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