One More Time

They say people who fish and farm can't elect a governor anymore. Tell that to Doug Johnson

In the DFL gubernatorial primary of 1982, a dentist from Hibbing by the name of Rudy Perpich scored a huge upset over a smooth-talking Attorney General from the Twin Cities named Warren Spannaus by revealing himself to be the rough-hewn son of a miner and promising to improve the lot of people on the Iron Range and in other impoverished, predominantly rural parts of the state. Throughout his long career, Perpich talked funny, acted impetuously, and worked hard to conceal and conquer an inferiority complex. (In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I was his speechwriter for two years during the late '80s.) But his genuine empathy and unabashed patronage of rural working-class people, particularly on the Range, transformed suspicion into trust up north and drew a new cadre of activists into the party.

Johnson is no Perpich clone--his intellect is less restless, for one thing--but there are reasons why, when Perpich decided to forgo a challenge to Arne Carlson in 1994, he privately urged Johnson to run instead. Way back in 1976 and 1977, Johnson authored legislation that raised the tax rate on the taconite mining companies and set up economic development and environmental funds to benefit northeastern Minnesota. In 1985, when the taconite industry was ravaged by recession and global competition, Johnson engineered a reform plan that temporarily cut the taxes as much as 90 percent while supplementing the economic and environmental funds with other state money. "People don't forget what he's done for them up here," says Ron Dicklich, who served in the Senate with Johnson in the 1980s and is now the director of public affairs for Duluth-based Minnesota Iron & Steel. And on the Range, Johnson's campaign manager Gary Lamppa likes to say, "Loyalty is thicker than blood."

In fact, Johnson's strategy for victory in the primary requires that he pull just 15 percent of the vote in the metro area (mostly in northeast Minneapolis, along Rice Street in St. Paul, and among transplanted Rangers in the northern suburbs), hold his own in the western and southern parts of the state, and garner 55 to 60 percent of the vote in the 8th Congressional District, which includes Duluth and the mining and logging towns in the northeast. And the more time you spend with Johnson, the more apparent it becomes that these places hold the key to the candidate as well as his campaign. Like Perpich's, Johnson's politics are inextricably entwined with where he comes from. Or, as Johnson himself puts it: "If you really want to get to know me, you've gotta go to Cook."

"MOST people from the Cities think all we are up here is a bunch of inbred, illegitimate drunks," Ernie Lund says, looking up from his latest coffee refill at the Ashawa Inn on Hwy. 53, some 240 miles due north of the Twin Cities. "It teaches you to be a survivalist, to stick together. That's what we know. For years and years, the taconite companies would take the immigrants and put them down in the mines, the bohunks"--immigrants from Eastern Europe--"especially. It used to be said that when a miner got stuck, the company wouldn't send a mule because good mules were hard to find, but there was always another bohunk willing to go to work. Perpich was a bohunk. He understood.

"Dougie understands this, too. We're fighters around here; we're scrappers; we've had to be. Dougie is one of us and has always stood with us."

Aside from his wife Denesse, there are three people Johnson considers to be his best friends in the world. Of those, the first he mentions is Lund--a guy so much the opposite of slick, many politicians would long since have abandoned any association with him. The 60-year-old contractor's jowls are covered in white stubble. A crude tattoo of his wife's name--SHIRLEY--adorns his left forearm. His thick hands are covered with an assortment of calluses, scars, and fresh wounds.

"Let me tell you a story that will tell you who Doug Johnson is," he announces. "Back in the early '80s, I get a call from Julian the Wolfman. We call him that because he was always trying to stop the wolves from killing his cattle. But the wolves are protected; even if they are killing your cattle, you're not supposed to do anything to them. They had this big meeting where the government was talking about castrating the wolves. And somebody--it might have been Julian--stood up and said, 'What are you talking about? I'm not worried about the wolves fucking my cows; I'm worried about them eating my cows.'

"Anyway, Julian calls me up and says some guy stopped by his place asking for information, and the whole thing didn't look right. Julian checked up on them and found stakes and drilling equipment out in the woods.

"So I called up my mother's cousin, who was a superintendent at the drilling company, and asked what they were drilling for. We found out the state waste management board was doing testing without telling the locals. We also found out the feds were involved; this was right around the time the feds were looking for places to dump nuclear waste.

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