Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson announced Friday that he will leave the County Board by the end of November to become executive director of a nonprofit providing free assistance dogs to people with disabilities.

“I can’t imagine a mission that I would be more excited about than this one,” he said of Can Do Canines, a New Hope-based nonprofit. “Plus, I get to work with dogs.”

Johnson said he will start his new position in early December. Depending on who wins the election Tuesday, he will be succeeded either by technical architect Kevin Anderson or his longtime aide, Danny Nadeau.

Johnson, 53, of Plymouth, decided not to seek re-election this year to the County Board after 12 years representing the Seventh District, a huge swath of northwestern Hennepin County that stretches from St. Bonifacius and Mound to Dayton and Champlin.

A former legislator, he ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for attorney general in 2006 and for governor in 2014 and 2018.

Johnson will take over at Can Do Canines from founder Alan Peters, who is retiring after 31 years. Can Do Canines is the largest service dog training organization in the Upper Midwest, providing people in Minnesota and Wisconsin with dogs trained to help with hearing loss, mobility challenges, seizure disorders, Type 1 diabetes and childhood autism.

Peters oversaw the free placement of 700 high-quality assistance dogs to people with disabilities, and a $4.4 million capital campaign that built the organization’s mortgage-free facility.

“I’m thrilled,” Johnson said. “It’s the perfect place to be for the rest of my career.”

After losing to DFLer Tim Walz for governor in 2018, Johnson said he knew it was time to leave politics. He also lost to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014.

Despite those disappointments, Johnson has always been genial and self-effacing. When he lost the governor’s race two years ago, he sent a thank-you note to supporters that read, “My last campaign e-mail to you — I promise.” He then apologized and noted that “losing stinks.”

A native of Detroit Lakes, Johnson graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead and has a law degree from Georgetown University. He has worked in private practice and at Cargill and ran Midwest Employment Resources, his own firm focusing on human resources training, mediation and investigations.

Johnson’s voice typically was the most conservative on the County Board, and he cast the lone dissenting votes on many issues. He said he’s been looking aggressively to find his next step for the past two years.

Earlier this week, Commissioner Mike Opat — another longtime board member who chose not to seek re-election — said he will leave the board next week to start a consultancy.


Twitter: @rochelleolson