By CP Staff
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Chris Parker
By Jesse Marx
By John Baichtal
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Jesse Marx
By Olivia LaVecchia
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."
Electoral politics are another matter. For all his clout, Johnson's power is derived from his appeal to two relatively tiny constituencies--the voters from the 6th District in northeastern Minnesota, and the 42 members of the Senate DFL Caucus who have named him tax committee chair for almost two decades without a single internal challenge. Unless you count his brief, mostly forgotten bid for the U.S. Senate 20 years ago, the current race for governor is Johnson's first serious run for statewide office. Outside observers using standard measures to gauge his chances would quickly conclude he doesn't have a prayer.
Three of Johnson's opponents in the September 15 DFL primary are the sons of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Orville Freeman, a trio of beloved and storied state leaders. Johnson's fourth rival, Mark Dayton, is the wealthy heir to the state's biggest department-store chain. Even if Johnson hits his fundraising target of $500,000 (he was more than 80 percent of the way there last week), he will be outspent by everyone except possibly Mike Freeman, the DFL endorsee who can count on the political muscle of the party and organized labor.
What's more, Johnson's positions on many hot-button issues run counter to those held by a majority of DFL voters. He is opposed to abortion, gay marriage, increased gun control, and many efforts to expand environmental protections, especially around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Perhaps not surprisingly, a St. Paul Pioneer Press/KARE-TV/Minnesota Public Radio Poll released Tuesday showed Johnson running dead last among the DFL contenders, with 4 percent support among those identified as likely DFL primary voters; Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III, by contrast, had 38 percent.
Still, a number of insiders speculate that Johnson could pull off a major upset. St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial writer Doug Tice has predicted that Johnson will win the primary, and Dan Williams--Allen Quist's running mate in a bid for the GOP endorsement earlier this year--describes the senator as "the X factor" in the governor's race. "I talk to lobbyists--they have to handicap the races well in order to do their jobs properly," says Belanger, who is supporting Coleman. "They tell me Doug's got a better-than-even chance in the primary. Some Democrats tell me the same thing."
Those who bet on Johnson have some persuasive reasons. For one thing, it's hard to find anyone in politics willing to say a bad word about the man: Even people who've served opposite him at the Capitol describe him as a master planner adept at turning perceived liabilities to his advantage. A lifelong populist, he has relished his role as the underdog, juxtaposing the blue-blood political pedigree of his opponents with his blue-collar roots as "the son of Oscar Johnson, truck driver," and handing out "Doug for Guv" fishing bobbers. While the working-class conservatives most likely to support him comprise a distinct minority of likely primary voters, they could amount to a plurality after his four opponents each take a chunk out of the DFL's liberal base.
That's especially true if the Monica Lewinsky scandal causes many Democrats to stay home, and if significant numbers of Republicans choose to skip their own all-but-uncontested primary and vote for Johnson. There's been speculation that Republicans will cross over because they consider Johnson the easiest candidate for GOP endorsee Norm Coleman to defeat, or because they consider him a more trustworthy social conservative: While the St. Paul mayor, then still a Democrat, co-chaired liberal DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone's 1996 re-election campaign, Johnson pointedly declared he would use his vote to write in somebody else.
Perhaps the most common response Republicans give when asked why they might cross over is that a Johnson primary victory makes the November election a win-win proposition. At one recent campaign event, GOP attorney-general candidate Charlie Weaver headed toward Johnson's campaign booth, hugged the candidate with genuine affection, and declared that "the best thing that's happened [in this election cycle] was this guy on the ballot. A lot of people are going to cross over and vote for him, myself included."
Johnson's lack of statewide recognition may not be a fatal handicap, his boosters argue, given that 69 percent of likely voters surveyed in a Star Tribune/KMSP-TV Minnesota Poll a month ago said they might change their minds before the primary. Johnson has conserved his money for a media blitz in the last two weeks of the primary campaign. His ad man is Bill Hillsman, who produced the television spots for Wellstone's successful Senate race in 1990. The first ad Hillsman delivered for Johnson--Budweiser-style frogs croaking "Doug" "For" "Guv"--proved he'd been creatively inspired by his candidate, whom he calls "the smartest guy in the race, a guy who ranks right up there with Wellstone for his ability to think on his feet."
But crossover voters, television ads, and even the candidate's unorthodox stands on controversial issues don't fully explain why Johnson is regarded as such a latent, potent political force in this campaign. For that, you've got to harken back to Johnson's speech at FarmFest and the visceral connection it made with people who feel under siege from fat-cat Republicans and politically correct Democrats alike. Johnson may not benefit from the refracted glory of a famous name, but in places where it matters he's known to be heir to a political legacy.
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.
"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."
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."
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."
During the acrimonious debate at the Capitol last fall over funding for a new Twins stadium, Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe--who's now Skip Humphrey's running mate--damaged a long-standing friendship by accusing Johnson of steering an inordinate amount of political projects to his constituents up north. "I thought that was totally inappropriate," Johnson says. "If you really want to look at it, Roger's trains are longer than my trains. But the reality is we both wouldn't be able to hold on to our leadership positions if we weren't fair with our colleagues."
Still, there aren't many hamlets the size of Cook (pop. 680) that can boast a $1.5 million rural health-care grant to upgrade their hospital, or that have had a federally licensed heliport put in next to the hospital for emergency evacuations. The people at the Bakk household are eager to give Johnson credit for these enhancements, and Lund proudly includes the sprawling brick facility in his tour of the town.
Then he points the pickup north on 53 and heads for Orr, 17 miles away. We knock on the door of mayor David Glowaski, who turns down the volume of the auto race on television and tells us how Johnson helped rebuild Orr after a 1993 fire destroyed three buildings and four businesses. Bureaucrats who tried to block the town from dumping the charred ruins of the businesses were overruled, Glowaski says. Interest buy-downs were created and a tax-increment financing district was established. The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board also got involved with a grant. "Doug helped us in countless ways, and got it done without any additional [local] taxes or bond issues," the mayor explains. "He is a hell of a lobbyist; he knows how to twist arms.
"Basically, we are a frontier town," says Glowaski, who is known locally as "Killer," a nickname resulting from a time in grade school when he responded to teasing from his classmates by announcing that he was going to get his guns and kill them. "The whole area up here is very free-minded, free-spirited. We are fighting the government forces continually. The white man only came up here around 1900. For those of us from the third or fourth generation, what we have is our heritage and our life. We have a hard time with the public taking our land, turning it into a national park and the wilderness area. For decades our families used that land and took good care of it. Now we can't use it, and we don't understand. Before 1978, the BWCA really was a wilderness; then the government designated it a wilderness area and all kinds of people come up here and create all sorts of problems.
"Let me put it to you this way," Killer says intently. "Our school district is 1,100 square miles, a huge area. Eighty percent of that land is owned by the government, mostly the federal government, with the Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. They've already got a million acres, and they want to take more. Our heritage is being run over in a way that is not that different than what happened to our Native American friends who are now on reservations out West. Doug has taken unpopular positions with statewide voters in support of us. Sometimes I think without Doug there would be no hope for us."
THEsecond person Johnson mentions among his three best friends in the world is Joe Puceo, a man he met when both were attending UMD. An avid outdoorsman, Puceo once took Johnson to Canada in his biplane in mid-April. The plane broke through the thin ice, and the two were forced to swim through the frigid waters to safety. About 10 years ago, when Puceo was flying to join Dougie at a remote camp near the BWCA, his plane crashed, killing him and severely injuring two passengers. "He's not here anymore, but he will still always be one of my best friends," Johnson says.
The third best friend Johnson names is Ron Jerich. Like Lund, Jerich is a garrulous, raw-boned good ol' boy with a fierce loyalty to Johnson. But Jerich lives in the metro area and is one of the most prominent lobbyists at the Capitol, a role that necessarily complicates his friendship with the chair of the tax committee.
Jerich is a lobbyist from the old school, skilled in the art of solicitous ingratiation, of trading favors with informal magnanimity without ever losing track of the scorecard. In the first six months of 1993--before the Legislature passed a gift ban that severely curtailed such generosity--he spent $63,000 on entertainment, food, and beverages for legislators, more than any other lobbyist. Over the years he has represented nearly every legal vice-oriented business, including tobacco companies, bar owners, and the video gaming industry.
When the private sector was asked to raise $125,000 to sponsor the Midwestern Governors' Conference in Minneapolis six years ago, Jerich co-chaired the project's government relations fundraising division. When the DFL needed to pay off debt caused by legislators using the state's long-distance phone lines four years ago, Jerich was there with a $1,000 check. When two members of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission recused themselves from voting on a $6 billion merger plan between NSP and the Wisconsin Energy Corp. two years ago because they'd discussed the matter over lunch with an NSP lobbyist, it was revealed that Jerich had set up the meeting.
Jerich's friendship with Johnson predates his career as a lobbyist. The two men were acquaintances at UMD during the '60s, and really got to know each other when they went out to Washington to testify against the BWCA 20 years ago. The two men were schooled in politics by the same mentors--former House Speaker Nick Coleman and Perpich--and socialized frequently in St. Paul and up on the Range. Those who know Jerich well maintain that he is a loyal friend with a heart of gold and has proven it with Johnson to the point of becoming somewhat indispensable in Dougie's life. For years, he has served as the senator's chauffeur, enabling his friend to rest his leg while traveling--and securing for himself a choice parking spot right outside the front entrance to the Capitol.
Significantly, Jerich also developed a close relationship with Irene. "When my mother died in 1990, Dougie's mother adopted me. I actually called her Mom," Jerich says. When Johnson worried about his mother being sick and alone when the Legislature was in session, Jerich would drive up to Cook, prepare her meals, and stay by her side. When Irene's health began to flag, Jerich drove her down to the Cities to see his own physician, who determined that she was being overmedicated. As a member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, Jerich arranged to drive a car out on the runway and put Dougie on a plane home. And when Denesse and Dougie were married, Jerich and his wife Valerie (herself a powerful lobbyist, and now treasurer of Johnson's campaign) went with them on their honeymoon to Deadwood, S.D.
The strong friendship between lobbyist and legislator has always raised some eyebrows at the Capitol, but never more so than when Johnson announced his bid for the governorship. Johnson's repeated assertions that Jerich is reimbursed for every mile he drives him have not discouraged the whispers about conflicts of interest, a charge both men deny. "People say, 'Oh, you're friends with the tax chairman, you must have it good,'" says Jerich. "But you notice that Dougie does what he thinks is right. I've lobbied for tobacco, and yet Dougie has voted for every single tobacco tax increase." (After Johnson announced two months ago that he had asked a tobacco company foundation to donate $5,000 to a hospital in his district, Jerich severed his ties with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which had paid him $21,500 during the first half of this year.)
But what Jerich can't deny is that he has what amounts to a lobbyist's gold mine--immediate and unprecedented access to one of the most powerful men in the state. On a recent Saturday, Jerich and Johnson traded barbs about each other's weight and introduced each other to friends while staffing a campaign booth at the Game Fair hunting trade show in Anoka. At 5 p.m., Jerich backed his Suburban and its accompanying trailer up to the main entrance and loaded up the 4-wheel all-terrain vehicle Johnson uses to get around on the campaign trail. The two then drove to the Bunker Hills golf course, where they were greeted by Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart and taken by golf cart out to a banquet honoring volunteers for the Burnet Senior Classic.
"Doug was very influential in helping us get the sales-tax exemption for charitable sporting events that was crucial to the existence of this tournament," Erhart explains. "We worked hard at the Legislature and talked to a lot of heavy-hitter lobbyists who said it couldn't be done. Then we got a hold of Ronnie here," he says, motioning toward Jerich. "That was on a Friday. By Monday it was a done deal."
"Dougie didn't even know anything about it," Jerich says of the sales-tax exemption. "Once he heard about it"--meaning once Jerich told him--"of course he was receptive; this is a great thing that enables thousands and thousands of dollars to go for cancer research. And it has helped other sports events give money to charity all around the state. I was happy to help out. And I didn't charge anybody one dime for it."
But a favor had been done, and now it was to be repaid. Midway through the dinner, the tournament's director grabbed the microphone, introduced the candidate to more than 1,000 potential voters, and said that without Johnson's exempting hundreds of thousands of dollars of sales-tax payments, their golf tournament could not have become "the number-one charity event in the state of Minnesota."
Asked about his relationship with Jerich, Johnson acknowledges: "That is a deal where I've had to walk that fine line. Every candidate for governor has lobbyists who are their friends; you don't serve for 20 or 30 years and hate everybody. But the difference with Ron and me is that we are such good friends.
"I know that my opponents in this race are murmuring because he is so visible. But, hey, here's the guy that when no one else was taking care of my mother--when she got sick, had serious medical problems, and we were in Duluth, he came up and hauled her down to Mercy Hospital. No one else would have done that. I am very, very careful to make sure there are no conflicts of interest; watching the campaign-finance laws and the gift ban, I am very careful on that. But I won't stop being his friend, or forget what he's done."
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.
"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.