One More Time

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

Throughout this time, Johnson never escaped the mind-set of the pious, dutiful son. He says his anti-abortion position was "absolutely" influenced by Irene, who constantly knitted caps and mittens for her churches, sang religious hymns while playing the piano in a corner of the house, and rarely failed to ask whether candidates for office were in favor of "killing babies." Friends say Johnson was in his 40s before he allowed his mother to know he smoked cigarettes.

When Johnson came home from a June 1995 commencement speech at Mesabi Community College and found Irene helpless on the floor, he knew he could no longer put off admitting her to a nursing home. The decision became even more wrenching when, despite visits three times daily from Dougie and the occasional trip back to the house for a home-cooked meal, Irene treated the transfer as a death sentence. "She just gave up; stopped knitting and watching TV and just sat there," Johnson says. "It was a sad time for her."

By then, however, Johnson had entered into the closest romantic relationship of his life. Through high school and college, he hadn't dated much--"I was too shy and too fat," he claims--and although he had been involved with women during his time in the Legislature, nothing had compared to the natural chemistry between him and Denesse Hoole. As a longtime lobbyist for various power and utility companies, she shared his affinity and aptitude for politics. As the widowed mother of two children, she had spent 26 years raising a family on the Range; she knew the ways and means of his native culture.

And she was properly deferential to his mother. Friends recall at least one occasion when Denesse canceled plans with her own mother to be with Irene, and Denesse herself remembers a time when she wouldn't accompany her fiance into the nursing home out of concern that the brevity of her shorts would offend his mother.

Irene died exactly one week before her son was married, in September 1996. (Though Denesse says she originally planned to keep her name in the marriage, she relented after Doug asked her to become a Johnson.) Not long after that, the couple purchased a place on Lake Vermillion about 20 miles north of Cook. Doug Johnson then sold the little white-and-green home he'd lived in for all of his 54 years, lowering his asking price because he liked the people who wanted to buy it.

ERNIELund's next stop is the Bakk family living room, home to the man the Johnson campaign likes to refer to as its biggest booster. Tim Bakk, the brother of state Rep. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook), developed a brain tumor at the age of 10; radiation treatments left his mind lucid, but eliminated speech, and put him in a wheelchair, which is now plastered with Johnson campaign paraphernalia.

Tim and Doug Johnson became friends when Tim was at Cook High, where Johnson was a guidance counselor. Watching Tim struggle to communicate through an adaptive computer, it's hard to escape the impression that visitors are brought here in a shameless, but effective, attempt to remind them of Johnson's perseverance in living with disability.

After a series of simple yes-no answers, Tim is asked what he likes best about Dougie. Beads of perspiration appear on his face as he drags his left arm over the appropriate keys, punches a button, and has the computer answer, in a mechanical voice, "Because he never changes."

Among the others in the room are Tim's sister Vicki Bakk, a paid campaign staffer in Johnson's Duluth headquarters, and Mel Bakk, the family patriarch. Lund is in a provocative mood during the ensuing political discussion, announcing that "There are some people over in the coffee shop with a five-dollar bill and a clean pair of underwear that don't know where they came from, but for the most part this is a solidly working-class area. Doug won't need the liberals to win this election. He'll treat them as he always has; tell them to go to hell unless they want to do something practical. He's got common sense. He alienated the perverts and made friends with everybody else last week, going against gay marriage."

Moving on to U.S. Senator Rod Grams, Lund adds that because Grams is standing with the loggers and against the environmental extremists, "he is not really a Republican. I told him that. I said, 'What you are is a Harry Truman Democrat.'" It's the same phrase he likes to use in describing Doug Johnson.

Mel Bakk leans forward from the couch across the room. "Ernie brought me a whole raft of Johnson campaign envelopes and gave me hell because people at the hospital are not giving me everything." (Both he and Lund are members of the Cook Hospital Board.) "He said the hospital needs to support Doug after he replaced the windows and roofs and made it a place where they earn $100,000 a year. I think they'll fill [the envelopes] up now. I said I didn't want a $100 bill; I thought it should be $1,000 each. A doctor can come up from the Cities and earn $4,500 working just from Friday to Monday."

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