Boss Lady

Meet Barb Johnson, the most powerful politician in Minneapolis

The buzz around Minneapolis City Hall last week was all about the whirlwind tour of William McManus, Mayor R.T. Rybak's pick for the city's next police chief. In a PR onslaught that had the feel of a political campaign, McManus scurried around town to neighborhood forums, City Council committee meetings, and talk-radio shows. One popular (though apparently false) rumor held that McManus even made an offer on a house while he was here.

That last item struck some city leaders as quite a display of confidence, since it was hardly a forgone conclusion that McManus would actually get the chance to lead the MPD. Chosen by Mayor R.T. Rybak last month to replace outgoing Chief Robert Olson, McManus still faces one small technicality: He has yet to be approved by the Minneapolis City Council. While McManus has the apparent support of the six ward leaders who stood behind him at the press conference announcing his selection, early last week it looked doubtful that he and Rybak would gain the one additional vote needed for a slim majority on the 13-member council when it votes this Friday.

Indeed, as recently as last Tuesday, the opposition looked solid, and it seemed that McManus might really be left on the doorstep, ensuring a major political setback for Rybak and fallout in the minority communities that have endorsed the mayor's choice. In fact, Fourth Ward council member Barbara Johnson still had every intention of blocking McManus, saying she still favored one of the two internal candidates, deputy chiefs Sharon Lubinski and Lucy Gerold.

Raoul Benavides

"I'm disappointed the two women got disregarded," Johnson lamented. "I'm going to preserve the option for the internal candidates to be considered again."

Support for the two Minneapolis cops had been strong at the beginning and growing for months. The notion of Johnson lining up votes to block McManus could not be taken lightly. For two years, as eight council members have felt their way through their first terms, Johnson has gained the reputation for adeptly shaping decisions made by the council. She has the respect of her colleagues and a knack for putting herself in the middle of any big decision to come out of City Hall. In short, many believe it is Johnson who is quietly charting the course for Minneapolis these days.

"Nobody is better at counting noses for votes," says one City Hall observer. "If she wants them, she will get them."

So the real news of McManus's very public stumping was not that he was toast, but rather, by the end of the week, that Johnson had a change of heart. McManus, who clearly has some keen political instincts himself, spent time lobbying Johnson. On Tuesday afternoon, the candidate and the council member took a ride through the neighborhoods in Johnson's ward on the city's far north side, speaking one-on-one about what kind of chief he would be.

"He's impressive," Johnson concluded, stopping shy of saying she'll support his appointment, but clearly giving up the fight on a certain level: "People are going to have to make up their own minds about this. If those votes against him are going to move, they'll move." (The Star Tribune even characterized Johnson as "confident" that McManus would get the nod.)

For all the flesh McManus pressed last week, his tête-à-tête with Johnson may prove to be the most important. You could almost hear a sigh of relief from the mayor's office: His most formidable opponent was sounding a retreat.


Savvy is one of the most well worn clichés in politics, applied to anyone who seems able to wrestle a piece of legislation or policy through without suffering any visible wear and tear. Barb Johnson has savvy in spades.

Of course, if you don't know Johnson, you could never guess it by looking at her. What to make of this stout woman, the one who sits at the far end during City Council meetings, peering through grandma glasses that accentuate a quasi-bouffant hairstyle that would not have been out of place 50 years ago? The 54-year-old who evinces a small swell of pride when I tell her that her politics--the law-and-order, fiscal hawking kind--make her more like a Republican than her colleagues? The one who, despite years as a registered psychiatric care nurse and a DFLer, counts herself as a social conservative? How did she find her niche in the fabled liberal edifice of Minneapolis politics as one of the city's main power brokers at the start of the 21st century?

Maybe the answer lies in the personal details. There's her husband of more than 30 years, Duane, who spent time as a Minneapolis cop before becoming an employment attorney in town. And there are her three daughters: Sarah, who's 25 and a legal case assistant for Faegre & Benson, one of the prominent law firms in town; Emily, who's 24 and in her second year of law school at the University of St. Thomas; and Margaret, who at six feet tall plays power forward for the University of California-San Diego women's basketball team.

Then there's the family pedigree. Her mother, Alice Rainville, was appointed to the Minneapolis City Council in 1974, eventually becoming the council's first woman president while serving 23 years in office. Her cousin John Derus represented the Fourth Ward before Alice Rainville, then served 18 years as a Hennepin County commissioner and went on to run, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Minneapolis and a state senate seat. Her father, Richard Rainville, who died in 1969, was a Minneapolis firefighter. And there are any number of Rainvilles and other extended family members who have occupied political offices around the state for decades.

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