One More Time

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

"A group of us got together to stop this thing. I got arrested and thrown in jail for laying down in front of a drill rig," continues Lund. "A few weeks later, some of the holes they were drilling got filled with concrete. A group of federal marshals drove up in an unmarked car, got out, and tried to bust through our group. I grabbed one in a headlock and Lucky Isham coldcocked another one and ended up with his badge. The crowd had a taste of blood and wanted to beat the hell out of them, but we let them go."

According to newspaper accounts of the incident, a St. Louis County deputy sheriff convinced the four marshals to leave after the fracas. Months later, the state determined that the planned method of storing hazardous waste at the site was not technologically viable and abandoned the project.

"What I want to say is that Dougie stood with us during that fight," Lund says of his friend, then in his second Senate term. "On the day the federal marshals came, he was out there with a bullhorn, supporting us. Last year, he stood with us again when the environmental extremists wanted us to stop logging on the Little Alfie site" (a patch of old white and red pines slated for cutting by the U.S. Forest Service, and targeted for protests by groups like Earth First!). "If there was no Doug Johnson, mining and logging would both be in trouble."

Terry Gydesen

With that, Lund exits the inn, fires up his truck, and begins the guided tour of Johnson's hometown. Within four blocks, he points out the modest storefront where the local doctor delivered his future mayoral challenger; the coffee shop Johnson invested in so people would have a place to socialize; and the Covenant church where Johnson's mother donated clothing she had knitted. Then we pull up in front of a tiny white house with green trim.

The place was a tractor shed out in the woods before Oscar Johnson hauled it to this site and set it on top of a foundation he had built. It is where he lived with his wife Irene and raised two sons, Bob and Dougie, born two years apart. Until just two years ago, it was Doug Johnson's residence and the place where he and his mother developed an extraordinary bond.

By all accounts Oscar was an affable old Swede, a big, strapping man (as is Doug's brother Bob) who, when he wasn't hauling pulpwood in his flatbed truck, liked to putter in the garden, go ice fishing, and turn the cabinets of old television sets into furniture in his shop beside the house. Irene was a no-nonsense English immigrant less than 5 feet tall (Johnson is only 5-5)--"a very strict, straight-laced, devoutly Christian woman," Lund says. Adds lobbyist Ron Jerich, another close friend of Johnson's, "The impression I get is that Irene ruled the household and made sure all the men toed the line."

When Dougie contracted polio at the age of 14 months, it was Irene who taught him how to walk again. But she never coddled him. Dragging his right leg, he walked six blocks to school every morning, and participated in basketball ("I was a pretty good outside shooter") and baseball, where he pitched and got friends to run the bases for him on the field that now bears his name.

Throughout the campaign for governor, Johnson's strategists have unsuccessfully urged him to talk more about his disability and link it to the need for expanded health care and better medical research. "A few kids would tease me at school," he admits when pressed on the matter, "but it really wasn't too bad." Aside from a time in the seventh grade when he wore galoshes even in summer to cover up the lift built into his right shoe, his most painful memories involve the long trips down to the Cities to get fitted for a new brace, and the toll they took on the family's meager finances and broken-down automobiles.

Unlike his brother, who left Cook straight out of high school and never really returned, Doug Johnson scraped together money from summer jobs and scholarships to attend nearby Virginia Community College and then the University of Minnesota at Duluth. (Bob now lives in Beaverton, Ore.; he did not return calls for this story.) Except for a stint as a fishing guide in his early 20s, he has spent nearly all of his adult life as a politician and a guidance counselor at Cook High School. Until very recently, whenever the Legislature wasn't in session, he lived at home. When Oscar died of cancer and Irene was hobbled by unsuccessful hip-replacement surgery in 1986, Johnson literally became his mother's keeper.

"She took care of me when I was younger, and in the later years, I took care of her, too. There was a lot of loneliness for her when I was gone to the Legislature, and I used to worry about her a lot when I was in session," says Johnson, who turned down Perpich's entreaties to run for governor in 1994 in large part because it would mean more time away from Irene. "I missed a lot of things--a lot of fishing trips, hunting trips--to be with her when she was sick and elderly," he concedes. "And I never regretted it."

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