Leading DFL candidates for an open City Council seat in south Minneapolis are confronting past online postings and unpaid bills as they jockey for support two weeks before Election Day.
Andrew Johnson, 29, who is endorsed by Mayor R.T. Rybak, operated two now-defunct websites in his late teens where he wrote about drug use, cutting himself, pornography, and purchasing explosive chemicals to make rockets and fireworks. He also posted gory, altered photos of himself on a different website a decade ago, which could be seen online until this week.
His leading opponent in the Ward 12 race, Ben Gisselman, is touting himself as the fiscally responsible candidate, but has been dogged in recent years by unpaid credit cards and other bills. He has been sued by creditors five times — four in recent years — and ordered by judges to pay about $55,000.
Sandy Colvin Roy, who has represented the ward in the eastern part of south Minneapolis for 16 years, opted not to run for re-election after Johnson blocked her from winning the DFL endorsement. She is backing Gisselman. The three other candidates in the race are Green Party-endorsed Chris Lautenschlager, independent Charlie Casserly and DFLer Dick Franson.
Johnson operated two websites, b00bies.com and maniackiller.com, between 2002 and 2003, which remained available through an online tool that archives Internet pages until they were taken down Friday afternoon. The sites paint a picture of an angst-ridden, depressed teen experimenting with drugs and relationships as he seeks his place in the world.
Reviewing the postings this week at the Star Tribune, Johnson said they occurred during a roughly 18-month time of his life when he was "struggling, calling out for help" and had been diagnosed with depression. It ended, he said, when he found his post-high school career path and started working at Best Buy's Geek Squad. He is now president of the Longfellow Community Council and until recently worked at Target as a systems engineer.
"I am one of the very first people in our generation who is going to run for office and have to deal with having lived their entire life online," he said during the interview. He hopes his story will be one of "trials to triumph" for modern teenagers who feel trapped by things they've posted online.
"I certainly wouldn't want anything written to confirm to them that you can't escape from a troubled past or a time when you were depressed or suffering in some way," he said, referring to the newspaper article he was being interviewed for. "There is hope."
The two sites included detailed explanations of how to grow marijuana, how to create a makeshift pipe with a soda can and how to shoplift. He wrote about buying black powder and ammonium nitrate, describing it as the "high powered explosive that took down Oklahoma City Fedral Building," for rockets and fireworks. He says now he did not use them for anything destructive. He describes cutting himself, but said this week that he was not trying to kill himself.
Johnson also said this week that he no longer uses drugs, suffers from depression or experiments with pyrotechnics.
"It's hard for me to recognize this individual. It really is. Because that's not who I am," he said. He said he'll continue running, saying that he's the front-runner.
"I think who gets elected is partly [based on] their positions and whether or not they're giving actual specifics. I think it's also their record of what they've done in the community and if they've been a leader or not and what the results are of what they've worked on," he said. "So hands-down, I win in those regards. I think that's what voters are looking for."
In addition to the writings, Johnson posted four pictures on deviantart.com in 2002 which he altered to make it look like he had shot himself, stabbed himself in the head, hung himself — the photo just showed dangling legs — and was holding his own decapitated head. He wrote in the description that he made them because he thought it would be a "fun challenge," though he now says it was a poor use of time.
The pictures were removed soon after the Star Tribune showed them to Johnson.
Gisselman, 37, writes in campaign literature that he is in the race to make sure voters have a chance to elect "a leader who will be smart in how we spend city money."
He was sued four times since 2010 because of unpaid bills relating to three credit cards and a line of credit. Three of the suits ended in judgments, two of which Gisselman satisfied in March and September of this year. The last judgment for $27,606 remains active, though Gisselman said he is paying it down.
"I would say that the majority of the expenses would be related to business expenses, or it certainly could be related to personal expenses during those times of getting small businesses up and running and not being able to meet expenses and spending — unfortunately — credit on things that I probably shouldn't have been expending credit on, to be honest," he said in a telephone interview with the Star Tribune.
Gisselman used to run his own law firm, but is now focused on his small business called ALE Training, which provides alcohol awareness classes to the service industry.
He added in an e-mail that he has been "behind in personal and business finances at times, had high student loans that I am still paying today, [and] took on too much debt." He considered filing for bankruptcy, but opted to pay off the debts over time.
"It was a series of decisions on my part that made it overwhelming and I have had to learn from it and get the money paid back," Gisselman said. "I now have one credit card with a very small limit and have my debts under control."
As for whether his debts conflict with his fiscal responsibility message, Gisselman said it is more akin to a rough patch than "demonstrative of my inability to stick by the idea that when we look at the city's budget that we should be smart about spending on the different various projects we will have in front of us."