SLEEPY EYE, Minn. – Inside a small-town community center, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson is promoting his vision for the state in the manner of the Lutheran Sunday school teacher he once was.
"We are celebrating people who are successful," he tells the mostly gray-haired crowd. "We are preaching every single day a belief the poor can become the middle class and the middle class can become rich and anyone who starts with nothing can still achieve anything in this great state."
He gets fervent applause. Then Johnson heads to a corner of the room and talks quietly with his running mate, Bill Kuisle, while other candidates aggressively work the crowd that's waiting in line for the grilled pork chop and applesauce buffet.
It's a moment that typifies his campaign. Johnson may not be the most extroverted politician, but he says that works for him.
"Just because I don't yell and scream a lot doesn't mean I'm not passionate," he said.
A Hennepin County commissioner who is a former state representative and Tea Party ally, Johnson is now battling to unseat the most powerful Democrat in state office, Gov. Mark Dayton. Johnson says he offers a clear and needed alternative to the policies of a Democratic governor and Democratic Legislature that have joined forces and moved Minnesota too far to the liberal left.
Johnson, 47, says he wants a more austere government that hews to free-market values. On the campaign trail, he is calling Dayton a profligate and "incompetent" governor who acts like "an arsonist with a fire hose," taking credit for solving problems of his own making.
Democrats counter by saying that Johnson is long on rhetoric but short on details, and uses a "nice guy" persona to mask what they call a mean-spirited agenda that would aid the rich at the expense of everyone else. They note that as a legislator he voted to reduce state funding for education and local government. As a candidate, they say, he has flip-flopped on issues ranging from minimum wage to a massive redevelopment project in Rochester.
In his run for governor, Johnson has said he would not cut schools or subsidized health care, two areas that overall make up more than 70 percent of state spending. But he does want to try to roll back the income tax increase on the wealthy that Dayton enacted in 2012 and lower corporate tax rates. He has not offered specifics on how he would cut taxes while largely preserving the two biggest spending areas and increasing funding for roads and bridges. Unlike the 2010 race, neither Johnson nor Dayton have offered a rough budget outline to demonstrate their priorities.
Johnson said a budget proposal offered prior to taking office would not be useful.
"I suppose in some ways politically you could put together a budget that you think is going to help you out, but you may not actually follow through on it," Johnson said. "I'm not sure how responsible that is."
A frugal upbringing
Born and raised in a tidy Norwegian-Lutheran home in Detroit Lakes, Johnson is careful and frugal by nature. His father, Bob Johnson, left the house by 5 a.m. daily to deliver Holsum bread. His mother, Dianne, was a homemaker until Johnson and his older sister, Jodi, started school. Later she worked as an aide at their school.
Money was tight growing up, Johnson said, but not so the kids noticed. His dad still drives a truck part-time, delivering potato chips. Sundays were reserved for church, and Johnson began teaching Sunday school as teenager. "We didn't ever wear religion on our sleeves," he said. Johnson said he was brought up to believe that religion "is an important part of your life, but you don't run around town talking about it."
Jodi Olson, who now runs a day care out of her Detroit Lakes home, said her brother has always been "driven," favoring intellectual over athletic pursuits growing up. "He wasn't really active in sports or anything, but he liked the debates and that kind of thing," she said.
John Jacobson, a retired teacher who taught Johnson at Detroit Lakes High School, remembers a friendly, serious-minded teen who reached out to others. "His friends were really a cross-section of people in the school," said Jacobson. "He was really well-liked and people wanted to be with him." Jacobson said young Johnson excelled at his studies and was "really interested in politics from the time that he could pay any attention to it."
From the start, Johnson was drawn to the GOP and the Ronald Reagan presidency that would mark a new era for Republicans.
"[Reagan] had strong beliefs and he was able to state them … in a way that wasn't personal or nasty," Johnson said. He also clicked with Republican values that he felt lined up with his own: "Not wasting money, always being respectful of what others have, being very independent-minded, not wanting people to tell you what to do." Soon, Johnson was running the door-knocking operation for Republican state Sen. Cal Larson.
Time to prepare
Johnson's methodical approach is evident in his campaign. He has laid out few specifics, saying his imprint on the budget might not fully emerge until the second half of his term.
As governor, Johnson would be expected to submit a two-year budget early in the 2015 legislative session. That, he said, leaves him with too little time to prepare people for change and build needed coalitions. For the 2016-17 budget period, he said, "I'll be basing the budget on what the Dayton administration gives me rather than digging into it myself."
Asked what his overall spending target would be, Johnson replied, "It will be smaller than what it was … but I don't know how much smaller." He said the 2018-19 budget, which would be prepared at the beginning of his third year in office, would more fully reflect his governing philosophy.
Johnson also has proposed auditing nearly every state program — a task he has said could take much of his first term.
In the meantime, Johnson has said he would combine various job training programs, block investment in the proposed Southwest light rail and trim some wellness programs. He supports making Minnesota a right-to-work state, which would bar unions from requiring dues, even from employees covered by the contract.
He says he would consider overhauling the sales tax to include most goods and services — including ending the sales tax exemption on clothing. He would not, however, include business-to-business transactions. Johnson does not want the sales tax to raise additional money.
Of his legislative record, Johnson said, "There are going to be several votes that I … might have voted for to move forward that I might not have agreed on every piece of. The option in front of me was that or raise taxes."
Johnson said he would have vetoed the minimum wage hike that Dayton pushed for and signed, and as governor would sign a repealer if one crossed his desk. But he said he would not make it a priority to roll back the increase already in law, which will raise wages to $9.50 by 2016.
In promoting his agenda, Johnson often points out that he would still face a DFL-controlled Senate at least through 2016. That would prove a roadblock to attempts on his part, he said, to repeal gay marriage or the unionizing of child care workers.
During the primary, Johnson's Republican opponents hit him for being too conciliatory toward the Senate.
"When you're the governor, when you're a leader, your job is to figure out a way to get things done, not make excuses for why you can't," said businessman Scott Honour, who lost the August primary. He now works with Johnson's campaign.
Tea Party ally
Johnson, who had to fight both for his party's endorsement and a primary win, has had one group solidly in his corner throughout: Minnesota's Tea Party activists.
Jack Rogers and Jake Duesenberg, organizers of the Minnesota Tea Party Alliance, said Johnson is the closest thing Minnesota has seen to a Tea Party candidate in years. They agree that Johnson, more than former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and certainly more than Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden, believes in their core values: free markets, fiscal responsibility and constitutional, limited government.
"I think of him as a guy that believes in Tea Party principles," said Duesenberg, a former military man with a libertarian bent.
"Which means he not only talks the talk, he walks the walk, which is a very powerful thing," added Rogers, a lay speaker at Brooklyn United Methodist Church who views politics through a socially conservative lens.
Johnson has aligned himself with the Tea Party since 2011, and as a candidate has frequented their meetings. "There is this perception that the media has created that Tea Parties are kind of wacko, and we are not. And I proudly say 'we,' " he said at one meeting in April.
At various Tea Party meetings Johnson has said he would dismantle the Metropolitan Council, restrict union power, and "go all Scott Walker" on Minnesota if he had a Republican Legislature to work with, as did the Republican Wisconsin governor.
Seizing on Johnson's alliance with the group, Dayton allies have spent more than $2 million on television ads that label him "Tea Party Republican Jeff Johnson."
Johnson, whose former campaign manager was once a director of the national Tea Party Patriots, has never disavowed his Tea Party affinity, but says he is not a "Tea Party extremist."
After winning a four-way primary with 30 percent of the vote, Johnson worked to bring his defeated primary rivals on board his campaign. As a legislator, Johnson points to bipartisan efforts where he worked with Democrats to overhaul the state's eminent domain law and restrict access to the cold pills used to make methamphetamine.
"He was one of those people who could bring folks together," said former Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who also is helping with Johnson's campaign. "He liked not to stir the pot but to make the pot enough for everyone to share."
Johnson has adopted a different role on the Hennepin County Board. In his six years there, he has stood out as the lone "no" vote on many issues.
"He is rarely in agreement with the majority of the County Board on issues of any kind of debatable policy," said Hennepin County Board Chair Mike Opat, who is on Dayton's finance committee. "He has his position, he's eloquent about stating his reasons, but, in advance of a vote, he doesn't really try to persuade people to maybe change the proposal or [move] over to his side of it."
Johnson, who represents much of the western suburbs on the board, lives in an unassuming beige-and-brown house in Plymouth with his wife, Sondi, and their boys, Thor, 16, and Rolf, 13. He used to coach the boys at sports, but now contents himself with watching Thor's football games at Wayzata High School. Once a week he gives Chester, the family bulldog, his allergy shot. Johnson likes to plays trombone and has performed at his church, but says he may have to skip this year's Christmas concert for lack of practice.
Dialing for dollars
The Johnson campaign is a close-knit group, with his driver, treasurer and campaign manager all living near Johnson's home. As the campaign has gone on, one of their biggest struggles has been money. Johnson has been behind on cash from the start and well into the fall has frequently had days with no campaign events because he is raising money.
Even after he was rushed in for emergency surgery on a perforated stomach this summer — the result of a peptic ulcer — Johnson said he dialed potential donors from his hospital bed, joking that he hit up the attending doctors and nurses for contributions.
His efforts have brought results. He bested Dayton's summer fundraising, although he heads into Election Day with less than half of the $1.7 million Dayton has banked for the homestretch.
Johnson remains optimistic.
"There is a hole for me to run through," he said. "And I will."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @RachelSB