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Gov. Tim Pawlenty used the memory of John A. Johnson on Thursday to produce one lighthearted moment in an otherwise sober State of the State address.
"One hundred years ago," said Pawlenty, "another 48-year-old Minnesota governor returned from the national campaign trail." A few months later, Pawlenty noted, Johnson died.
"You may not be so lucky," Pawlenty jokingly warned the legislators. "My health is pretty good."
In truth, many parallels link the two governors. Johnson, like Pawlenty, was popular, noted above all for simply being likeable. He won the attention of national political kingmakers by repeatedly winning election in Minnesota even though he wasn't in the dominant political party.
Johnson was a Democrat in an era when Republicans had the upper hand in Minnesota politics.
Unlike Pawlenty, Johnson pushed for more business regulation and expanded taxation. Pawlenty reluctantly raised fees on cigarettes a few years back, but Johnson, a smoker himself, reluctantly signed a short-lived prohibition of cigarettes.
And one thing more. Pawlenty is a lawyer, a common background for politicians, but also a profession that is often made the butt of insulting jokes.
Johnson also overcame his background in a less-than-beloved profession.
He was a newspaperman.