One More Time

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

At least one Johnson campaign insider believes that if he makes it through the primary, the relationship with Jerich will become a campaign issue. "How could [it] not? It's a natural for a television spot, even if there is nothing to it. You show pictures of these two kinda overweight good old boys together, talk about what Jerich does for a living, talk about what Dougie does for a living, plant the potential for conflict of interest, then maybe finish off with a shot of Dougie's parking space, which Jerich uses all the time. I think that could be a very effective ad against Dougie."

FOR his part, Johnson thinks he is most vulnerable to Republican attacks on tax issues. "Nobody likes paying taxes, and I've been a member of a majority liberal caucus and involved with the way taxes are paid for a long time. I could write the Republican ads for them right now," he says with a rueful laugh. "With my record, I should be given a consultant's fee.

"I just have to be able to respond that, if you are going to blame me for taxes, can I get some credit for 2 percent unemployment in the state? Norm Coleman said he wouldn't have a police force without local government aids from the state. Can I get credit for that? I don't know how it will work. But I hope to be worrying about it in November."

In fact, those who consider Johnson an easy target for Norm Coleman may yet be surprised: Like a prize walleye, Johnson is apt to slip from an opponent's political net. On fiscal matters he has become decidedly more conservative in recent years, proposing a permanent reduction in state income tax rates and distancing himself from his eat-the-rich roots: "At one point [in a legislative hearing] I had the salary of [General Mills executive] Bruce Atwater up there on a chart" to make a point about income disparities, he recalls. "I would never do that again." He favors a punitive approach to crime, arguing for longer prison terms for first-time offenders. And though he's firm on his anti-abortion position, he's selected a running mate, former Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley, who favors abortion rights.

Ironically, the biggest political liability in Johnson's quest to be governor might be not his political history, but the accuracy of his campaign message. The bedrock rural culture of Minnesota is being diminished and dissolved by a combination of suburban sprawl and migration. The population on the Iron Range is smaller and older than it was even in Perpich's time, just a decade ago. Many young people have left rural towns all over the state because jobs were scarce, and because they got a taste of another option from renting videos at the former hardware store, logging on to the Internet, or talking to the city transplant starting a bed-and-breakfast down the road. In a decade, tourism may well displace logging as the main industry in Killer's "frontier" town of Orr. Some small communities will slowly lose their schools, post offices, Main Street business districts; others will evolve into telecommuting suburbs, far from the metro, but indistinguishable in many ways from Minnetonka or Maple Grove.

Either way, the Ernie Lunds, Ron Jerichs, and Irene Johnsons will be on the wane. And even now, there are not enough of them to make Doug Johnson the favorite to win a statewide race.

"I think this is kind of the last hurrah for any truly rural-based candidate in Minnesota," Johnson acknowledges. If he wins the governorship, he says he'd like to stay in office two terms, "and then Denesse and I would go retire somewhere and go look at the ducks." If he loses--well, newly enacted term limits on legislative committee chairs will force him to relinquish his tax-committee post in 2000, and he claims no interest in either challenging or supplanting Moe as Senate majority leader. "I don't think I'll be in the State Legislature another eight years," he says, and at that moment it's not hard to imagine him limping into the sunset beside his bride, his cherubic smile disappearing into the rural landscape he cherishes so much. To those who know him, it's not an unhappy ending.

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