From the pole to the polls

Hooters, morality and city politics

class=img_thumbleft>A mildly heated exchange has been going on this week at Minneapolis Issues, the e-forum dedicated to local politics and other minutia.

The problem began when one post noted that Natalie Johnson Lee, the incumbent candidate in the city's Fifth Ward race, had a rather auspicious donor on her campaign finance report: Augie's, the strip club on Hennepin Avenue downtown.

This was too unsavory for some list members, many of whom had a perplexing faux-morality reaction. "Natalie should give the money back," one poster concluded.

But if those deriding Johnson Lee are truly vexed, they might want to check out the campaign donations of Lisa Goodman, the Seventh Ward incumbent who also represents a good chunk of downtown. She lists a campaign donation from one of the owners of the Seville, a strip club near First Avenue that opened with very quiet council approval about a year ago.

Why does any of this matter? It doesn't, really. There's nothing wrong with candidates taking personal from business owners who operate legally within their wards. But the morality play is notable for a couple of reasons.

First, Johnson Lee is by many accounts a relatively religious person, and not one terribly entwined in the world of smut. Nevertheless, it's oddly become a campaign issue, since many of her critics--and her opponent, Don Samuels--have pointed to her husband's latest endeavor. Travis Lee publishes a monthly "nightlife" rag that has advertising that's relatively tame compared to what's in the back of City Pages. Nevertheless, Travis has been labled as some kind of porn peddler.

But Goodman's contribution is more interesting in a sense. Goodman has been vocal in the latest "controversy" involving Block E, the one regarding the news that Hooters is apparently poised to fill a long-vacant space in the building. "Hooters is just so tacky," Goodman apprently told the Star Tribune yesterday.

(To be fair, there may be legitimate concern about having a chain restaurant in a development that is already full of chain businesses. But council critics--and even the mayor--have chosen to frame the debate, for the most part, around the morality card. "He's very disappointed," R.T. Rybak's spokesman said, "especially as the father of two teenagers who love going to Block E." Please.)

Perhaps Goodman has a point--the company's motto is "Delightfully tacky yet unrefined." But Hooters is a legitimate and legal business, much like Augie's and even--ahem--the Seville. Who knows, maybe four years from now, city council members may find out that Hooters money is, in fact, green after all.

UPDATE: One of the posts on Minneapolis Issues regarding Natalie Johnson Lee's campaign had to do with how the Augie's donation was filed. It was filed under the name of the business and not an individual. This is illegal (see comments section), but still not the reason folks seemed so offended by the donation.

For the record, Johnson Lee herself caught the error, and says she did indeed send the check back, for legal--not moral--reasons. There were two other donations on her campaign report credited to businesses, all totaling $600 (out of more than $20,000 she's accrued). Johnson Lee says she returned all checks, and received the donations back from individuals.

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