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Dean Johnson Defects to DFL
by Laura McCallum
January 12, 2000
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Prominent state senator Dean Johnson of Willmar has joined the DFL party, after more than two decades as a Republican legislator. Johnson has often sparred with the Republican party over abortion, gay rights and other issues, and Republican leaders say they're not surprised by his switch.

Senator Dean Johnson:

Born: 6/24/47.
Married: Spouse Avonelle, 1 child.
Occupation: Lutheran Pastor, National Guard Chaplain (Col.).
Education: BA, Luther College; Master of Divinity, Luther Seminary.
Elected: to the House 1978, re-elected 1980; to the Senate 1982, re-elected 1986, 1990, 1992, 1996. Term: 5th.
Special legislative concerns: Juvenile crime, job creation, agriculture, welfare reform, transportation.
Committees: Agriculture & Rural Development; Education Finance; Election Laws; Rules & Administration; Transportation; Transportation Budget Division.
Commissions: Council on the Affairs of Chicano/Latino People; Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement; Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy.
JOHNSON SERVED as Senate minority leader from 1992 to '97, but was ousted from the position after breaking ranks with the Republican caucus on the issue of slot machines at Canterbury Park. Johnson says his decision to switch parties isn't sour grapes over losing the minority leader spot, but he says he does feel alienated from the Republican Party.
Johnson: There's a side of me that feels they simply do not want me anymore, and I do not feel the situation is a good fit for my political future or for theirs.
Johnson has twice been censured by his local party, in 1994 for his support of gay rights, and last summer for his position on the Profile of Learning graduation standards, which he wanted to tweak but not scrap. Johnson is a Lutheran minister and National Guard chaplain, and says while he supports religious freedom, he thinks the Republican Party tries to impose its conservative social agenda on others. He says the party should be more tolerant.
Johnson: I wouldn't categorize the Republican Party as mean-spirited, but I have felt personally, back home, there have been mean-spirited letters to the editor. And ultimately it came down to - my wife said to me while in the hospital, she said, "Dean, you're not going to run for re-election and seek the party endorsement." She said, "I don't want you to go through that."
Johnson's wife is recovering from breast cancer surgery, and he says he hasn't decided whether to seek re-election this year. Johnson announced his decision surrounded by a cheering crowd of about 50 DFL lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, who called Johnson a close friend and skilled legislator.
Moe: We are excited about having Dean join us. Don't expect him to change. We expect him to continue to be a moderate on these issues, to understand that in this state, not only do you have to balance all of the diversity and geography of this state, but you also have to balance the budget by having reasonable tax cuts and investments.
"Over the last few years anyway, he's basically voted with the DFL a lot of the time anyway."

- Dick Day
Senate Minority Leader
Moe says he's considering Johnson for the open chairmanship of the Transportation Budget Division, a slot that was vacated by the death of Senator Janet Johnson last year. That would put Johnson in a key position to push for one of his pet projects - expanding Highway 12 to four lanes between the Twin Cities and Willmar.

Johnson's Republican colleagues weren't surprised by his Defection. Minority leader Dick Day, who replaced Johnson, says Johnson and the caucus have often been at odds.
Day: Oh, gosh, over the last few years anyway, he's basically voted with the DFL a lot of the time anyway. So it's time now where, I think, he can maybe switch and gain some chairmanships, and, you know, caucus with the DFL.
Day says he's not happy about losing a caucus member, but Johnson's switch does little to change the balance of power in the Senate. Democrats increase their hold on the majority with 41 members. There are 25 Republicans and one independent, Charlie Berg of Chokio; Day says there's a chance Berg may make up for Johnson's loss by joining the Republican caucus.