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Fight against strip club set Speaker Mike Johnson on his moral crusade

SHREVEPORT, La. — Mike Johnson was an eager young lawyer, four years out of law school, when he stayed up until 5 a.m. one night poring over the details of a controversy roiling his hometown: the opening of a new strip club.

By the morning, he was so worked up about the issue, he said, that he appeared later that day at a Shreveport City Council meeting to implore city leaders to block the Deja Vu club from moving in downtown.

“I have done an exhaustive legal research on this matter, probably more than anyone,” he told municipal lawmakers in April 2002, according to minutes of the meeting. He argued that the arrival of another “sexually oriented business,” or “SOB” as he called it, would spread sexually transmitted diseases and other social ills.

Johnson’s pitch failed, and the club opened early the following year. But the dispute over Deja Vu proved to be a turning point for him. It marked the end of his short-lived career as a general practice lawyer and the beginning of his single-minded focus on the culture wars. The shift put him on the path to elected office, first in the Louisiana legislature and then in Congress, and ultimately last month to the House speakership.

The fight over the Deja Vu club also reveals deeper transformations in Johnson’s hometown that enhanced the power of religious conservatives and propelled his political career. Shreveport is Louisiana’s third-largest city and anchors the state’s 4th Congressional District, which covers the northwest quadrant of the state. Once solidly Democratic, the district began to change as industry contracted or left Shreveport in the 1980s. The downsizing of an AT&T plant left deep scars.

In the following decade, the arrival of riverboat casinos and other adult entertainment repaired some of the economic damage. But it set off controversy that mobilized the community’s religious right, which sought to shape Shreveport’s character as closer to the Bible Belt than Bourbon Street.

Thanks in part to that constituency’s activism, Johnson’s district has been a Republican stronghold since the beginning of this century. Some of those involved in the fight against the strip club became Johnson’s political allies, later joining him in winning elected office, as a populist current ripped through the GOP, made Donald Trump the party’s standard-bearer and elevated Johnson.

A spokesman for Johnson declined to comment on his standoff with the strip club. But local allies said it was a consequential moment for him.

“This is when Mike arrived on the scene,” said Scott Sinclair, a Shreveport attorney involved in unsuccessful litigation against the strip club. “It’s very consistent with his character, from what I’ve seen. Mike’s got a very strong faith-based position. He’s a Christian, and he doesn’t mind anybody knowing that.”

For Johnson personally and professionally, the dispute over the Deja Vu club quickly took on the aura of legend. He soon joined the staff of the Alliance Defense Fund, the Christian nonprofit now known as Alliance Defending Freedom, where he would work for nearly eight years and which gave him a national platform to proclaim positions against abortion and same-sex marriage, among other social issues.

In 2003, the Alliance Defense Fund produced a radio ad highlighting Johnson’s role in the strip club fight — part of a series called “Portraits of Freedom” that promoted the group’s conservative legal advocacy throughout the country. The spot suggests that Johnson was a martyr for the cause of morality in Shreveport, sacrificing a job that had brought him and his family back to their hometown from Baton Rouge. In the ad, which was unearthed by the watchdog group Documented and shared with The Washington Post, actors playing Johnson and his wife, Kelly, greet each other when he arrives home early one evening.

“Why are you home so early?” his wife asks. “Did you lose a case?”

He tells her that he was fired, explaining, “I had to make a choice … whether to keep representing that coalition that’s trying to keep that strip club from coming into town or keep the job that brought us back here.”

Johnson’s wife is shocked, asking, “They made you choose?” He apologizes, saying, “I know this was our dream, to come back home and raise our kids in the same safe little town we grew up in.”

“You did the right thing,” she assures him. “This won’t be the same safe little town anyway if people like you don’t do something to protect it. I’m proud of you, Mike.”

Don Armand, a partner at the Shreveport firm where Johnson had been working, said the claim that he was required to leave because of his advocacy against the strip club is inaccurate. “Mike was not fired, or asked to leave our firm or forced out in any way,” Armand, who worked with Johnson at the firm Pettiette, Armand, Dunkelman, Woodley & Cromwell, wrote in an email.

The Alliance Defense Fund did not respond to requests for comment, and Johnson’s office did not comment on the ad.

The reality was less dramatic, according to Armand. Johnson had worked at the firm only briefly, at which time he had already done some work with the Alliance Defense Fund, Armand said, and he “let us know that he wanted to go back to ADF. It was his career choice.”

It was a formative choice. Johnson was already devoted to conservative causes, but the struggle over the strip club, according to the ADF ad, was the moment he decided to turn those causes into a career.

Johnson’s legal career before he joined ADF was brief and, in many ways, conventional.

He has identified two firms in Louisiana where he worked after completing law school at Louisiana State University in 1998. One was a Baton Rouge-based civil practice, Benton, Benton & Associates, where his first case was against a Baton Rouge abortion clinic, Johnson has said, describing the episode as a catalyst for his antiabortion advocacy. But court filings in the late 1990s and early 2000s show that Johnson also worked on run-of-the-mill legal controversies for the firm, such as insurance and asbestos claims.

The other place where he worked was the Shreveport-based Pettiette firm that features — though not by name — in the ADF radio ad about Johnson’s purported choice between his principles and his paycheck. Johnson started at the firm in May 2002, said Armand, the longtime partner there, and worked on general civil litigation, representing insurance companies and other businesses.

That was a far cry from the issues at stake in the Shreveport City Council meeting that spring, when residents rose to deliver dire warning about the arrival of the Deja Vu club.

“America is in crisis,” one said.

Another warned of “evil … evil in Shreveport as we know it today.”

For help, they looked to a native son. A lawyer for a coalition opposing the strip club, John Milkovich, introduced “Shreveport attorney Mike Johnson.” The issue captured Johnson’s attention because of his hometown ties and the scrutiny aimed at sexually oriented businesses at the time by the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative nonprofit he supported, according to that group’s president, Gene Mills.

In a four-page “Legal Analysis,” which was obtained by The Post, Johnson argued that the city could revoke the construction permit granted to the club because of its proximity to a planned but not yet constructed railroad museum. A city ordinance barred “sexually oriented businesses” from operating within 1,000 feet of a “nonprofit educational museum,” and Johnson argued that the railroad museum would qualify.

He later argued that the city had authority to block Deja Vu because of its proximity to a plot of land said to be designated for a public park.

Bradley Shafer, a Michigan-based lawyer who represented the club’s owners, said Johnson’s analysis represented a “deliberate misreading” of the city’s rules and foreshadowed his “disdain for the rule of law,” referring to his leading role in the congressional effort to reverse the results of the 2020 election.

“He doesn’t care about the truth,” Shafer said. “He misquoted and misconstrued the city’s statute. His view was that his religion and his view of God entitled him to do anything he wanted.”

Johnson’s office declined to comment on the characterization. Efforts to reach Deja Vu management by phone and email were unsuccessful.

City agencies and the city council rejected Johnson’s view. During the fraught debate in 2002, a member of the city council said that while he and others “may personally disapprove of the Deja Vu, we have no legal authority to prohibit it from opening today.”

Louisiana courts were scarcely more receptive. Complaints, reaching the state’s appeals court, did not stop Deja Vu from opening, as judges found that the business was properly zoned and had lawfully obtained the requisite certificates.

Among the plaintiffs behind the unsuccessful litigation was Rick Edmonds, at the time a Baptist pastor who, like Johnson, won election to the Louisiana House in 2015, beating out a more centrist Republican. He did not respond to a request for comment but celebrated Johnson’s rise to speakership in a Facebook post last month, praising his “conviction for our nation, for our families, and for our Lord.”

The same conviction was on display in Johnson’s opposition to the strip club.

“The time has come for our city’s leaders to make a stand,” he wrote in his four-page brief, inveighing against the “harmful secondary effects associated with SOBs” and warning of “the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, sexual harassment and urban blight, the littering of pornographic materials, used hypodermic needles and used condoms, and the increased traffic, noise and loitering.”

Studies have diverged on the relationship between strip clubs and crime, and efforts to understand associations between health risks and exotic dancing have been limited by low-quality data and other factors shaping outcomes for individuals and urban environments alike.

But Johnson argued that the city’s spirit was at stake, asking, “What does it profit a city of it gains new tax revenue … but sacrifices its very soul in the process?”

Johnson’s opposition to the strip club did not end after he failed to prevent its opening.

Early the following year, the Shreveport Times gave readers a “glimpse inside controversial Deja Vu.” The 20,000-square-foot club on Commerce Street was “clean with a sophisticated décor.” A large bar near the center of the space offered plentiful seating. Women were said to make up one-third of the customer base.

The entertainment reporter, in his review, wrote, “What I saw during my hourlong visit to Deja Vu hardly was any decadence of Biblical proportion.”

Still, Johnson protested. In an op-ed in January, he urged new regulations for adult businesses, warning, “Prostitution, drug use and crime are on the rise here in Shreveport, and sexual predators already roam our streets.”

“For nearly three decades, X-rated businesses have been spreading at a rapid pace throughout the country, and ‘pornosprawl’ has expanded like a cancer from cities to rural communities,” he wrote.

One of the reasons for moral outrage at the time, said Orie Hunter, a local attorney for the club, was the club’s perceived connections to Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine. There was a misconception that Flynt owned the club, Hunter said, when in fact its owners had licensed use of Flynt’s name.

The business, which today goes by the name “Deja Vu presents Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club,” says it’s the “#1 Strip Club in Shreveport.”

One local who has a small ownership stake in the club, Stacy Anderson, is the wife of the late Gus Mijalis, a Louisiana businessman and friend of former governor Edwin Edwards (D). Anderson said she switched parties and became a Republican about five years ago because she was so enamored of Johnson.

“I’m not a Bible thumper at all, but I admire his character,” she said in an interview, adding that she was unaware Johnson had been involved in opposition to the club when it opened.

For Johnson, the club remained a career focus. At the Alliance Defense Fund, he helped draft ordinances regulating sexually oriented businesses for Shreveport and other municipalities statewide.

“I’m one of three attorneys who works across the country in the regulation, licensing and litigation against sexually oriented businesses,” he told the Shreveport City Council in the spring of 2004.

Setting legal strictures on intimate activity remained a central cause for Johnson. Later the same year, he argued in the local paper that same-sex marriage could open the way to “sexual anarchy.”

A decade later, he used his position in the Louisiana legislature to champion the priorities of the religious right, sponsoring failed proposals to protect business owners and church leaders opposed to same-sex marriage. And this year, in an episode of his podcast devoted to “Responding Biblically to ‘Pride Month,’” he warned of “depravity at levels that we’ve never seen and real threats, really, to everything that the Bible says is true and right and good.”

Hunter, the local attorney who defended Deja Vu, said the experience left him impressed by Johnson — but concerned about his approach to public policy.

“I thought he was bright, and I still think he’s bright,” Hunter said. “I just disagree with his extreme views, and I don’t think you can impose an extreme point of view on all people in this country, as diverse as it is. The law dictates how our society is supposed to operate. And that club did everything by the book.”

Reena Flores contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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