By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Doug Johnson's big, round tomato-face is ripening by the minute in the fetid air of the Forum Tent at FarmFest, an agricultural trade show staged in a cornfield on the outskirts of Redwood Falls. Leather-skinned farmers in feed caps and blue jeans have filled every folding chair in the tent, at once contemptuous of the assembled candidates for governor and anxious to hear what they have to say about an economy that is plunging the state's ag communities through a new raft of bankruptcies and auctions.
For Johnson, rural people in pain are political manna. Earlier this morning he stole tomorrow's headlines from his rivals by calling for a special session of the Legislature to deal with the latest installment of the farm crisis. Noting that two such sessions were called last fall over funding for a Twins ballpark, he told the crowd, "I think you're more important than a new baseball stadium."
Now, as it comes time for him to deliver two minutes of closing comments in the gubernatorial debate, Johnson puts both hands on the table and hoists himself into a comfortable standing position. He plants his right leg, the one permanently crippled by a childhood bout of polio and sheathed in a full brace, behind him for balance and squares his broad shoulders at a diagonal toward the crowd. Boxing fans would recognize the pose as the classic stance of a pugilist.
"I think we need more than just talk--we need action!" he barks. "I've been to northwest Minnesota, where one in four farmers are going out of business. To see the tears in the eyes of those young farmers... And I've been here a number of times, in Marshall, Worthington, and other areas. The [corn] prices are disastrous! We can't solve it all in St. Paul, but we've gotta try. If we can do it for baseball, we can do it for agriculture.
"I'm running for you in rural Minnesota!" Johnson continues, as his face gets redder and the sweat lines grow larger along his suspenders. "I could have spent this summer at the lake. But I saw more and more young people leaving the north, the south, the east, the west from our rural communities! Going into the Twin Cities, into more traffic congestion, into more crime that has not been controlled, into schools that are having problems. There is only one candidate from rural Minnesota in this race! He will fight for rural Minnesota, he will fight in St. Paul, he will fight throughout this state, and he will go fight in Washington.
"I saw nine thousandtaconite workers in my community lose their jobs and have to leave for the Twin Cities," Johnson screams, his voice a wounded, angry howl. "I don't want to see the farm kids continue to have to leave. To see our littler cities die--our cities, our schools, our hospitals, our clinics! I am the rural candidate for governor! I was the mayor of my town when I was 22 years old--I defeated the medical doctor who delivered me as a baby. I always thought he probably wished he had a second slap!" Ambushed by humor, the crowd erupts in laughter, but Johnson has too much momentum to milk it. "My dad was a truck driver. I'm like you! An average Minnesotan who wants to fight for you when I'm your governor. Thank you very much."
Johnson's DFL rivals--Hubert Humphrey, Mike Freeman, and Ted Mondale--fidget in their chairs. They know they've just witnessed a populist stem-winder of a speech: folksy, feisty, and utterly partisan, a piece
of demagoguery perfectly pitched to an embattled people and delivered with a homespun passion worthy of the legendary Kingfisher himself, former Louisiana Governor Huey Long. "I bet you thought I was going to have a heart attack up there," Johnson says with a big grin as he greets a parade of well-wishers moments later. "People got to know me a little bit today. They know I understand them, that I'm a fighter who will stand with them."
JOHNSON'S ruddy complexion, roly-poly physique, and baby-faced grin make for a deceptive first impression. "He has the look of the cherub, something he's probably been using since he was 6 months old," says former state Rep. Dee Long (DFL-Minneapolis), who until her retirement this year chaired the tax committee of the state House of Representatives while Johnson presided over the same committee on the Senate side. "People who don't know him figure he's just an old country boy, but he's sharp as a tack," adds Bill Belanger, Republican senator from Bloomington and the ranking minority member on Johnson's committee.
Indeed, Johnson's reputation as a shrewd negotiator has caused most legislators to assume that if they want to assure funding for their pet projects, they've got to go through the man everybody calls "Dougie." "I've seen him when he's smiling and winning and I've seen him when he's not smiling and still winning," says Sen. Jerry Janezich (DFL-Chisholm). "He doesn't lose very often. As a younger member, the first time you hear him debate the tax bill on the Senate floor, you're amazed at his grasp; there's almost nothing in the state budget he doesn't know about."