AFSCME wants its foxes to guard the hen house

One of the closest races of 2003 elections in Duluth (MN) was the City Council 1st District race between Laurie Johnson and Todd Fedora — decided, as Fedora will quickly tell you, by 477 votes.

Though Fedora, 42, was on the losing end of the vote, he threw his hat in the ring one more time against Johnson, 52. This time, Fedora’s campaign message has forced Johnson to defend herself against charges that her job as a staff representative with the American Federation of State Council and Municipal Employees poses a direct conflict of interest with serving on the City Council. AFSCME is the largest labor union of Duluth city employees.

It has led to possibly the most combative of all the City Council races. “I’m not being critical. I think it’s a fact,” said Fedora, who is vice president of commercial banking at M&I bank at 2501 London Road. “It would be irresponsible not to point that out to people.”

The perception of a conflict gets Johnson bashed on some Internet message boards, while one city councilor openly questions Johnson’s motives.

“It’s like having the fox watch the hen house,” said Jim Stauber, who doesn’t believe any AFSCME employees should be able to serve on the City Council. “We have such control over wages and benefits [of the city], it would routinely be a conflict of interest.”

But Johnson fired back, saying that Fedora and others are creating a false hysteria, noting that she has abstained from voting when she felt there would be a conflict.

“I represent workers, many of whom are my constituents,” she said. “Yet when I ask people where is the conflict — where does it lie? — they don’t seem to have an answer.”

“If that’s the worst people can say about me, I’ll gladly take that criticism,” she said.

Johnson might not have helped her cause with a campaign questionnaire she filled out for AFSCME, which Fedora got ahold of and released to the public. Under the question: “How many votes will you need to win?” Johnson responded: “To be sure, my campaign committee is aiming at no less than 4,001 votes. This will not only ensure my victory but permanently eliminate Todd Fedora from electoral politics.”

Johnson said that the wording of the response was too strong.

“That wasn’t the intent of it,” said Johnson, who calls Fedora’s release of the document “dirty politics.”

“I did not decide to run again, put together a staff, put all this time and energy into a race not to get re-elected,” she said. “[Voters] need to know I came to win this race. I want the outcome that I’m elected and he’s eliminated.”

When she’s not on the defensive, Johnson, who is endorsed by the labor unions, the Duluth DFL and Progressive Action Duluth, tries to promote her voting record on the council, including support of environmental issues, the Lakewalk extension and working to create more living-wage jobs.

She also tries to relate to voters on a personal level, something that helped win her the election four years ago.

“I bring in different experiences as a wife, mother and grandmother,” she said. “I can relate to people on different levels with all the experience that I have.”

Fedora, who has neither sought nor received any endorsements and describes himself as “socially moderate and fiscally conservative,” also has been campaigning on the message that City Hall needs to be more responsible with taxpayers’ money.

“There have been decisions made over the last several years that have occurred with a gross disregard for people living in the city,” he said. “I hope what it will come down to is people will select a candidate who will best protect all our interests, who will question how our funds are being allocated, and who will make the rational, reasonable objective decisions — not only for the 1st District, but for the whole city.”


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