The Scott Walker of Minnesota Is Ready for His Close-up

The Scott Walker of Minnesota Is Ready for His Close-up

Jeff Johnson speaks to members of the press outside his booth at the Minnesota State Fair on August 21, 2014.

SourceGlen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMA Wire

Why you should care

Because rock-ribbed conservatism can be Minnesota nice too.

The candidates scrunch together in front of the fireplace, with frozen practiced smiles. The photographer crouches. A hush falls over the well-dressed donors and activists on hand for an evening of “candidate speed dating” at Edina Country Club, one of Minnesota’s most exclusive addresses. Just before the shutter clicks, one of the four breaks ranks.

Two-term Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, the odds-on favorite to outlast this GOP group and compete this fall for his old job, had somehow glimpsed the oversized “JOHNSON” banner on the mantel behind his head. He darts forward, half motioning, half dragging his opponents a safe distance from the offending sign. The gaggle re-forms away from the fireplace. The photographer reorients 30 or 40 degrees to the left, enough to neutralize the meme-ready threat. The candidates’ smiles return, one wider than the rest.

***

That grin belonged to Hennepin County Board Commissioner Jeff Johnson, Pawlenty’s only serious primary competition. Johnson, 51, first ran for governor in 2014, coming within 5 percentage points of the popular incumbent, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton, who declined to run for a third term this year. He’s a darling of the state GOP base, his lean campaign buttressed by a network of committed volunteers who make calls, organize meet and greets and arrive early to hang well-placed signs at campaign events.

In his current role, Johnson is more radical technocrat than conservative culture warrior. But the combination could be just what he needs.

Johnson’s rhetoric merges states’ rights and limited government with a disdain for bureaucracy. The first principle enunciated on his campaign website reads, “The key to a stronger and more prosperous Minnesota is taking power away from government and giving it back to the people.” Among other initiatives, Johnson proposes capping the total number of state regulations, sunsetting all new regulations and dismantling the powerful Metropolitan Council regional planning body. The platform is in many ways reminiscent of the conservative darling in the state next door, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who aggressively targeted public sector unions.

“We have many wonderful state employees who work hard and do great things, but there’s an arrogant element in our agencies as well,” Johnson tells me at a cafe in downtown Minneapolis’ interminable skyway system. “Some [employees] believe it’s their job to tell Minnesotans how to live their lives rather than serve the folks who pay their salaries.” He plans to target the bureaucracy despite the legal challenges in doing so. Under current regulations, political appointees can’t terminate underlings for insufficient political support, only for “just cause.” Terminated employees may then contest their removal through arbitration. “Frankly, we’ll lose a lot of those cases,” says Johnson. His solution? Appoint agency commissioners who won’t be cowed by union reps.

He contrasts his slash-and-burn vision with Pawlenty’s record in the governor’s mansion. From 2003–2011, Pawlenty cut spending only a small amount — failing to close the state budget shortfall — and angered fiscal conservatives with his support for transit bonds and public stadium subsidies. “Tim is the green eyeshades, ‘Let’s make government more efficient’ guy,” says Johnson. “The time for that approach has passed.” Pawlenty’s camp declined to respond directly to Johnson’s attacks. “Tim’s top priority will be to put those in the middle — who are working hard and getting squeezed — first,” campaign spokesman Sam Winter says. “That starts with good schools and a good education — they lead to good jobs.”

While Donald Trump plays a role here — as he must — the candidates aren’t simply trying to out-MAGA each other, as in some other Republican primaries. In October 2016, following the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape, Pawlenty made a clean (and short-lived) break with Trump, calling him “uninformed, unhinged and unfit.” Johnson’s view is more nuanced and policy-driven. “I’m not one who believes you shouldn’t criticize others in your party,” he says. “If he does things I disagree with, I’ll call him out.” Like other fiscal conservatives, he was disappointed by the budget-busting omnibus spending bill Trump signed this year.

In contrast with the malleable commander in chief, Johnson’s conservatism is on consistent display at Hennepin County board meetings, where, as the only registered Republican, he’s routinely on the short end of 6–1 votes. (Commissioners are technically nonpartisan, but most lean — or lurch — left.) At an April board meeting, his fellow commissioners barely look up when he votes against a $26.2 million transit authorization. Through most of his first board term, Johnson kept up Hennepin County Taxpayer Watchdog, a tongue-in-cheek blog “dedicated to the taxpayers of Hennepin County.” The blog’s eponymous mascot periodically doled out Golden Hydrant awards to “government spending programs or expenditures … that are wasteful, excessive, beyond the proper scope of government or, in many cases, just plain silly.” Targets included “sex ed teachers in the public schools,” “free health care for illegal immigrants” and a gaggle of public works boondoggles.

Johnson’s informal nickname, “Commissioner ‘No,’” isn’t entirely fair. Over the years, he’s worked closely with the office of Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, also a Republican, on public safety issues: a body camera pilot program for sheriff’s deputies, sentencing reform, evidence-based initiatives to reduce recidivism. Of all he’s done on the county board, Johnson is most proud of efforts to “create a system where we’re evaluating outcomes,” he says. “It sounds nerdy, but we actually need to measure whether government is working or not.”

***

I duck out of the board meeting during a break soon after Johnson’s votes, and he intercepts me in the overflow atrium. He thanks me for coming, shakes my hand, apologizes for the bureaucratic tedium. Johnson doesn’t come across as someone who’s spent the last decade antagonizing his fellow public servants. He’s down-to-earth, well-rounded, unfailingly polite. If he fails the “beer test” — Would you want to grab a beer with this politico? — it’s only because he almost seems too nice to try anything harder than ginger ale. He may share some policy positions with Trumpist bomb-throwers like Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, Maine Gov. Paul LePage or Iowa Rep. Steve King, but his style couldn’t be more different.

“What struck me about Jeff was his sincerity. He’s warm; he cares about people,” says Justin Arnold, Johnson’s campaign manager, who met Johnson in 2016 when both worked on Marco Rubio’s successful Minnesota presidential primary campaign. “He knows not everyone shares his positions, and he’s OK with that.” The goodwill crosses the aisle. Minneapolis Democratic-Farmer-Labor State Rep. Jim Davnie calls Johnson “clean-cut.” “He was my son’s den leader at one point,” Davnie says. “In my experience, he comports himself like a Boy Scout.”

Chalk it up to Minnesota nice. “I’m a Norwegian Lutheran from northern Minnesota,” Johnson says. Around here, that says it all.

Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes, a county seat about an hour east of Fargo, North Dakota. He chose a career path familiar to many smart, ambitious Upper Midwesterners: B.A. from a well-regarded religiously affiliated college (Concordia College, in nearby Moorhead); J.D. from a prestigious law school (Georgetown University); positions at law firms in Minneapolis and Chicago; a stint at agriculture conglomerate Cargill; on-and-off political office since 2001. He’s been married to his college sweetheart for going on a quarter century. He has two teenage sons and a bulldog, Chester. He lives in an upscale suburb northwest of Minneapolis, where he’s coached 16 youth sports teams in 12 years. He owns a workplace training and human resources consulting business, which helps explain his results-oriented mien. He’s active in his church. He volunteers with homeless shelters and youth groups.

***

In some contexts, “Minnesota nice” means “passive-aggressive.” Not so here. Johnson is that rare politician — even rarer in the land of 10,000 lakes — who blends genuine wholesomeness with plain, direct speech. This winter, on a conservative podcast, Johnson sympathized with state lawmakers warning of Muslims “infiltrating” the February GOP caucuses. The remarks caused a stir. He later told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that “it’s America and we can’t turn people away because they’re of a different religion,” but didn’t back away from his assertion that “there are people in this state and country who seek to replace the Constitution with Sharia.”

“I didn’t really ‘clarify’ anything; I said it in a different way,” Johnson tells me without skipping a beat. “Look, as long as you’re a Republican and you’re not playing games, we want you at our caucus. That said, to argue there’s no threat of radical Islam in Minnesota is disingenuous, because it does exist.” In his current role, Johnson is more radical technocrat than conservative culture warrior. But the combination could be just what he needs to best Pawlenty in the August primary and bolster base turnout in the general.

Johnson is already set for a boost from the GOP faithful in the June 1 state Republican convention. Pawlenty bailed on seeking the formal endorsement from the 2,240 party delegates — essentially ceding the nonbinding nod to Johnson. Pawlenty’s camp cast the move as turning the focus away from a group of activists to the wider primary electorate, but it’s a signal of Johnson’s grassroots appeal.

Pawlenty’s eight years in the governor’s mansion, short-lived 2012 presidential campaign and millions-strong D.C. windfall as a finance lobbyist offer plenty of attack fodder to work with. But the former governor has the trust of donors and a statewide brand name. At the Edina Country Club, Pawlenty moves with ease through the crowd, while Johnson looks out of place.

***

If he can shock Pawlenty, Johnson could carry an energized base into a general election likely against Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, whom the University of Minnesota’s well-connected politics guru Lawrence R. Jacobs calls “underwhelming.” Meanwhile, Minnesota’s already-purple electorate is following the rest of the Upper Midwest into reddish territory. In 2016, Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning here, far closer than most polls indicated.

The general election key, as in many parts of the country, will be disaffected suburbanites. And Johnson knows how to work that crowd. As a state legislator, he opposed a plan to permanently convert carpool bus lanes to toll lanes, and more recently he joined a conservative revolt against a $1.9 billion suburban light rail transit line. Implicit in these positions is Johnson’s allegiance to working folks who can’t spare $25 per week to speed past fellow commuters, who seethe at unelected bureaucrats diverting their tax dollars to pay for a shiny new train they’ll never ride.

It’s Jeff Johnson’s unlikely political recipe for a topsy-turvy year: anti-government anger, a dash of culture war and a “Minnesota nice” delivery.

OZY’S 5 QUESTIONS

1. What’s the last book you finished?
Twelve Ordinary Men by John MacArthur

2. What do you worry about?
I’m not much of a worrier, but when I do, it’s usually about my sons, Thor and Rolf. One is in college and one in high school and, as most dads, I worry about them making the right choices and hanging around with the right kids.

3. What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
Easy: my phone. And cereal — three meals a day.

4. Who’s your hero?
My political hero is Barry Goldwater; my personal hero is my dad. He still works at age 78.

5. What’s one item on your bucket list?
Ride the world’s tallest roller-coaster, Kingda Ka.

OZYPolitics & Power

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