote himself a check for 18 cents just to mock his future opponents; as a show of confidence, he’s prepared to wait until 2018 before lifting a finger to run for reelection in 2017. Show your support by writing him a check for 18 cents. Put “$.18 for 2018!” in the memo.

Andrew Johnson, Ward 12
2014 Money Raised: $11,461
2014 Cash on Hand: $10,641.05
2013 Campaign Spending: $42,204.23
Debt: $20,500

Johnson’s did well in 2014, but he has the most debt of any candidate, in the form of a loan he gave his campaign prior to the 2013 election. Johnson addresses his debt in this recent Strib article on City Council fundraising.

Johnson’s biggest expense in 2014 was $808 for a 75-person buffet fundraiser at the Gandhi Mahal restaurant. His campaign expense reports do not indicate how much he paid for that bottomless pitcher of water he drinks from during City Council meetings.

Linea Palmisano, Ward 13
2014 Money Raised: $13,392
2014 Cash on Hand: $9,648.32
2013 Campaign Cost: $50,193.04
Debt: $6,000

At 46 percent, Ward 13 had by far the highest turnout of any ward in the city. You’d think such accomplished voters would be beyond the influence of money, yet Palmisano persists in fundraising for 2017.