Columbia election 2010: 'Rope them in with the joke'

It's 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning, and Aaron Johnson already has had a few too many.

Sitting in a Woodrow Street garage with his friend Grant Robertson, Johnson launches into an fantastical story about Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin bushwhacking through the jungle in search of a talking falcon.

He calls the falcon character the "falcocutioner" (after deciding against "exofalcon") and says the falcon is never to be without his trusty sidekick, The Councilman, who hides his face with a black hood and whose super power is the ability to convince three of his fellow superheroes to vote with him to form a majority.

Johnson and Robertson aren't hiding. They're sitting in front of a row of cameras and lights, recording their rambling rants as part of their Internet talk show, "Drinking in the Morning." They want you to see them drunk.

And they want you to elect them mayor of Columbia.


"Is this a joke?"

Johnson, 25, and Robertson, 26, are standing on the stage at the New Brookland Tavern in Cayce, just across the river from Columbia. They're talking to a crowd of young people - the people they're most trying to reach with their campaigns. Both are in thrift store suits, and Johnson is wearing a top hat, while Robertson shows off his authentic Victorian-style facial hair.

It's their second political fundraiser, and the question is part of a Q&A session with the several hundred people in attendance that night.

The audience has good reason to be skeptical.

For starters, Johnson and Robertson are running together for mayor, despite the fact that it's impossible under state law. (To get around that, Johnson is officially running for mayor, while Robertson is officially running for the at-large City Council seat currently held by Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine.)

Then there is YouTube, which has hours of archived footage of Johnson and Robertson drunk - the kind of thing most candidates would try hard to avoid.

Then there is the campaign itself. Instead of campaign buttons, Johnson's supporters wear fake mustaches. Johnson draws a comic strip about the campaign, published on the Internet, which shows him comparing USC's Innovista development to Mudd's Women of "Star Trek," who are known for taking a "Venus drug" that makes them appear more beautiful than they actually are.

In Johnson's first media interview, a Q&A with the Columbia City Paper, Johnson challenged City Councilman and fellow mayoral candidate Kirkman Finlay to a cage-match-style fight, saying, "It's no secret that I'm pretty handy with a sword."

But at the New Brookland Tavern on Jan. 21, Johnson wasn't kidding.

"This campaign is not a joke," Johnson said. "Because when I look around this room I see a lot of people I feel like have no representation in this city. I feel like you don't have a voice, and I feel like that's why you don't vote because you're not inspired. So I want to change that."


Johnson grew up in Charleston, where he was features editor of his high school newspaper. Robertson grew up in West Columbia and went to Heathwood Hall.

The two met at USC while living at Preston Residential College, a quirky, invitation-only residence hall that caters to creative types.

They both had outlandish facial hair, and they both wore thrift store clothing - which at first prompted a rivalry.

"I thought, 'Hey, I'm the guy who wears vests around here,'" Johnson said. "We kind of just had to sniff each other and circle each other."

They became roommates, and after graduation started a business together - the F-Stop Camera Shop in Five Points, which sells vintage camera equipment.

Johnson's first experience with City Hall came in 2006, when he developed another comedy show called "Buddy Cop Show" and wanted to put it on Columbia's public access television. He soon found that Columbia had no public access television channel, and spoke before City Council to try to start one.

Johnson learned he didn't have the organization and clout to get what he wanted, he said.

"Whenever we got to the council meeting, we were kind of like just completely blown out of the water," he said. "I kind of learned how politics worked in this town."

Johnson moved on to other projects, namely his two companies that specialize in advertising and video production. But he was always on the lookout for new ideas.

One came to him while he was "a little tipsy" one night at The Whig on Main Street. Johnson and Robertson were bantering, cracking up a bartender.

"I was like, 'Maybe we should videotape that," Johnson said.

Thus, "Drinking in the Morning" was born. It's a late-night-style talk show shot on Sunday mornings in a garage on Woodrow Street, which Johnson and Robertson have dubbed "Studio B."

Johnson and Robertson are the hosts. They start the show sober and keep drinking until the end, when they're hard to comprehend. They have serious guests on the show - including falconer Fred Barry, who prompted the "falcocutioner" jag - who are not allowed to drink. The comedy is built around Johnson and Robertson trying to keep it together while they conduct an interview with sober guests.

Sunday morning, Johnson was attempting to use a plastic fork and spoon to make music while remarking they were too poor to afford real silverware.

Rachel Thomason, a producer who also serves as Johnson's campaign manager - and designated driver - leaned over and whispered, "We've got metal spoons upstairs, but I think this will be funnier."


Johnson and Robertson kicked off their campaign on a Wednesday, when they ambled out of their offices on Harden Street in top hats and tails and stood on the rim of the Five Points fountain to announce their candidacy to a few skateboarders who were taking a break.

The get-up is intentional, meant as an homage to the whistle-stop campaign era, when candidates relied less on sound bites and TV appearances and more on stump speeches and newspaper editorials.

"If you look at politics in the past, it wasn't always as stiff and fake and rigid as it is," Johnson said. "You had some of the greatest wits in human history with our founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin was hilarious."

"And a drunk," Robertson added.

"If he were alive today, he would have a talk show," Johnson said.

Johnson said he knows his campaign methods are "unorthodox" and that they might lead some people to dismiss his campaign as a stunt - similar to Steven Colbert's push to make it on the ballot for the 2008 South Carolina Democratic presidential primary.

"One of the most important parts of politics is that ironic, satirical bent that people put on it. I don't know them, but that sure appears to be what they're doing," said Finlay, who like Robertson, sports a full beard. "Effective? I don't know."

To combat that image, Johnson and Robertson released "The Plan 1.0" on their campaign Web site. It's akin to a political party platform and shies away from humor, unlike their other campaign writings, such as Johnson's promise to "make a really great point (during a debate) that just leaves the other candidates speechless, then drop a smoke bomb and ninja disappear."

"The Plan 1.0" includes the kind of political-speak that Johnson says he despises. But he has posted it on Facebook, the social networking Web site, and has asked people to edit it. It's already gone through one edit, now referred to as "The Plan 1.5."


Johnson is the front man.

His strategy is to tap into Columbia's young voters, mostly recent college graduates who generally don't participate in city government.

Columbia has 17,100 people between the ages of 20 and 24. In the last mayoral election, in 2006, 288 in that age group voted.

"Maybe they never felt like there's really any way for their voice to be heard," Johnson said. "I think there is a sleeping giant of people like that in this community."

But connecting with those younger voters is difficult. At the New Brookland Tavern fundraiser, the crowd responded to Johnson's small business proposals by yelling, "Drug dealers!"

"That's not the kind of small business I'm talking about," Johnson responded.

Despite that, more than 100 people donated to his campaign that night, raising just over $1,000, according to a campaign news release.

While that leaves him far behind the race's fundraising behemoths - Steve Benjamin with $209,975, Kirkman Finlay with $113,465 and Steve Morrison with $33,460 - it puts him ahead of the three smaller campaigns of Joseph Azar, Sparkle Clark and Gary Myers.

Johnson can be serious when he needs to be. Monday night, he appeared at a candidate forum at the Cecil Tillis Center on Harden Street. Johnson, wearing his three-piece suit with a pocket-watch chain, sat between Five Points businessman Joseph Azar and attorney Steve Morrison.

The debate centered on a proposal to change the city's form of government to a strong mayor system, and Johnson answered by talking about one of his favorite subjects - 18th century naval vessels.

Johnson described how a crew would perform a "round-robin" mutiny, so as not to identify a leader should they be caught.

"They would have a circular piece of paper, and they would sign the mutiny in a circle so that if anyone asks who signed the top of the list there wasn't anybody. You could always point to the next guy," Johnson said. "And that's how I feel the current City Council system works. There's just not a strong identity to back the policy that you are all made aware of," he told the audience.

Columbia voters somehow will have to reconcile those two images - of Johnson drinking whiskey straight from the bottle while slurping a pancake from his palm and of Johnson shaking hands and kissing babies at political events.

It's an act Johnson says he can pull off.

"I feel like you rope them in with the joke," he said, "but then you stab them with the truth."

Johnson's words hang in the air for a few seconds, before Robertson responds:

"Maybe 'stab' is the wrong word."

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