Minnesota Connected was recently given the chance to interview the gubernatorial governor candidate Jeff Johnson (GOP) — the interview took place hours before his first debate with Mark Dayton (DFL) in Rochester (available to view here). Our conversation focused on a variety of policy issues, but we found a number of non-political tangents to wander down as well.
Minnesota Connected: Obviously the debate today is a big deal, what are three of the major points you want those viewing to take with them?
Jeff Johnson: Mark Dayton is out of touch with the middle-class and his interest is more in government bureaucracy and special interests than in serving the middle-class. That’s my overall theme, but I can break that down into three pieces: first, we aren’t growing good jobs in the state. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week we’re dead last in the Midwest for job growth rate in the last year and we’re 41st in the country. We may be growing jobs, but we are growing them at a slow rate and we aren’t getting the good wage jobs that the middle-class needs to survive.
Second, we are not giving our schools the power to hire, promote and reward the very best teachers. This administration is tying their hands. This is what makes the biggest difference for kids.
Third, I want to make sure that the government is spending its money efficiently and effectively. This is why I’ve called for an audit to go through programs one after the other just to make sure that they are doing what we claim we want them to.
MNC: You’ve had a few set backs over the past year: a health issue, convention craziness and an incumbent opponent that seems to limit the number of public appearances he gives (I was really bummed about not having a State Fair debate by the way!), looking back at this… are there some things you have learned about yourself and your relationship to the political world?
JJ: I’ve learned that I can kind of roll with the punches. Obviously the health thing was totally out of the blue and I lost an entire week on the campaign trail and frankly I was a bit slow-going a few weeks after. But we were able to make it work.
More importantly though, and this is less about me, I also learned the importance of having a talented, passionate and loyal team around you. It is crucial. Especially when those setbacks come on you, because they do, and probably will in the next five weeks. No matter what you’re able to do as a candidate if you’ve got that really strong team around you then you can do anything.
MNC: Tom Horner, the Independence Party candidate of four years ago, had this to say about you in a Star Tribune article: “I believe Jeff Johnson is the candidate for governor who is best able to work across party lines to craft the most effective solutions for Minnesota’s future.” If the DFL still controls the State Senate and State House when you are elected governor, how will you avoid deadlocks and dysfunction which have defined governor Dayton’s term (at least in his first two years)?
JJ: I will do the same thing that I did when I was in the House. I was in a Republican majority in the House; but at the time in the Senate, the DFL had a big majority. Each year I grabbed a hold of one very difficult, complex and sometimes controversial bill and figured out how to not only get it through the House, which in many cases was difficult, but then to go over to the Senate and find a DFL author who I could work with; and frankly, we’d change the bill enough to get it through the Senate too. In every case we were able to actually change the law.
For example I helped rewrite property rights through the Eminent Domain Reform in Minnesota with Tom Bakk as the chief author (this was before he was the Majority Leader in the Senate) back in 2006. Or my role in Tort Reform like the Joint and Several Bill which was probably the most significant tort reform we’ve had in Minnesota in decades; Linda Sheid was my DFL author over there. I was involved with Anti-meth legislation, which was the most comprehensive we had ever seen seen in the country and became the model for the federal government. It was really difficult and controversial, but in the end Linda Berglin, a liberal DFLer from Minneapolis, was my chief author over there. In all of those cases and a few others I had to sit down with them over the course of weeks or maybe months to see what we had to do to actually get this passed in the Senate.
I’ll do the same thing as governor. Part of it is focus and discipline. Not trying to do 23 things at once. A governor needs to say, “Here is one big thing I hope to get done this year. Let’s change the business climate in Minnesota, for example.” Then you go over and find the DFL senators that are business friendly and that are willing to do something on it. Then you figure out what’s possible.
MNC: One of the issues that was highlighted in the Republican primary was the conversation regarding which of the two-halves of Minnesota (Metro or Outstate) would be more represented by the candidate put forth, where do you feel you fall into that equation?
JJ: Actually, I feel I fall in exactly right spot because, apart from a few years in D.C. and Chicago, I’ve spent almost half my life in greater Minnesota and half in the Metro. I was born and raised in Detroit Lakes. My wife is from Crookston. We went to school up in Moorhead. My roots and my values are in greater Minnesota. All my family still lives up there. But we’ve been suburban for 19 years now and we’ve got kids in the school system down here.
I think we often see with politics that there is a significant divide between the Metro and greater Minnesota: whether its funding formulas for transportation, K-12 education, bonding bill or other regulations. I think the best way to bridge this divide is to have a governor who understands and has a connection to both the Metro and Greater Minnesota. I don’t know if we’ve ever had that in the recent past. Arne Carlson, Mark Dayton, Jesse Ventura and Tim Pawlenty were only Metro while Rudy Perpich was all rural. So having someone who has some of the trust of both sides might help solve some of the consistent geographic and political problems in our state.
MNC: MN NORML threw some support behind you during the primary in August. Can you talk about your views on marijuana legislation?
JJ: I don’t support recreational legalization and never will. I don’t think that will be a positive for the state. However, I’d be willing to go further with respect to medical marijuana than what we saw this past session. The bill that passed was just cover for the governor. It didn’t do much to help people, but they realized that the governor had to do something in order to say that he got something done; but the majority of the people, especially the children, who need the help aren’t going to be covered by this bill.
I’d be willing to take it further as long as there were strict controls over access so it doesn’t become just a backdoor for recreational legalization.
MNC: Are you going out of your way looking for support from groups such as MN NORML?
JJ: No. People know where I stand. People who are all for recreational legalization aren’t going to support me. I understand that. That’s fine. I’m just putting out my answers and stating my positions and if a group wants to support me, well… that’s great.
MNC: Dayton’s promise to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color has utterly failed. Tom Horner, who I mentioned earlier, blames this squarely on the Teachers Union. As a product of Minneapolis public schools I feel like I should have some insight, but I don’t. How do we solve this?
JJ: Well, I would agree with Tom that some of the fault is with the Teachers Union not allowing changes to be made, but a bigger fault is on the politicians who allow the Teachers Union to direct what their education policy is. I think Mark Dayton is a perfect example of this. This isn’t how we should be setting education policy, it should be about what’s best for kids rather than what’s best for special interest.
First we need to get people involved who have had success in the achievement gap. There are both charter and public schools in Minneapolis and other areas where they have figured out how to make this work even with the same demographics as those areas that aren’t doing as well. These are places where they haven’t cherry-picked kids. We need to get those successful teachers and administrators involved in government and then ask the question: “Why is this working in your school and why isn’t it working in other schools?” We need to bring in these successful people and listen to them.
Second, we’ve got to look to other states. Being one of the worst, if not the worst, in the achievement gap means that there are a lot of other states that are doing this better than we are. Let’s find the things that they are doing differently and that are working. Then let’s try them here.
I could give ten examples (of things other states are doing), but I’ll give you one: it’s called the “Parent Trigger.” It was started in New Jersey and in California. It was introduced as legislation by very liberal Democrats in Newark and LA because their schools were failing. You see, I don’t care where it comes from. If it works, it works! It says that if you are a parent of a child in a chronically failing school (we’ll need to set that definition), then with other parents you can petition for a change. Essentially they have a vote of confidence (or no confidence). If a majority or a super-majority of them say they no longer have confidence in that school then statutorily something has to happen. They are given power to actually change the school. Maybe it’s removing the principal or the administration? Maybe it’s becoming a charter school? Maybe it’s handing out tax credits so the parents can send their kids elsewhere. Bottom-line, the parents, who care, get to have some say in changing the school. It also introduces a small level of competition into the schools as well which I think is always a good thing.
MNC: How much political capital are you going to spend on the issue of same-sex marriage?
JJ: Umm. None. I support traditional marriage, but I think the vast majority of Minnesotans are ready to move on from that issue. It has been decided and it’s not going to change. So I’m not going to devote any political capital to it.
MNC: Mark Dayton was able to have his cake and eat it too on the issue of Sunday liquor sales. A coalition of mostly DFL politicians did the Teamsters Union’s dirty work of killing bills which could have, at the very least, allowed for growler sales on Sunday by local craft brewers. Most major Minnesota cities aren’t that far from the border to another state and traffic ain’t bad on Sunday. How will you help to keep Minnesota money here at home?
JJ: This should not be difficult and there seems to be a majority of legislators who seem to think that we should let the free market, let businesses decide whether they want to be open on Sunday or not. Why we can’t get this done is just an example of the ugly side of politics. Where special interest is controlling something. As governor I would advocate and support Sunday liquor sales in order to let the free market do its job.
MNC: How much political capital are you going to spend on this issue?
JJ: Well it’s not going to be one of my top priorities. Well I guess it might be a very small part of my top priority which is to make the business climate in Minnesota positive and encouraging to businesses who might want to start here rather than going across the border. So, it might be a small piece of it. But my goal is a much bigger picture goal of job creation in the state.
MNC: Do you have a favorite Minnesota beer?
Big Island Blonde from Excelsior Brewing. We, my campaign, have a fundraiser every December where there’s a “beer buffet.” We call it “Santa’s Beer Buffet.” We pick five different craft beers and then let people taste and vote on them. I think that’s the one that won a couple years ago.
MNC: Any in-state wineries that you recommend?
JJ: I’m not a big wine guy. My wife would have an answer to that, but I don’t.
MNC: I, along with many of my friends, both love the Green Line (especially now that they have it working right), and yet are extremely upset about this new Southwest Light-Rail and its path to avoid Uptown by going through the Kennilworth Corridor thus tunneling through our chain of lakes. What sort of solutions do you have to this?
JJ: Well I don’t know if there is a “solution” at this point. It’s moving forward. But the one piece that’s left for funding is the state piece. Which I find… curious. I mean you had an all DFL legislature and a DFL governor all say they support the Southwest Light-Rail but they couldn’t get the funding through before an election. I find that odd, because now it’s at risk. So that will come up next year.
Southwest Light-Rail in general is not a good investment. I see this on the county board. As a Hennepin County commissioner I’ve been asking for five and a half years for a cost-benefit analysis on the project. How much congestion relief is it going to provide compared to the cost? I’ve not gotten one because it’s not going to relieve congestion in any way. It’s about economic development and changing the way people live; we shouldn’t be spending transportation dollars on that.
So I’m still waiting on the cost-benefit analysis. Maybe it will come? But for right now, I’m skeptical.
MNC: What do you think of going back to the drawing board and possibly doing what Cam Winton (candidate for mayor of Minneapolis) proposed which was to bring the Southwest Light-Rail down Nicollet and turn it west on the Greenway?
JJ: If that’s a step they want to take insofar as looking at other options, I’m open to looking at other options. My issue with Southwest Light-Rail is not the route, it’s whether it’s worth investing the money or not.
MNC: Do you have any favorite food spots in Uptown?
JJ: We lived in Uptown for a year after moving back up here from Chicago, but that was a long time ago. Now, Chino Latino is one of our favorite spots when we’re there. Our teenage boys don’t always like adventurous food, but they seem to love the place.
MNC: Why should an underemployed Millennial vote for you?
JJ: Because my number one priority in this race, and it has been this way from the start, is to deal with the underemployment problem in Minnesota. We are creating jobs. We have a low unemployment rate. But unfortunately we are creating low-paying and part-time jobs. We are not creating the careers that someone fresh out of school, or maybe even someone 50 years old, needs to actually raise a family. That is because we have become so unfriendly to business.
Entrepreneurs who might want to start a business are choosing to do it elsewhere because our tax climate is very negative and our regulatory climate is onerous. That’s absolutely going to be my top priority; we can no longer lose our entrepreneurs or our young people to the Dakotas, Iowa or Wisconsin simply because we are choosing to be unfriendly to people who want to create jobs.
MNC: Are you going to take any actions on the minimum wage legislation that has been passed and enacted under Dayton?
JJ: I would seek to eliminate the automatic inflators that start in 2017. I just think that’s bad policy. If we are going to increase the minimum wage I think the governor and the legislature should do it. I would not seek to roll back the path that it’s on to get up to $9.50/hr. I would not have signed that had I been governor, but once it’s done, one of the biggest problems business has is uncertainty. So it doesn’t make any sense to see-saw back and forth on the minimum wage, but I don’t think it’s good to automatically increase it without a vote.
MNC: Do you sympathize with the notion that in a state with as robust entitlements as Minnesota, companies who pay their employees less are essentially getting subsidized by companies who pay their employees more (and thus are not in the income bracket to get certain benefits)?
JJ: I’ve never actually heard it put that way. You could make that argument, but the bottom-line is that we’ve been so focused the last couple years on the minimum wage. That’s not where the focus should be. It should be on creating jobs where the minimum wage is irrelevant. Like in North Dakota, the minimum wage doesn’t matter. The market demands that McDonald’s pays three or four dollars over the minimum wage because you can’t find good employees unless you are willing to do that. And that’s what we should really be looking at in Minnesota: changing the climate so that people aren’t making $9.50 because we’d have such a robust economy. I want to see the bottom wages rise above what the government chooses to set.
MNC: I enjoyed your first TV ad. It was a nice mix of smiles and a few jabs, which I am always partial to! How do you think being a father to two boys has shaped how you would take on a job like governor?
JJ: I think it gives me an important perspective on what families go through. I think we’re a pretty average family. My wife and I both work. Our boys are both active in school, sports and church activities. We’re middle-class. We have to worry about the mortgage payment and saving for college and those sorts of things; things that the governor has never had to worry about. I think that gives a perspective of what Minnesotans are going through, which is important.
I also think that having two boys has taught me a lot about patience. And, of course, rolling with the punches a little bit. Crazy things happen when you have teenagers at home, just as crazy things happen when you’re governor. You can’t overreact to things. You’ve gotta learn to be thoughtful and to be able to step back. Look at the long-term when deciding on the best thing to do next.
MNC: Recently, with stories like Adrian Peterson’s situation being in the news, parenting has been a big issue. Do you have any advice for parents or parents to be?
JJ: It’s amazing to me how your kids imitate your behavior. If you’re a parent who yells a lot then you’re going to have kids who yell back. It’s just the way it is. They may not always say it but they watch what you do and act like you do. My advice would be to always keep this in mind because if you are doing something that you don’t like or aren’t proud of, then your kids are probably going to do the same thing.
MNC: Community Action Minneapolis has been in the news recently. How did an organization like that get away with this much nonsense to begin with?
JJ: Because nobody was paying attention or caring about it. This is a problem in government. There are a lot of people in government, including our governor, who doesn’t seem to believe that government is capable of wasting money or doing anything wrong. They just ask that we give them the money and trust them. I called for an audit of human service programs and Dayton’s response was that it wasn’t necessary. He dismisses waste as being a Republican talking point because the government doesn’t waste money. A week later this comes out.
Now this is a very extreme example, but I think there are a lot of smaller examples.
MNC: I know from my sources that when you (Jeff Johnson specifically) approach spending in Hennepin County, vagueness or any other funny business gets sniffed out fast. How do you do that?
JJ: Ummm… actually reading things? That’s one thing that Mark Dayton seems to do in signing bills without reading them and then he’s outraged by something he has supported. I think part of your job as governor, commissioner or legislator is to actually read the things you are voting on or signing. So it takes some work. You’ll probably have to put in a lot of hours. But that will be a fundamental difference between our current governor and myself. I’ll be very engaged and active in the process. Another important part of that is you need strong staff who alert you to things you might not have noticed yourself while reading the bill.
MNC: Thank you very much!
Jeff Johnson came across as a very normal and level-headed guy who refrained from side-stepping questions.
Jeff didn’t get to representing the GOP side of the governor’s race through money or bomb-throwing. He got there by having success in positions of public service. Although politically Johnson is a standard “conservative” in most senses of the word, he is getting numerous endorsements from independents (like Tom Horner) and moderates. This is because he has a history of tackling issues through bi-partisan means. As stated in many objective endorsements, there’s an expectation that he would likely have to moderate some of his positions if elected in order to get laws passed, but he wouldn’t be a lead-from-behind (or non-leading) type governor like we have seen from Mark Dayton.
More importantly though, for me, the place Johnson shines the most centers around his balance of Metro versus Greater Minnesota. He understands both and wants the best for both. He goes outside the metro for family reasons, not necessarily political reasons. Though many of us, including myself, are more focused on Metro issues (which are certainly important), the job of governor is to serve the whole state.
In one phrase, Jeff is Twin City-smart and Minnesota nice.
Photos by: Matthew Deery