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Deb Johnson, Survivor and Refugee from St. Paul

Three years ago, in November of 2006, members of Metro Property Rights Action Committee held a picketing event in front of the offices of St. Bernard’s church in St. Paul to protest a campaign orchestrated by the parish priest, Father Mike Anderson, against a neighborhood bar, Diva’s Overtime Lounge, and its owner, Deb Johnson. Johnson, her daughters, and friends participated. The event gained coverage in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and other media, including the Watchdog newspaper.

There had been a fatal shooting in the bar and St. Paul city officials led by Council Member Lee Helgen (who was a member of St. Bernard’s parish) began putting pressure on Johnson to close the bar. Father Mike accused Johnson of prancing around the bar in a semi-naked state. According to her, he also made a comment to Pioneer Press reporters that the neighborhood had “never been so dark”, or words to that effect, since Diva’s bar opened. This was a reference to the black clientele that the bar sometimes served.

Johnson explained the animosity between herself and Father Mike by the fact that she refused to renew St. Bernard’s lucrative pull-tab operation in the bar after the church put pressure on her. Additionally, the church wanted the site of the bar to build a church-owned assisted-living facility for seniors. When negotiations broke down to sell the property, Helgen and his henchmen used the tools of St. Paul city government to force Johnson out of business and reduce the value of her property.

Those interested in a more complete account of those events from Johnson’s point of view can go to http://www.landlordpolitics.com/divas.html and http://www.landlordpolitics.com/divas2.html. Those sites tell the story of Deb Johnson’s ordeal through the situation three years ago.

Watchdog reporter Bill McGaughey recently sat down with Deb Johnson to bring the story up to date. It seems that the city of St. Paul succeeded in its quest to close Diva’s bar. The bar’s liquor license was revoked through administrative decision. Johnson engaged the services of attorneys Andy Dawkins (a former state legislator and head of St. Paul’s housing department) and Marshall Tanick to try to save the business but, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, the city prevailed.

Distraught, Johnson took a vacation in Mexico to walk the beaches and clear her mind. She came back to Minnesota with a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm. For a time, she operated a chicken shack in Wisconsin. She has since moved on to other ventures.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis transfered Father Mike to a parish in the Frogtown neighborhood which had numerous black parishioners. Johnson saw an opportunity for revenge. She made copies of the newspaper article in which this priest had accused Diva’s bar of “darkening” the neighborhood along Rice Street and distributed them to persons attending Sunday church services at Father Mike’s new parish. The irony is that in 2003, the Roman Catholic archbishop had launched a well-publicized initiative to combat white racism in Minnesota. Evidently racism within the ranks of the clergy was of lesser concern.

Johnson also found a way to thumb her nose at St. Paul city officials. She was supposed to appear at a meeting of the St. Paul city council and be contrite when her license was taken away. Johnson did not attend in person. Instead, she linked to the meeting by computer and, cocktail in hand, congratulated St. Paul city officials on their latest move to wreck the city. What would be left of the city after several more years of such actions, she asked?

The closing of Diva’s bar has left a void in St. Paul’s Rice Street community. Nothing could replace the small community that Johnson had created in the bar through activities under her direction.

Deb Johnson has had enough of St. Paul and its conniving city officials. She has recently purchased a motel and bar in the Central American nation of Belize that may also include gambling operations. She plans to move there soon. Because her daughters continue to live in Minnesota, she may become a frequent visitor to our state.

It used to be said of America that proof of our superior social and political system was that people “voted with their feet” to escape bad situations elsewhere. But now we have the example of a talented business woman “voting with her feet” to escape abuse in the Twin Cities. The small nation of Belize seems comparatively attractive to her.

I end this story not with a complaint but an acknowledgment of the remarkable personality that Deb Johnson is. Descended from Germans and Italians on her father’s side and, on her mother’s side, from Chief White Cloud of the White Earth Indian tribe of northern Minnesota, Johnson is someone at home with all peoples, races, and ethnic groups. Her optimistic, irrepressible spirit, combined with a certain feistiness, I could compare with that of Sarah Palin. But, being a bartender who must get along with all people, she is less ideological than the former Alaska governor.

Deb Johnson is a homegrown Minnesota woman of great enterprise, spunk and imagination. People like that must, of course, be run out of town by the type of public official we choose to elect.

Bill McGaughey and Deb Johnson in November 2009

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