From the age of 12, Carly Johnson knew she wanted a future that included a mix of politics and law. In seventh grade, she played the plaintiff’s attorney in a mock trial, representing a client bitten by a rabid dog.
She won. It was followed by a mock Congress where she proposed legislation to fight accidental overdoses.
“Right there I knew that was a great forum to help people and to address problems that people were impacted by every day,” she said.
Johnson, now 23, is a first-year student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul. And last November she claimed a new title: Oak Park Heights City Council member, the youngest in the city’s history.
Only two months into her term, Johnson said she’s been mainly learning how to be a local government official. Mayor Mary McComber said that she’s learning fast.
Johnson “brings a fresh and different perspective to the council,” McComber said. “She listens, she communicates, and she is not afraid to speak up … which is very important if [the council] wants to work as a team.”
The door opened for Johnson last summer when Council Member Mark Swenson announced that he would not seek re-election. Margot Rheinberger, a family friend who has known Johnson for years, called her when she heard about Swenson.
As her first day of law school approached, Johnson filed for office and promptly began knocking on doors even though she was running unopposed for the at-large seat. She was mistaken for a high school student multiple times.
“I don’t view her as a 23-year-old, I just don’t see her that way,” Rheinberger said. “I’ve seen enough politicians … and I knew she was going to stand out and do well.”
Johnson said she’s particularly interested in the environment and science, a passion that developed after a brain-eating amoeba in Stillwater’s Lily Lake killed two boys in 2010 and 2012. That, along with her biology teacher’s passion for water quality, ignited her urge to fight for green issues.
“I kept seeing policy connection to science, and people not fully understanding how important public and environmental health are to our society,” Johnson said.
In 2010, Johnson began volunteering as a timekeeper at local election forums. That was where she met Rheinberger, a longtime local moderator and nonpartisan campaign specialist who recognized the potential in Johnson.
“I saw things that immediately stood out — the maturity, she’s articulate, and she had an in-depth and multidimensional grasp of issues,” Rheinberger said.
After graduating from Stillwater Area High School in 2014, Johnson began volunteering for U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul. While studying biology at the University of St. Thomas, Johnson was hired by McCollum’s campaign team to work on direct voter engagement during the 2016 election.
Charlie Hammond, the McCollum campaign’s political director, said that bringing Johnson back in 2018 was a no-brainer because of her skills and enthusiasm.
“I needed someone to help me with the administrative aspects of our fundraising operation, and she was an absolutely natural choice for that,” Hammond said.
Johnson said her experience with McCollum was invaluable and has helped her better understand the role of a local government official.
She declined to speculate too much on her future. For the time being, she’s more concerned about what’s next than what’s to come.
“Right now I just need to focus on learning the job of a City Council member and finishing my law degree,” Johnson said. “Those are the next things in my path.”
David Mullen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.