GOP icons inspire Jeff Johnson's quest for Minnesota governor
After three or four years in the Minnesota House of Representatives, Jeff Johnson knew that he wanted to be governor someday. "If you actually want to change things, that is the place to do it," he says.
But his political aspirations took root decades earlier.
When he was a boy in Detroit Lakes, one wall in his bedroom was red, one white and one blue — probably his late mom Dianne's homage to the nation's 1976 Bicentennial. He had just turned 13 when he watched on TV as Ronald Reagan announced his presidential run in 1979. Reagan, he said, made being conservative cool. He worked on legislative races as a teen and at Concordia College.
Those experiences put Johnson, now 51, on a path to the Legislature, a run for attorney general, the Hennepin County Board, a 2014 bid for governor — and now a second shot at the job he covets most. He had a gut feeling that he'd beat former Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the Aug. 14 Republican primary despite polls and predictions that he'd lose.
"I feel that same energy and interest right now," Johnson said in an interview. He didn't have that hunch when he lost to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton four years ago, he said.
Johnson's optimism may belie the landscape he faces. His DFL opponent, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, led 45 to 36 percent in a Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll last month; one in five respondents didn't recognize Johnson's name. The GOP establishment preferred Pawlenty. Walz, who depicts his rival as a stingy conservative, could be helped if there's a Democratic "blue wave."
Johnson isn't underestimating Walz — who he said would govern "to the left of Mark Dayton" — but allies are working on a transition to the governor's office, weighing hires, a budget and legislative priorities.
First up: "Tax conformity, which is so sexy and interesting," Johnson said with a laugh. "We've got to fix that." Dayton vetoed a bill in May that would have aligned the state tax code with changes in federal law.
Voters face a clear choice, Johnson said. Walz is "focused on what more can government do to help everybody make better decisions about their own lives," while his focus is "what government can do to give them more liberty and … opportunities."
His ambition was born of a belief that "God gives you certain interests and passions and gifts that fit you for certain things … and you should take advantage of those."
His philosophy was formed by an early fascination with conservative icons. Besides Reagan, his role models are the late Barry Goldwater, the 1964 GOP presidential nominee, and former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie. "They each confidently stood on principle and … were able to maintain relationships even with those on the other side," he said.
Seven years ago today, Johnson, then as now a county commissioner from Plymouth, vented his irritation after protesters gathered outside the Government Center. He called them "clueless, obnoxious … messy anarchists" in a speech that day.
Two days later, he said he regretted the outburst. It "came off as rather mean and obnoxious," Johnson posted on his Hennepin County Taxpayer Watchdog blog, which he wrote from 2009 to 2013. "Going for a little cheap applause by calling people names isn't the way to respond" to critics.
Three years later in his campaign for governor, Johnson largely heeded his own advice. He called Dayton "a very decent man." Despite some flare-ups with Walz, he is trying to sustain that temperate image now. He and Walz "get along great," Johnson said in one of their debates.
Friends say that's the real Jeff Johnson: true to his values and eager to shun the caustic side of politics. But foes call him an ideologue who was part of an unyielding faction dubbed "the Taliban" in the House.
State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said that during Johnson's six years as a state representative, he "wasn't abrasive personally in any way, but it was very apparent that his interests were more in red meat to appease his base" than in solving problems.
The "Taliban" moniker referred to a small group of conservatives. "Anything right-wing that came down the pike … they were on it like a rat on a Cheeto," Lesch said. Johnson doesn't recall ever hearing the epithet.
Matt Entenza, the House Democratic leader from 2003 to 2008, said that when it came to passing education or human services budgets, Johnson "was always part of the group that didn't want to compromise and played win-at-all-costs politics."
At the Legislature, he said, "If you were going to try to find a bipartisan compromise, Jeff would never be a part of that team."
Former Republican Rep. Fran Bradley of Rochester remembers things differently. Johnson, he said, is "principled in an honest and respectful kind of way" and entered politics "for the right kind of reasons."
Johnson said he worked with Democrats on some of the bills he's most proud of: tightening eminent domain rules, restricting sales of some cold and allergy medications used to manufacture meth, and tort reform — changes to laws governing lawsuits.
"To accomplish things you have to have relationships," he said. "If you are destroying relationships, good luck."
Johnson said he has collaborative connections on the Hennepin County Board, but he also has a nickname there: Commissioner No. It refers to the frequency of his "no" votes on spending and levy measures.
The blog Johnson wrote during his early years on the board shows that he sometimes relished that reputation. "I was the 'no' vote," he wrote in posts about the board's support for a sales tax increase for transit and a county contribution for bike-sharing kiosks.
In a 2012 post titled "My Political Transformation," he noted the "novel criticism" he had gotten after voting in favor of two measures that involved expenditures.
"According to a couple of my fellow commissioners, this was the week I transformed myself from a cheapskate to a big spender," he wrote. "Hey, if it helps me fit in ..."
None of Johnson's six colleagues on the board agreed to speak about him. He doesn't interpret that as a rebuke. In 2014, he said, there was "behind-the-scenes pressure on some of them" to schedule votes that could embarrass him, "and they never did that. I have a lot of respect that they didn't."
He prefers his county job to the Legislature. "In my opinion, it has a greater effect on people's lives," he said.
Johnson arrived without fanfare last month at the north Minneapolis headquarters of Lacy Johnson, a Republican running for a state House seat. He shook some hands and engaged in quiet conversations.
Jeff Johnson's demeanor shifted when he was introduced by Laverne Turner, chief adviser to his host's campaign. "We go way back," Turner announced.
Jeff Johnson stepped forward and enveloped Turner in a big, lingering hug.
The moment — a black man's clear affection for a conservative white Republican — drew some surprised looks.
Turner, who runs Youth Leadership Minnesota, a nonprofit focused on health and wellness, later explained their history.
They met when Turner was a page at the Capitol. Johnson was among Republican legislators who sometimes sought his opinion about issues. They shared breakfast or lunch occasionally and stayed in touch.
"Every time I say Jeff and I go way back, I get this look like disbelief," Turner said. "I know Jeff's heart. I know what he wants to do. He's a spiritual guy and … he's going to do something different for our community."
Accounts of Johnson's life typically mention that he taught Sunday school as a teen. His faith goes deeper, said the Rev. Steve Dornbusch, for 16 years the senior pastor at Johnson's church, Calvary Lutheran in Golden Valley.
"It was very obvious that his faith was real," said Dornbusch. "It was very apparent that his values that came from his faith were paramount in making decisions."
Mark Lewis works with Johnson in a church youth mentoring program. Johnson called the Wednesday night meetings "the highlight of my week" and regrets that the campaign has forced him to miss some.
"I've always been impressed at how he takes such an incredibly empathetic position" with the youth, Lewis said.
Johnson has worked as a mentor and tutor with inner-city young people, often at homeless shelters, since his days at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. "I love kids and I didn't have kids" then, he explained.
While he worked at a Chicago law firm, he spent three evenings a week tutoring youth at Cabrini-Green, a crime-ridden symbol of the failures of public housing before its last building was demolished in 2011.
Johnson liked "being able to show them that someone outside their own family actually loves them." He was particularly close to a young man named Victor, and wishes he knew what became of him.
His church work and helping to coach his two sons' football, baseball and soccer teams are his hobbies, Johnson said. He loves to read, and running "helps me clear my mind."
Johnson is a low-key campaigner who doesn't employ big gestures or boisterous quips. In debates, he is adamant but rarely combative. At a fundraiser last month in Waverly, Minn., he mingled with his hands in the pockets of his khaki pants — his uniform, along with dress shirts, sleeves rolled up. He has a trim frame and wears his hair short.
But all eyes were on Johnson when he spoke of cutting taxes and spending and protecting gun rights and "the sanctity of life."
Some in the GOP hierarchy initially had qualms about Johnson, said Scott Lambert, his campaign chairman and president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association. They worried that "Jeff isn't exciting," he said. "That's his strength. … You don't want to make decisions based on emotions."
Away from campaign audiences, Johnson can be more lively. His dad, Bob Johnson, who is 79, said Jeff spent a lot of time reading when he was young, but "he can be the life of the party. He's very quick-witted."
He's known for quirky Christmas letters. One included an update on his beloved bulldog: "Chester is six and the same as ever. Eat, sleep, fart, repeat."
After opposing funding for sex education teachers in 2009, a blog entry said: "I am not a prude. … My wife and I kissed several times (ON THE LIPS) before we were married."
Johnson's wife, Sondi, said he believes public service "is his purpose in life" and described his "strong servant attitude." They met as students at Concordia. It's hard for her to hear him criticized, she said, but "he really doesn't take it personally."
Several friends remarked on Johnson's odd appetite for cereal. "I've loved cereal my entire life," he said. He eats it with water if milk isn't available. His favorites: Fruity Pebbles and Trix (after the original recipe was revived last year).
Johnson blames his 2014 loss on Dayton's popularity and a tactical error he is determined not to repeat this year.
During that campaign, he focused on independent voters. Exit polls showed he carried that group, but "Republican turnout was dismal," he said. This year, he worked to lock in core GOP support by running to Pawlenty's right in the primary and embracing President Donald Trump, whom Pawlenty had criticized.
History might be on his side, Johnson said: The state has never elected two different Democratic governors in a row.
If he loses, Johnson will devote himself to his company, Midwest Employment Resources. A lawyer, he specializes in training and workplace investigations.
But don't underestimate him, his political allies said. "He's got the toughness to do the job," said Gregg Peppin, a senior adviser to Johnson's 2014 campaign. "And he's one of the few people I've worked with who have mastered the art of listening."
Bill Kuisle, a former state representative from Rochester and Johnson's 2014 running mate, gave his friend some advice before this campaign began. "There's no-holds-barred campaigning now," he told Johnson. "Nice guys could get eaten alive. He understood."
David Gaither, a former state senator and one-time Pawlenty chief of staff who managed the final weeks of Johnson's 2014 campaign, said he wasn't sure Johnson could knock off Pawlenty. The upset, he said, proved that "because [Johnson] is nice doesn't mean he's weak."