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Gubernatorial Candidate Profile
Doug Johnson
By Martin Kaste
February 26, 1998
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State Senator Doug Johnson has not formally entered the race yet, but for all practical purposes, he's running. He's set up a campaign fund and he's lining up some of the DFL's savviest strategists to help him make up for his late start.

Doug Johnson is a consummate insider. He's served in the Legislature since 1970 and he's held one of the most powerful positions, Senate Tax Committee chairman, since 1980. But he's also an Iron Range political insider which means he's always sure to keep a populist touch.

Johnson: My folks didn't have a lot, except they had a strong work ethic that they taught me. I never had anything handed to me. I always had to get up in the morning and go to school, or go to work, just like most Minnesotans.

...and not like some of his opponents for the DFL nomination, or so Johnson says. He likes to draw the contrast between himself and Ted Mondale, Skip Humphrey, and Mike Freeman, saying he's the only self-made politician in the bunch.

Johnson's underdog image makes him very likable, at least on a personal level. A victim of childhood polio, Johnson walks slowly and only with the aid of leg braces, but he's always ready with a mischievous smile or joke even when it's obvious he's in pain. DFL party activist and political commentator Bob Meek says Johnson has a real edge when it comes to personal charm.

Meek: He is a populist by heart, a progressive among Democrats. At a platform, at a podium, he's jocular, he has a great common touch, he can be very funny.

Johnson can also set himself apart from the other DFLers by being from outside the Twin Cities; in the words of one political wag, he's the only "pro-gun, pro-life, pro-hockey-puck" candidate, and if the Big Three split the metro vote, Johnson could win the nomination.

But Johnson's outstate roots are just as likely to hurt him in a general election especially given his tendency to favor pro-Iron Range tax policies. In fact, Bob Meek says a lot of Norm Coleman's supporters are hoping Doug Johnson will win the DFL nomination.

Meek: The reason Johnson is getting a lot of interest is that it's really just a foil candidacy for Norm Coleman. I mean, if you want to ensure Norm Coleman's election as Governor, which any number of lobbyists on the democratic and the Republican side want to do, the safe bet is to make sure that Doug Johnson wins the primary. Because then Norm Coleman will have virtually no opponent to defeat in the primary.

Johnson is getting support from lobbyists traditionally associated with monied interests; local superlobbyist Tom Kelm chief among them. But the Senator rejects the notion that he's some kind of DFL spoiler.

Johnson: The king-makers are usually wrong and the king-makers in both parties in 1982 said Rudy Perpich would never be elected governor. He was by an overwhelming majority and I think a vast majority of Minnesotans now say he was an outstaning governor. I want to be a governor for Minnesota with a lot of the good ideas, the ambition, the common sense approach that Rudy took and made Minnesota better. I guess in saying that, I think I can be an even better governor than Rudy Perpich.

Johnson says he'll make a definitive decision whether to run after the legislative session, which should end around Easter.