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DFL state senator Doug Johnson loves to take jabs at the famous names running for governor this year. He says his rural background and his career as an educator set him apart from the Humphreys, Freemans, and Mondales. But his "common man" rhetoric masks a skillful campaigner who could make a big splash in September's crowded Democratic primary.
HE'S HARDLY MADE A SPLASH in the population-rich metropolitan area, he was the last entrant in the race for governor, he didn't stick around the DFL convention long enough to do much more than give a speech and then withdraw from the endorsement process, and he's low in most polls. But he's casting a political shadow on this year's gubernatorial race that has the front-runners looking over their shoulders.
On a Saturday morning in Virginia, Doug Johnson hops on a green Polaris four-wheeler for the town's annual "Land of the Loon" parade. Waving to the crowds along the town's main street, Johnson is in his element. It's in places like Virginia where Johnson has the kind of name recognition he says only his big-city rivals enjoy. One woman remembers him from high school, another says he was her high school guidance counselor. Almost everyone, like resident Marlene Jarvey, can recall meeting the legislator over the years.
Jarvey: I saw him in the Black Bear one Saturday night - they have the prime rib on special ... him and his wife came in, shook our hands....
Jarvey and her friend Sheila Marla are enthusiastic about Johnson's campaign. They see Johnson as someone who will look out for them, stopping the perceived money-drain to the Twin Cities.
Marla: I've talked to him many times personally one-on-one, and he seems to want to really get out there, talk to people, see what people are looking for, what they want, what have you. As opposed to Arne Carlson, he didn't seem like he wanted to listen to people.
Johnson says his ride on the four-wheeler - and the fishing bobber on his campaign signs - represent his commitment to regular folks and to creating more recreation opportunities in Minnesota if he's elected governor.
Johnson: I think the DNR has been wasting the money it gets from the legislature and the fees it charges, for fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, not enough money is going back into the field for facilities for those who want to enjoy the out-of-doors.
Johnson's campaign adviser, Gary Cirkvenik, says Johnson has been a key advocate for Iron Range residents, helping spur economic development when jobless rates were at 20 percent in the 1980s. Cirkvenik also credits Johnson with leading the reform of the state's property tax system as Chairman of the Senate Tax Committee.
Cirkvenik: If it wasn't for him, the whole homestead credit wouldn't really be in existence today, and the whole shift to bringing more state resources to support school districts throughout Minnesota is part of the Doug Johnson legacy. Which lessens the burden among property taxpayers and makes education more equitable throughout the state.
Johnson's platform is a hybrid in terms of party lines. He is most outspoken on crime and education, pledging more money for prisons and schools, but says his top priority is an income tax cut. And he expresses admiration for Arne Carlson's fiscal management.
Johnson: The state's economy is very strong, there's going to be about $2 billion for a tax cut, for things like education and protecting the environment and good transportation. I'm going to downsize the state government, state agencies, I'm going to make them more lean, so we're going to save some money there.
One issue that Johnson doesn't advertise as strongly is his opposition to legalized abortion. But it could be one of the most significant factors in the upcoming primary, since it sets him apart from the other five DFL contenders.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Norm Coleman holds similar views and faces no primary challengers. Stephen Schier, head of the political science department at Carleton College, says with Coleman's place on the November ballot already assured, Republican opponents of legalized abortion have incentive to help Johnson in the primary.
Schier: I think you can expect that a number of opponents of abortion rights - the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life - will encourage their voters not to vote in the Republican primary but to cross over in the Democratic primary and vote for Doug Johnson since he opposes abortion rights.
Johnson expects the most votes from the 7th and 8th Congressional Districts, which cover northern Minnesota and St. Cloud. Their congressional representatives, Colin Peterson and Jim Oberstar have endorsed him. He also hopes to take a share of votes in the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities. Schier says the combined population of those areas could be a critical mass.
Schier: I think you can expect the Twin Cities to be fragmented in their voting, therefore outstate Minnesota becomes important if they vote emphatically for one of the six candidates. Therefore a person in a six-person race can win the nomination with less than 30 percent of the vote - that's certainly in the realm of achievability for Doug Johnson. I think that's the premise of his whole campaign.
Polls show Johnson running in third place behind Skip Humphrey and Mike Freeman, and he faces significant challenges in the race. Despite his reputation as a labor ally, he lost labor endorsements in his own district to Freeman, who got there first. Then news last week that he channeled tobacco money to one of his favorite charities put the campaign on the defensive. Johnson has joked that his low-budget campaign needs as much free publicity as possible, but Schier says questions about Johnson's tobacco ties could bring notoriety he'd rather do without.