Dan Johnson’s fight to stay in city hall has split his district

Aug 9, 2017 at 12:20 pm
Louisville Metro District 21 Councilman Dan Johnson in his office
Louisville Metro District 21 Councilman Dan Johnson in his office Photo by Brian Bohannon

Dan Johnson has quietly represented South Central Louisville for 25 years, first as Sixth Ward alderman and now as District 21 councilman. This year, he is getting more attention than ever.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, it is because of sexual harassment allegations against him.

Johnson is accused of having groped Councilwoman Jessica Green during a group photo in early June. He is accused of having dropped his pants last year in front of another councilwoman’s legislative aide. He is accused of having made inappropriate remarks last year to a female chamber of commerce staffer while on a field trip to Texas.

Johnson apologized for the incidents and said initially he would seek counseling, but he soon backed out of the agreement. He denies he purposely touched Green, claims his pants fell down accidentally and says he was unaware he was being offensive at the bar. A council investigation of Green’s claim was inconclusive, with the only witness recalling that Johnson’s touching seemed unintentional, The Courier-Journal reported. Despite that, Johnson came under enormous pressure from Democrats to resign by Aug. 1, which he refused to do. With that deadline now passed, the council is on a path to convene a court to determine whether he should be removed. If he is, it would be only the second time in council history.

When Johnson and I talked in his office recently after a meeting of a council committee, he was defiant, saying he is a victim of political persecution, although council members have denied that.

“If I decide to resign, or retire, then the council will elect someone to take my place. But I don’t think that will happen, and I don’t see them removing me,” Johnson said. “You have to commit malfeasance, or misfeasance, and I’ve done neither one. Both of those concern money and whether or not you are doing your job. You saw me today: I was at a committee meeting doing my job.”

Since the latest allegations surfaced in June, Johnson’s political future has grown murkier, with new revelations (and some of self-inflicted wounds) seemingly never-ending.

What is clear is that Johnson’s troubles highlight growing tension in District 21 between longtime homeowners who have faith in him and newer residents who are longing for a change in leadership. Like many areas of Louisville, Johnson’s district has been evolving: The historically blue-collar neighborhoods have become home to a growing number of immigrants, and to more young professionals who are being priced out of The Highlands and Germantown.

Some tension also comes from a perception that the Metro Council is trying to decide what is best for the South End, getting rid of a duly-elected, veteran representative over unproven allegations or for political reasons.

All of this and more have given Johnson’s political opponents new hope of taking his seat. Until this year, Johnson was adamant that he would not run for reelection. His term ends in 2019. But recently he has been noncommittal when asked if he will run again, or even seek another office. “The future is so bright I can do either one … I haven’t seen but one email asking me to withdraw, and the fact is that one email was sent by someone nowhere near our district. I paved every street in this district twice since I’ve been an alderman and a councilman. I’ve done a lot of things, as far as new things, for Louisville.”

The district, then and now

District 21 stretches from North Audubon almost to Okolona. It includes the neighborhoods of Beechmont, Iroquois, Kenwood, Edgewood, Lynnview, Hazelwood and Preston Park, along with Louisville International Airport and the Kentucky Exposition Center.

Most of these areas were farmland until the early 20th century when small developments started to appear. The district experienced a housing explosion in the 1940s and ‘50s, thanks to manufacturing jobs like those at the Naval Ordinance Station Louisville, or NOSL. At its peak, NOSL employed more than 4,000 people to assemble gun mounts, torpedo tubes and other naval ordnance. Many of those workers used their paychecks to purchase homes in the neighborhoods surrounding the facility. But in the 1980s, manufacturing jobs began to leave Louisville just as they did in urban cores across the country, starting a slow decline in those neighborhoods, among them District 21.

Johnson, 58, grew up in the area he now represents. He graduated from Southern High School and got a degree in political science from the UofL. Johnson said he first ran for office because incumbent Sixth Ward Alderman Jerry Kleier made him mad. After a snowstorm, Johnson and his pregnant wife and young son couldn’t get to their home because their steep street had not been plowed. The next day he found out that the less-steep Kenwood Hill Road, where a state senator lived, had been plowed. Angry, he filed to challenge Kleier.

Johnson lost to Kleier by 200 votes in 1989. He ran again and beat Kleier in 1992, pledging to focus on pocketbook issues that impact his constituents. After taking office, Johnson sponsored a bill establishing the city’s Drainage Backflow Program. This is the program that allows the Metropolitan Sewer District to install free backflow valves in homes within the floodplain. Because of the hilly terrain in the South End, this impacts many District 21 voters. When the city of Louisville and Jefferson County merged in 2003, Johnson led a campaign to make sure District 21 included the boundaries of the Sixth Ward, so it could stay as one community. Johnson also fought to keep open NOSL, which was threatened in a national wave of base closings. The facility was decommissioned in 1996, but with help from U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the property was privatized and became the Greater Louisville Technology Park.

Today, Johnson’s biggest supporters are the people who remember his accomplishments, according to Barbara Nichols, Johnson’s administrative assistant. And the loudest voices calling for Johnson to leave belong to newer residents who were unhappy with the pace of economic development even before the allegations, she added.

“We have a trend of younger people coming to the area. A lot of them are first-time homebuyers, and they find the area attractive because of the affordable housing and the great location,” said Nichols, who also is president of the Iroquois Neighborhood Association and the Iroquois Business Association. “But they want the amenities we see in other neighborhoods like The Highlands. They don’t know the things Dan has done.”

New residents, new needs

I count myself among the first-time homeowners who gravitated to South Louisville. My wife Melissa and I rented a house on Wrocklage Avenue in The Highlands for seven years. When we were looking to buy, our real estate agent steered us toward Kenwood Hill, the neighborhood across New Cut Road from the Iroquois Amphitheater. In 2011, we purchased a home with three bedrooms, a finished basement and a garage for about the same price as a much smaller shotgun house in Germantown.

We only knew one person in the neighborhood. But over the next five years, more and more of our friends from The Highlands and Germantown began to join us: Farmington historic home Director Diane Carman-Young lives around the corner; Nitty Gritty Vintage Clothing and Costume Rental owner Teri Burt and her husband, Patrick Donley of Zephyr Gallery, built a home on the hill above us; and musician and chef Darren Rappa and his artist wife Caitlin Kannapell moved nearby on Possum Pass.

Whenever I get together with my fellow transplants, several subjects always seem to come up — how different the community is from preconceived notions of South Louisville, the desire for more restaurants and shops — and Dan Johnson.

After his 2014 reelection, Johnson announced that it was his last race for councilman. Several of my friends who had wanted new leadership then said they were willing to wait for the next election. But that was before the latest scandal happened.

Among those calling for Johnson to resign is Carman-Young.

“The allegations against Dan Johnson are infuriating, and only feed the stereotypes that continue to plague the South End. Allegations aside, I don’t think he has done a good job as our councilman as District 21 continues to struggle. It is infuriating that he will not do the right thing and resign,” said Carman-Young.

My relationship with Johnson is a little more complicated because I am on the board of directors of the Iroquois Neighborhood Association. Before I had even met Johnson, I heard the “Dan stories.” People told me he was known to sell knives out of the trunk of his car after meetings. Johnson does sell vintage pocket watches and pocketknives at flea markets on most weekends. Neighbors also joked that Johnson seemed to get into a car accident just before each election, so he could fund his campaign. It is not unusual to see him wearing a neck brace, and he has had two or three accidents since I’ve lived in District 21, but it is doubtful that any of that is a campaign tactic.

When I met Johnson, I found him rather amusing but obviously attentive to his constituents. I mentioned to him one day that I was having a book published, and a few weeks later his staff gave me a Spirit of Louisville Award from the Metro Council for my contribution to local culture. Johnson sometimes seems to live in his own world like a modern-day Walter Mitty. I see how he got the reputation for saying odd things, even at his own expense. For instance, regarding the Green allegation, Johnson has said he touched Green’s backside by accident because they were standing so close together.

According to a Courier-Journal story in which Green recalled the incident, she said: “Appalled, I turned to him, and he leaned down and whispered into my ear laughing, ‘You know that was an accident, right?’”

After Green made public her allegation about being groped, Johnson, apparently trying to defend himself, tweeted: “Truth is, she touched me first when she nestled against my left side,” he said. “I was harassed too.”

As for his pants falling down, Johnson is usually disheveled, and more than one constituent has talked about seeing his backside. The councilman claimed to radio host Terry Meiners that he has a thin waist “and sometimes my pants come down,” so he has resolved to get a better belt.

And then there is the allegation over remarks made in the Texas bar. He told me: “The other thing that happened, happened in a bar and that is baloney. Anything that happens in a bar is legal as heck, as far as talking to people, as far as I am concerned”

No one ever said Johnson has tact.

Despite all of this, I know how he has managed to stay in office for over two decades: ultra-personal service. If you have a tree in your yard and the public works won’t come out to help, Dan will show up with a chainsaw and do it himself. Did waste disposal miss your garbage can two weeks in a row? Dan will pick it up and dump it for you. It is that kind of service that has endeared him to some current and former District 21 residents.

Sandy Downs grew up in District 21 and still owns a house there. “I’ve had issues on my street, and I emailed him and he got back with me within an hour — and this was 10 p.m. I bought a commercial building in the area, and he gave me suggestions on what to do with it!” As for the allegations, Downs said, “He is a hard worker and I feel like he has seniority over Miss Green, and I will take his word over hers.”

Keep the meter going

Johnson could retire now from city government and take home about $1,800 a month from his pension. However, if he doesn’t serve out his current term, his pension would be $500 less a month. When I profiled him for Louisville Magazine in May 2014, his plan was to retire after this term and run for another office. He did run for the District 38 State House seat in 2016 to challenge Democrat turned Republican Denny Butler. But in what could be another sign of how his part of South Louisville is changing, Johnson lost badly to political newcomer McKenzie Cantrell in the Democratic primary. Cantrell raised five times as much money as he did and she defeated him by a 2-1 margin. Johnson believes he lost because he didn’t invest enough money on mailings. He thought name recognition alone would win the day. Now, Johnson believes he is being persecuted because he is rethinking whether he will run for another council term.

“This is happening because I talked about running again. There is a handpicked person that they are interested in getting in here, and they didn’t want me to run again. They are going through everything they can find to try and beat me,” he told me, adding, “In my district people are still for me as far as I can see.”

Nicole George is the candidate whom Johnson believes the local Democratic Party wants to replace him. The social worker and former board member of the Beechmont Neighborhood Association may be the front-runner with many younger voters in the district. She has also garnered support from Cantrell and longtime Beechmont resident Virginia Woodward, a former member of Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration. All three women are members of the Metropolitan Louisville Women’s Political Caucus and Emerge Kentucky, the state’s leading organization for recruiting and training Democratic women to run for elected office.

George denied there is a conspiracy by Democratic women against Johnson, but she does feel District 21 needs “new, ethical leadership.”

“Timing is everything. I filed in April and had my kickoff June 8. A few days later, a lot of this most recent media attention and events came to light,” she said. “I’m not worried if Dan jumps in the race. It is time that District 21 had a choice … We’ve been underserved and under marketed.”

George said she also recognizes the divide between “people who have a historic perspective” of District 21 and some of the area’s newer residents.

“We are a fantastic blend of people who have been in the district for a long time and folks who are new to the area or maybe even new to Louisville. How we reconcile those two (groups) is really going to decide how we capitalize on our strengths,” George said.

George’s only current primary opponent, Vitalis Lanshima, said the media is so focused on Johnson they are ignoring the other things that are happening in District 21.The ECE instructor for Jefferson County Public Schools said, “I have a 12-page plan that I would like to talk to people about, but it seems like the newspapers every time are talking about Dan Johnson. I understand that it needs to be talked about, but at the same time we have real issues that we need to be focusing on. We have youth in the community that don’t have things to do, we have infrastructure problems.”

‘Strong despite him’

This is actually a time of guarded optimism for residents starved for economic development. Construction on the revamped Colonial Gardens is scheduled to begin this fall with the promise of four restaurants that are not fast food.

Also, a longtime, eyesore property at the corner of Southern Parkway and Woodlawn Avenue has been renovated, opening in May as Cocoberry Pops, a gourmet, frozen-treat shop. Near Cocoberry is Cindy Venture’s Beechmont Bombshells hair salon. She started the “District 21 Political Discussion Group” on Facebook, not intending for it to become vehicle for anti-Johnson sentiment, although it did. But Venture said that lately discussion has turned more positive as residents debate what they want in the next council member. In an unexpected way, she said, Johnson’s troubles have been a catalyst for community building.

“It’s actually opening people’s eyes about their participation in local politics and why it is important. Personally, I think the allegations reflect negatively on our city overall. The community around here is strong despite him.” •