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Officials discussing Johnson's voting record react as focus of the meeting switches to Gimse's family situation

WILLMAR -- A press conference Tuesday in Willmar where state leaders of pro-life and pro-marriage organizations lambasted Sen. Dean Johnson's voting record on social issues, dissolved into a shouting match about the family values of Johnson's opponent, Joe Gimse.

Neither Johnson nor Gimse were present at the meeting.

When contacted later, both candidates said the actions were the result of desperate, last-minute campaign tactics by the other side.

The meeting was organized by Lyle Nelson of New London, who is the secretary and treasurer of a newly-formed local political action committee called the West Central Citizens for Freedom.

Nelson told the group of about 20 people that when Johnson switched parties and became a Democrat he "left us" and left behind the issues that residents of Senate District 13 feel passionately about. The purpose of the meeting,

Nelson said, was to "set the record straight" on Johnson's actions in the Senate.

Representatives from Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the Minnesota Family Council and Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage sharply criticized Johnson's votes regarding abortion and the marriage amendment and chided Johnson for recent campaign fliers saying he was pro-life and in favor of traditional marriage.

A representative from the Taxpayers League of Minnesota criticized Johnson's "tax and spend" legislation and a spokesman from Sportsmen for Change said Johnson prevented legislation that would have helped hunting and fishing habitat in the state.

After the prepared statements were read by each of the representatives, the press was invited to ask questions.

That's when the fireworks erupted.

John Burns, a Willmar attorney, asked the group why they were criticizing Johnson on family value issues when Gimse -- the candidate they supported -- "left" his three young children and wife in the late 1980s, didn't pay child support for a time and forced his family to seek county welfare assistance. Prior to the meeting, Burns passed out court documents that showed hearings to set child support payments.

As soon as Burns started speaking, the organizations' leaders tried to shout him down, but to no avail.

These people are "phony," Burns shouted, standing eye-to-eye with Jeff Davis, president of Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage. "They're pawns of the Republican Party," and paid employees of the organizations they represent, said Burns.

"You're a liar," Davis screamed. Davis said he's donated three years of his life to work on marriage issues "because I care."

The brouhaha gradually died down and everyone left peacefully.

Gimse said the antics by Burns is a sign that Johnson knows he's losing the race.

"It's the last gasp of a desperate campaign. We're winning this election. They know it. They're pulling out all the stops," said Gimse. "They're dragging up dirt and twisting things and are being deceptive," he said. "This is filth."

"I'm doing this on my own," said Burns, in later comments.

Burns said he is a Democrat. He said he's "angered and offended" that Johnson "who stayed with his wife through the end of life" has been "raked over the coals" on family value issues "by this bunch from outside" the district when Gimse has another side to his own life.

"I hardly know John Burns," said Johnson. "He's not a contributor. He's not working for my campaign."

But Johnson said bringing the different groups to Willmar Tuesday to criticize his record on a "very narrow agenda" and "tell people how to vote" is a "last minute tactic" by Gimse before the election. Johnson said he's been running a positive campaign on the "bread and butter issues" of the district.

When contacted by phone after the press conference, Gimse acknowledged that he did divorce his first wife. "It's an unfortunate period in my life."

But he said that he paid "every penny" of child support and that he later got full custody of his children and they lived with him. "My children love me," said Gimse. "My children are healthy and strong and fine members of the community. I've been there every step of the way."

Burns said if the campaign between Johnson and Gimse had dealt with roads, health care and education he wouldn't have made Gimse's personal history public. But he said when a candidate claims to run on the family values ticket, voters should know about the "un-family" parts of that candidate's life.

"I'll let the people look in my life and what I stand for," said Gimse. "And let them decide on Nov. 7."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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