Boss Lady

Meet Barb Johnson, the most powerful politician in Minneapolis

"I love Joan Campbell," says one City Hall veteran. "But she was not nearly as strong as Johnson, because she did not have the grasp of economics that Barbara has."

"There are two women who make the city work, day in and day out," says former council member Steve Minn." It's Barb Johnson and [Seventh Ward leader] Lisa Goodman who walk the halls and count votes. Johnson is the de facto leader. She's a political powerhouse."

 

Dynasty. It's not the first word that comes to Barb Johnson's mind when she reminisces about her family ties to north Minneapolis. But it pops up casually when others talk about the Rainville clan from the north side.

"A lot of people are starting to want some fresh blood up here, because for more than 30 years it's been someone from the family speaking for us," says one longtime Fourth Ward resident. "But you get the underlying sense that it's hard to know how to run a campaign against a dynasty, because that's what it is. A dynasty."

Johnson professes a simpler view of her family and of her 1950s childhood in the Lind-Bohanon neighborhood. She was the oldest of seven children in a Catholic family. Her father was active in the firefighters' union, and her mother stayed at home. "At the time, everybody had to share responsibility," Johnson recalls, calling her family "frugal, conservative" New Deal Democrats. "Just going to church was a big project. Somebody had to help get seven kids dressed and out the door."

Johnson remembers singing in the church choir, ice-skating in Bohanon Park, getting a Coke at the local pharmacy in Camden. And she remembers taking the bus from the north side to go to Regina High School, an all-girls school on the south side.

"It was a different time," she recalls wistfully. "Kids were freer then. I contrast that with how my kids grew up. We got to go out all day. Our parents weren't fearful."

This pining for a simpler time is more than just nostalgia. It often seems as though Johnson's policy stances on the council are informed almost solely by her childhood and her family's past political history. If it makes Johnson a throwback, it also highlights one of her blind spots. "Times change so much," says Candy Sartell. "I get the sense that she often needs to expose herself to other opinions, other than just the ones she's looking for. There's a sense that the Rainvilles have been a little isolated in the ward."

After Richard died, Alice Rainville became more active, maintaining voter lists for the state senator in her district. She was a widow with seven children, and living on a fireman's pension, when she made her first forays into politics. When John Derus was elected Hennepin County commissioner in 1974, he originally handpicked his brother to succeed him via appointment. But Alice Rainville had some political ties at City Hall and decided to challenge her nephew. She won. "In our family, we've had some pretty heated discussions over the years," Johnson says.

In the meantime, Johnson had graduated from the Anoka-Ramsey Community College nursing program, and her husband had become a postal inspector. His job moved them to rural living, first in Amarillo, Texas, and then Sioux Falls, South Dakota. But Johnson wanted to come back to the old neighborhood, which she and Duane did in 1980. Barb Johnson had left nursing to raise their daughters. But she soon found herself starting the Victory Neighborhood Association, and eventually held a post on the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission, which she kept for 18 years.

Mostly, though, it was her mother who influenced her politically. "For her to do what she did, as a woman, when that wasn't really happening--" Johnson says. "I'd be around with her at City Hall, and she'd say, 'This is better than being mayor in this city. Council president is the most powerful position in town.'"

 

The knock on Barb Johnson is that she's too beholden to the city's labor unions, particularly police and fire. While there's no questioning the diminished political power of unions in this day and age, Johnson readily admits that her background--firefighting dad, cop husband--gives her a bias. Besides, she points out, her ward has some of the last neighborhoods in the city where blue-collar folks and cops can afford to live.

But her loyalty to law-and-order interests was written all over two of the major issues to face the council in the last 18 months. First came the proposed overhaul of the Civilian Review Authority, the board that hears citizen complaints of police brutality. The CRA unreasonably favored cops, critics claimed. A citizen's task force spent months fighting for changes to the complaint process, a move the Minneapolis Police Federation opposed. Johnson fought tooth and nail against the changes, often wondering out loud whether the CRA was worth saving. In the end, very little about the CRA changed.

In another police-related issue, Johnson loudly criticized the prospect of federal mediation between police and the community to produce reforms at the MPD. In the year it took for the repeatedly stalled talks to conclude, Johnson often questioned the need for any agreement at all. Now, since an agreement was signed last month by the MPD and a community panel, she says she has been appeased.

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