Lake Elmo candidates on lookout for last-minute flyers

Near the bottom of one of the campaign flyers for Lake Elmo Mayor Dean Johnston's re-election effort, this disclaimer is printed:

"Beware of last minute accusations," it reads in small print. "Lake Elmo has a long tradition of campaign literature which is distributed at the last minute accusations where the target has no opportunity to respond. When you see or hear last-minute accusations and unsubstantiated claims, give them the attention they deserve: THROW THEM AWAY!"

Nearing the end of one of the more heated mid-term election seasons in recent memory, it seems that Johnston, along with the two City Council candidates he has been campaigning with, Mark Deziel and Nicole Park, is trying to anticipate a persuasion tactic that he calls the "Saturday night special" produced by a camp of citizens opposing his candidacy.

"Four people can literature-drop the entire city overnight. We've only got 2,500 homes," Johnston said of the practice that occurred both two years ago and, more infamously, four years ago when he was running for a council seat and Deziel was running for mayor. "I think it is basically an unfair campaign practice. ... There is always a small percentage of voters who are undecided."

But Tim Mandel, a former planning commissioner whose name was on the flyer from 2002 that prompted Deziel to file a complaint with Washington County, said communities can deteriorate fast if residents don't get involved and find ways to get others involved in local politics.

"We weren't (putting the flyer out) to be mean; no one does it to be mean," said Mandel who, along with neighbor Jim VanPelt, distributed a two-page flyer the weekend before the 2002 election that outlined the reasons they did not support Deziel, Johnston, and fellow candidates Steve Continenza and Roy Rossow. "I think the problem is that people really don't know the candidates and when you're passionate about your community, you want people to know what side of an issue they're on."

The major issue with Mandel and VanPelt's flyer centered on their claim that Deziel had "supported every variance application made" while on the Planning Commission, which Deziel refuted with meeting minutes showing contrary votes.

"The actual untruth is not as important as the major deception," said Deziel, who circulated a quick response at the time including a cartoon lampooning the existing City Council. "There's an African tribe where men go into the woods to make the noise of some monster that the men then defend the village against. The bogeyman wasn't there so they had to create it."

Mandel defended his flyer drop, though he conceded his only mistake was not using the word "most" when referring to Deziel's voting record.

"It takes a lot of time to do things like that because you try to be correct," Mandel said, referring to the 17 footnotes the flyer included referencing where the information was obtained. "We tried our best to do our homework as best we could. ... I didn't think we were out of line at all."

Nevertheless, Mandel said he has no intention of making a similar effort this year nor does he know of any that are in progress. Two years ago, when Steve DeLapp, a veteran council member who is running for re-election this year, distributed a flyer in support of then Mayor Lee Hunt, Council Member Sue Dunn and council candidate Charlie Schneider (who's in the race again this year), Johnston and Deziel felt it was "tame" in comparison to its predecessor, possibly due to the investigation stemming from Deziel's complaint (that investigation seems to have stalled; the last Deziel heard of it was in 2003 when he was told a jury was to convene on the matter).

Similarly, DeLapp said the only material he planned on putting out this year was for his own campaign and that he would not be waiting until the weekend before to distribute that literature. However, DeLapp contended that Johnston was running his own "shady" campaign-fueled effort by delaying votes about the purchase of new fire equipment and a possible downtown family center until after the election (Johnston has said he preferred to wait until a full council was present to vote on the issues).

For his own part, DeLapp said he was planning on staying relatively quiet when it comes to campaign mudslinging this year.

"I'm gonna try and stay above this stuff. I get my ranting and raving at the council meetings," he said, chuckling.

Another long-time politician who Johnston believed to be an organizer of past smear campaigns is Dunn, a former council member and mayor. But Dunn said she was not aware whether a similar flyer to DeLapp's or Mandel's would surface this year ("Who has the time to do that any more?"), though she did see a value in such efforts.

"The election was decided by 28 votes last time," she said, referring to Johnston's narrow victory two years ago over Hunt. "Truth-in-information is always very powerful. I think you've got some very talented and caring people (in this year's race) that aren't very motivated by money or anything who should be considered."

Dunn also noted the practice of what she called a "whisper campaign," where candidates will speak untruths about their opponents while going door-to-door and speaking with residents, which she believed she had been the victim of in the election two years ago.

At this point it appears that the only camp preparing to drop last-minute flyers is Johnston's. He said he has at least 30 people all over the city prepared to respond to the "Saturday night special" or any variation thereof with material he claimed would be "a positive and factual comparison of 'this is what's being said' and 'this is the truth.'"

"What we've tried to do is anticipate what they're going to say," said Johnston, who is up against former Planning Commissioner Rod Sessing in the mayoral race.

Till then, it appears the question remains whether undecided voters will heed Johnston's own campaign advice regarding last-minute literature, even if he is its source.

Ryan Kathman can be reached at rkathman@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7825.

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