Warren Kaari said he wasn't eager to file a complaint charging his Minneapolis City Council member, Barbara Johnson, with violating state campaign finance law. But he finally realized that if anyone was going to do it, it would have to be him, he said last week.

We can't imagine that it was much fun last week for Johnson, the council president, to be on the witness stand in a state-run hearing at which she defended herself against charges that she'd misused campaign funds for personal expenses such as hair care or dry cleaning.

But the two found themselves colliding at the hearing in a dispute that repeatedly bore reminders that all politics are local.

For example, one exhibit in the case showed a $100 Johnson campaign contribution to Holiday on 44th, the annual pre-Christmas family event staged in the Camden area. Another exhibit included a thank-you note for the contribution from Ann Kaari, Warren's wife, the event's treasurer and a former school board member. Those exhibits never arose in the hearing since there's no dispute that charitable contributions are permissible campaign expenses.

Down to your hair

Then there was the appearance by Sarah Janecek, publisher of Politics in Minnesota and a political adviser to Republican candidates. She was there to testify as a paid expert witness for Johnson on the importance of looking good in campaigns, especially for women, whom she said are judged more critically on such things.

"You have to be blown out and you have to be made up or you look ridiculous next to the anchor," Janecek pronounced, citing her own preparation for appearances on TPT's Almanac show. As her testimony wound down, Warren Kaari asked Janecek to pass on his good wishes to Cathy Wurzer. She's co-host of Almanac and the voice of Minnesota Public Radio's Morning Edition. But most important to retired teacher Kaari, Wurzer was one of his students at South High School, an alma mater that's obvious to anyone who listens to Wurzer's show and has heard her references to the school.

Janecek didn't miss a beat on the subject of Wurzer: "She has nice hair and she has it blown out."

In the interest of fact-checking, we confirmed that with Wurzer. She pleaded guilty to what her stylist tells her is good, thick hair, but confessed that three different specialists have had their hands in it on her way to Almanac appearances.

"I'm an idiot with a blow dryer and brushes," she conceded, lamenting that no matter how skilled an interviewer a TV personality is, it always comes down to your hair.

"I loved Mr. Kaari at South," she added.

The Jimmy Stewart style

Kaari is long out of the classroom after a 32-year career teaching history. His amateur status in the hearing room last week gave him something of a Mr. Smith Goes to St. Paul air.

He strongly felt that Johnson had done something wrong, but had to be repeatedly guided back to the question-answer format with witnesses by the trio of administrative judges hearing the complaint.

Meanwhile, Corey Ayling, representing Johnson, was all lawyerly efficiency as he cited precedents and cross-examined witnesses.

But Kaari couldn't let the hearing conclude without taking advantage of a teachable moment in civics. He noted the hearing featured the fundamental rights of free speech, a free press and the right of citizens to petition for redress of grievances.

Not being charitable

The matter arose after City Pages alertly noticed that a number of Johnson's reported campaign expenses seemed at first blush not to be related to her campaign. But the weekly publication also popped up during Johnson's testimony, with one exhibit showing a cover photo of Johnson from five years ago. Johnson testified that her teeth had been altered in the photo and her lips made more full.

The article's description of Johnson as politically savvy was read into the record, along with a physical portrait that must have made her wince. She was described as a "stout woman" with "quasi-bouffant hair ... that would not have looked out of place 50 years ago."

It was about that time that Johnson put her hair in the hands of a woman identified in the hearing only as Elizabeth, who works at a salon in her ward.

But in a vituperative e-mail sent last November after the City Pages article, Kaari offered his opinion: "$1,154 for haircuts ... ridiculous. They haven't helped."

Taking business to St. Paul

Johnson's expense statements showed that her campaign frequently used restaurants in her Fourth Ward. But when it came to celebrating her 10-ballot DFL endorsement last March, she took her campaign workers to St. Paul, running up a $243.82 tab at La Cucaracha.

We can't wait for the made-for-TV movie.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438