A chat with mayoral candidate, Aaron Johnson
[caption id="attachment_998" align="aligncenter" width="420" caption="AARON/GRANT 2010 campaign team from left to right: Claire Sprague Media Specialist, Shigeharu Kobayashi, Staff Advisor, Aaron Johnson Candidate for Mayor, Grant Robertson Candidate for City Council, Abby Thames Staff Advisor, Rachel Thomason - Campaign Manager"][/caption]
Interview by Todd Morehead
The Columbia mayoral election has a wild card this year, a man with a vaudevillian wit, the iron gullet of a sailor and the fashion sense of a young Chester Arthur. Meet candidate Aaron Johnson, co-owner of the F-Stop Camera Shop and Pretty Penny Productions. Sure, he may have recently appeared on local TV wearing a homemade astronaut suit, but donâ€™t let his penchant for theatrics fool you. Johnson is dead serious about reforming city council and is surprisingly versed in civics. He has no questionable ties and, so far, no political debts to repay. Young, hyper intelligent and beloved in his local community, he is known for his work ethic, creative eye and philanthropic spirit.
The candidate was kind enough to humor us when we pitched him a few off-the-wall questions and this interviewer walked away from the exchange believing that Mr. Johnson and business partner Grant Robertson, who is challenging Tameika Isaac Devine for her city council seat, could be the breath of fresh air this town needs. The pair might just surprise everyone on April 6 if they can fill their war chests early enough to effectively run each respective campaign...
COLUMBIA CITY PAPER: The city has two major problems: homelessness and city accounting. What would you say to a proposal to kill two birds with one stone and employ the homeless to take over city accounting?
AARON JOHNSON: Well, I can tell right away this is not going to be a puff piece. There is merit to your idea. Homeless people have some admirable talents that our city financial officials could stand to use as an example. They have to stretch very small budgets a long way to accomplish their goals. I would wager that they also, as a rule, know how much money they have in their coffers at any given time.
CCP: Some other cities have passed ordinances in favor or the Urban Chicken movement. Taking the current economic situation into consideration, would you allow Columbia citizens to raise and slaughter their own chickens within city limits?
AJ: I don't know. I guess. I don't really care.
CCP: Iâ€™ll take that as a yes. Sweet... To take you further out on a limb: could going to an extreme like decriminalizing prostitution bring much needed tourism dollars to our city, in your opinion? Maybe adopt the slogan "Columbia: Amsterdam of the South"?
AJ: I can't really say I support prostitution, but I can say without equivocation that I would love to invite Steve Wynn or Donald Trump on over to open a casino in Columbia. Daddy loves his craps.
CCP: If elected, you would be the youngest and highest-ranking city legislator. Plus, you wouldnâ€™t have any ties to the real estate development community. How would you rein in the older members of city council who may be opposed to taking suggestion from a young, unconnected mayor?
AJ: If I am honored enough by this city to be elected, I think I will have enough on my plate without having to micromanage the city council. I know that it will be important for us to work together for the good of the city, but at the end of the day I think it is my responsibility to act and vote as I see fit and they should do the very same. They will have the same mandate I would have and they will have to answer for their decisions the same way I will when the next election roles around.
By the by, that's why I support a strong mayor system -- not just because, if elected, it would be the only way a pencil neck like me would ever be referred to as â€œstrong,â€ but also because I think it is important to have one executive who can squarely carry the burden of responsibility. The people need to know who to blame or praise for the city's successes or failures. The way the council/mayor system works right now is more like a Round Robin Mutiny. Nobody takes any blame and everyone can point their fingers at the next guy or gal. We need a Mr. Christian. Okay, enough 18th century naval metaphors. I do get carried away, sometimes.
CCP: Should the city, in your opinion, support the construction of new single-family development projects when so many existing homes remain for sale and unoccupied in Columbia?
AJ: I'm uncomfortable, philosophically, with the city stepping in when it comes to private development. That said, urban planning is obviously an important role of the city and our infrastructure is in serious trouble. Development has been allowed to overrun the city's water and road capacity, and you also have to consider that every new development project adds further strain to our already overburdened police and fire departments. I want to see downtown become a living space, in every sense of that phrase. If I had my druthers, which is a cool word, I would rather promote recolonization of empty buildings, especially downtown. Though I'm willing to bet the private sector could handle that project with minimal meddling from the government.
CCP: A professional sports team would be good for the city. What would you say to using tax dollars to purchase the Kansas City Royals?
AJ: The Royals are a joke.
CCP: Hmm. Would you fight Kirkman Finlay in an MMA style cage fight?
AJ: I think you're on to something with the cage fighting idea. I'm not much for MMA, personally, but it's no secret that I'm pretty handy with a sword. I have no grudge against Mr. Finlay, per say, but if such a fete would bring badly needed funding to the city in the form of entertainment tourism, I think he would agree that we could drum up some sort of arrangement.
CCP: Cayce has stepped on some municipal toes by annexing part of the riverfront on the Richland County side of the river. Would you support raising an armed militia and launching a preemptive strike against Cayce to thwart further aggression? If so, do you see a long-term rebuilding effort in that embattled region or would we just topple the regime and leave them to their own devices?
AJ: I have already been drawing up some preliminary plans. Cayce has a well-established network of speed traps and scouting positions. The terrain around Cayce is pretty rugged and I think armor would play a critical role in any invasion. Incidentally I've been an advocate, since day one, for the invasion of Forest Acres before tackling Cayce. Their natural resources would be vital for future expansion efforts and, unlike Cayce, we share a common language and culture with Forest Acrens... Acrites... Acretians?
CCP: Indeed. From a cultural standpoint, Columbia has generally been a liberal colony encircled by the conservative-leaning outlands. Should Columbia cross the river and sack Cayce or other townships in Lexington County, how would your government handle a predominantly fundamentalist Christian populace? Re-education camps?
AJ: I went to Bible Camp when I was four or five years old. It was a week long stay-overnight camp, and the first time I ever spent the night without my parents. We made piÃ±atas out of balloons coated in Plaster of Paris, which was a lot of fun, but I also cried a lot because I wanted to go home and I missed my mom. But after about three or four days my parents sent me a package from a mail-away promotion for Kellog's Frosted Flakes. I had ordered some Wacky Wall Walkers, which they ran out of, so instead they sent me a huge box full of all kinds of toys, a frisby, stickers that glowed in the dark. There was also a letter from Tony the Tiger, signed with his paw print, apologizing for the failure to provide Wacky Wall Walkers. I got a lot of attention because nobody was allowed to bring toys, so I was the only kid there with toys. So the toys sort of filled the void in my heart. I guess what I'm trying to say is, the subject of Christian Camps is an emotional one and there are no easy answers. I'm not going to pretend to have a magic bullet answer, but at the end of the day I think it was an important experience in my own life and I'm glad I lived through it.
CCP: City Hall is so boring. Any chance of holding a few City Council meetings at Hooters?
AJ: I would prefer to give our business to a local establishment.
CCP: Well played. ...Have you ever purchased audio equipment from Joe Azar? If so, how would you rate your experience?
AJ: I have not done business with Mr. Azar, personally, but we are birds of a feather in a way. He sells vinyl record players and I sell film cameras. Also, I admire his candor -- he is a man who speaks his mind and does not mince words. His shop is called Upstairs Audio and, by God, it really is upstairs.
CCP: Well, letâ€™s not mince words here. You run a camera shop and host a popular morning show with a slight subculture bent. A large percentage of your voter base will come from Columbiaâ€™s underground. Modern hippies and the LGBT community tend to vote, depending on your platform. Plus, I think itâ€™s safe to say youâ€™re a lock with the arts community. But the nagging question: how do you get your average hipster doofus to the polls?
AJ: A major reason I threw one of my many hats into the ring is the pitiful lack of participation in local government we have in this city. I work with a lot of non-profits. I chair a committee for the United Way and I'm a community member of a board for Richland School District One. I'm also on a tax advisory subcommittee for the council. We have an amazingly active community, a lot of people who step up to volunteer every day. But that's not reflected when you look at the extremely low turnout at local elections and the minimal participation in city council activities. I think people are jaded by this city's political machine. It is so powerful, so entrenched, that nobody thinks it will ever change. That's miserably sad.
Without sounding too much like a populist, I do believe in this community because I have seen what it can do first hand. And you referenced my show. Well, I have nothing to hide. I'm proud of who I am, warts and all, and I don't feel like I have to carefully pick and choose every word I utter and run them through a squadron of advisers to be a leader. Sometimes career politicians give me the creeps, like Data from TNG [â€œStar Trek: The Next Generationâ€]. Only at least he was trying to be human.
CCP: When was the last time you wept openly? And for whom or what did you weep?
AJ: The last time I wept was when Don Draper [of TVâ€™s â€œMad Menâ€] was confronted by Betty about his secret past. It was just so heart breaking to see this powerful facade he had carefully cultivated for so many years come crashing down, and to see the scared little creature that lives inside of him come to the surface. But I guess that was in my living room, not in the open. I cried on the set of my talk show one time because I wanted spaghetti. And that's a true story.
CCP: Favorite Jonas Brother?
AJ: Didn't one of them get swallowed by a whale? I think I read about that in Bible Camp.
CCP: You have that â€œHoly crap, I actually won!â€ moment on election night. Youâ€™ve given the speeches, the bright lights have been switched off, the camera crews have packed up, a police escort has accompanied your limousine home, and you have just crawled into bed on your first night as the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina. What goes through your mind?
AJ: I'm going to be feeling really sorry for the poor guys who have to pack up all those lights and cameras and tear down the sets and load the trusses and speakers into the trucks until 4 a.m. That's usually me.