Mike Johnson Fought Against Alcohol Legalization In Louisiana

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Think of Louisiana, and the debauchery of Mardi Gras comes easily to mind. But in the northwest corner of the state — closer to Dallas than to New Orleans, the Red River than the Mississippi — sits the town of Minden, about 30 miles from Shreveport. This is deep-red America, part of a tri-state region known as Ark-La-Tex, and arguably the buckle of the Bible Belt. 

Minden is a pious place, counting more than 20 Baptist congregations alone, and it entered the 21st century still embracing a tradition of forbidding alcohol. 

When local business leaders began pushing, in 2003, to allow restaurant diners to enjoy alcohol with dinner, teetotalers in town needed a champion to fight against the demon drink. They found an eager advocate in one Mike Johnson — then a rising, young lawyer with a right-wing Christian legal group, today the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

It’s no secret that Johnson is a Bible-thumping scold. But an unexamined chapter of his career as an attorney finds him crusading not against porn, strip clubs, birth control, sodomy, or same-sex marriage — rather against the sale of liquor. In an era when blue states were beginning to legalize pot, Johnson was waging throwback battles against booze, blasting alcohol as a threat to “morals” and encouraging others to “pick up the gauntlet.”

This history — which reads like a prohibitionist sequel to Footloose — does more than underscore Johnson’s abstemious character. The kind of day-late and dollar-short legal arguments that Johnson mustered in Minden’s fruitless fight against liquor would resurface years later when Johnson, as the region’s congressman, championed Donald Trump’s baseless challenges to the 2020 election. And they may yet haunt the 2024 election cycle, as leading Republicans are already signaling a willingness to dispute any new Trump defeat.

Minden is about as far as you can get from a party town. It first banned booze in 1894 as the temperance movement swept the South after the Civil War. Its local liquor law fell at the end of Prohibition, in 1934, but citizens voted the town “dry” again before the decade was done. And when a state Supreme Court decision upended that ban in 1974, Mindenites voted to cast out booze once more just six months later.

By the early 2000s, however, Minden was in the doldrums, and local business leaders believed relaxing the town’s prohibition on booze could give the economy a shot in the arm. “It’s been a big stumbling block to potential restaurant owners,” the chair of the local chamber of commerce explained to reporters, “not wanting to come to a community where you can’t serve alcohol with a meal.” 

To grease the skids for change, Minden civic leaders first turned to Baton Rouge, working with the state legislature to tweak Louisiana’s so-called “local option” liquor law. They won an exception that would allow Minden to propose a standalone vote on restaurants serving alcohol — without also having to present voters with more-controversial alternatives, like welcoming bars and liquor stores. The Minden city council approved the booze bill for the ballot that August.

Local opposition was spearheaded by a prominent local attorney named Graydon Kitchens, Jr. He ginned up a backlash group called the Minden Family Forum, telling the press: “We are a community that chooses to keep alcohol’s harm outside of our parish.” (Kitchens and Johnson would later work as partners together at the Kitchens Law Firm in Minden; upon Kitchens’ death in 2022, Johnson memorialized him on the House floor as a “giant of a man” and “mentor.”)

The MFF anti-booze campaign warned residents that alcohol sales with restaurant meals were a slippery slope to depravity — including video gambling and “sexually oriented entertainment.” Local lawmakers countered the latter was absurd, with one councilman insisting: “There’s no way in the world a strip club is coming to Minden.” 

Mike Johnson was, at the time, an up-and-coming lawyer with the far-right Alliance Defense Fund (today known as the Alliance Defending Freedom). He had just lost a zoning battle to prevent the strip club Deja Vu from opening a location in Shreveport, his home town. Joining Minden’s battle against the booze, Johnson filed suit on behalf of five residents, seeking to kick the measure off the ballot. Johnson claimed it had only been enabled by “crafty legislation” he insisted “would defy… 100 years of public policy.” 

But a judge quickly ruled that the lawsuit had been lodged too late in the process, and instructed the vote to go forward. “It’s not over. It’s just the beginning,” Johnson seethed, adding: “At some point a court will have to look at the merits of this case.”

Even with this court setback, one of Johnson’s plaintiffs predicted victory at the polls: “We will win the election, and alcohol by the drink won’t come to Minden.” As decision day approached, MFF and local faith groups canvased door-to-door and even held what the Shreveport Times described as “a round-the-clock prayer service” seeking divine intervention in the matter. 

On election day, however, the prohibition side lost, big time. Fifty-seven percent of Minden residents approved of permitting drinks with dinner. In the press, Johnson vowed, “We’ll be back in court within the week.” He also praised the voters who “fought the good fight” against alcohol, insisting, “They should be able to sleep well knowing they did the right thing.”

Johnson waited until the new year to file a new lawsuit — seeking a judgment that the state legislature had violated bedrock law by tailoring a narrow liquor exemption for Minden. “None of this was handled in accordance with the Louisiana Constitution,” he claimed. Johnson insisted he was fighting to “protect the rule of law,” because the Minden bill would set a “dangerous new precedent and allow lawmakers in Baton Rouge to set policies of local communities statewide.” 

That legal Hail Mary fell flat. But Minden’s morals didn’t collapse with the sales of margaritas with dinner. And the town has since loosened its alcohol laws even further. It is now home to at least four liquor stores, including Bud’s, Mike’s, Thirsty’s, and the Daiquiri Express. 

For Johnson, the Minden fight wasn’t a one-off against alcohol. He continued his battle of the booze, including waging a multi-year fight to block liquor sales at a nearby truck stop, and a 2007 fight with ADF against zoning changes that would have brought a liquor store to southwest Shreveport. 

Johnson wrote an opinion column in the Shreveport Times in 2003 arguing that the proposed truck-stop booze sales would place the “heath, safety, morals, and general welfare of the community at risk.” He cited statistics finding that “nearly 40 percent of all crimes, violent and nonviolent, are committed under the influence of alcohol.” 

Johnson’s current beliefs about alcohol are not clear. A spokesman for the Speaker has not replied to Rolling Stone queries about whether Johnson still considers liquor a moral threat, or whether, if the speaker had his druthers, the whole of America would be dry.

The Minden campaign is not only revealing of Johnson’s moralism, but also his approach to the law. Throughout his fights against booze, Johnson sought to block democratic outcomes he disagreed with by attempting to make mountains out of legalistic molehills. These strategies are consistent with the tactics he deployed as a member of Congress while seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election lost by Donald Trump. 

Johnson claimed, for example, that expansions to vote-by-mail that were approved by judges in swing states during the Covid-19 pandemic needed to have been passed, instead, by state legislatures, which he claimed had sole authority to administer the federal election. An analysis by the Brennan Center describes the theories Johnson advanced as stemming from “a baseless, ahistorical, dangerous, and completely bonkers reading of the Constitution.” The Supreme Court rejected such theories last year.

Johnson’s fringe legal shenanigans were frightening, but ultimately self-limiting in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when he was still an obscure congressman in the GOP House minority. (Along with most GOP lawmakers, he voted against certifying Biden’s wins in Arizona and Pennsylvania.) 


But the situation could be quite different in the aftermath of the 2024 contest. Top GOP House leaders, including Elise Stefanik, have already refused to say whether they will accept the results of the 2024 contest. And though the Speaker has no formal role in counting of Electoral College votes, Johnson could certainly seek to lead an anti-democratic GOP flank to block certification — which would then kick the selection of the next president to a vote by the House that Johnson leads.

These prospects are enough to make any patriotic democracy defender want to reach for a stiff drink. Which, incidentally, is not something you should ever attempt in the presence of Mike Johnson. 

Source link: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/mike-johnson-fought-alcohol-legalization-minden-louisiana-1234951457/

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