Boss Lady

Meet Barb Johnson, the most powerful politician in Minneapolis

"When I saw those two sides come together and understand each other as well as they did, I sensed this was valid," she says.

Natalie Johnson Lee, whose ward is made up of many African Americans with a slightly less rosy notion of the MPD, often differed with Johnson on these issues. "The unions are her base in a sense, but that doesn't necessarily force your vote," Johnson Lee says. "But these decisions weigh heavily. Barb is definitely her own woman in that relationship."

Johnson has found herself quietly sparring with Rybak on some fronts as well. One of Rybak's campaign promises was to streamline the city's various planning offices into one entity, the office of Community Planning and Economic Development. Johnson says she thought the city's main planning arm, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, functioned just fine as it was, and fought against many aspects of Rybak's plan. In the end, a watered down version of Rybak's proposal was approved by the council.

In fact, you couldn't find two politicians more different than Rybak, the cheerleading upstart, and Johnson, the no-nonsense operator with decades' worth of family connections and experience to draw upon. At various council meetings, the two seem to talk right through each other. "I listen to the mayor, but I also know what I have to do," Johnson offers. "He's very good at doing what the mayor of this city should do. He's an excellent salesman."

Rybak, for his part, says he and Johnson "come down in different places ideologically sometimes, but we have a strong working relationship." He points out that both were raised by widowed mothers, and that for two years she's been a "good partner" on the budget issue. He does mention a "hiccup" at the end of the 2003 budget session where Johnson purportedly made a deal without his knowledge, and Rybak asked her to keep him in the loop on all future deals. "I said, 'I want to work with you, but I need to know,'" Rybak recalls. "But I get along fine with her, even when we're opposing each other."

Former council member Lisa McDonald, who ran an unsuccessful primary bid for mayor against Rybak, says Johnson will always have the upper hand. "She's able to stand up to him," McDonald surmises. "Her existence as a council member is not dependent on the mayor's approval, as it is for some people."

So it was hardly a surprise when Johnson found herself opposing Rybak over policing issues again in the selection of McManus. The police federation has made it clear that Lubinski or Gerold is the union's preferred choice, a sentiment that Johnson echoes. McManus is known as a reformer, who rattled the police union in his two years as chief in Dayton, Ohio. But Johnson insists her issue is mainly one of gender: "I've always been a supporter of the presence of women in the department."

No matter how the chief selection turns out, Johnson swears she will "carry no baggage from action to action." It's this trait that will serve Johnson well in the long run, according to McDonald. "She's one of those people who knows things will come to pass, one of those people who knows karma comes due in its own time," McDonald says.

Johnson says she doubts she could have a run on the council as long as her mother's, but maintains that she harbors no aspiration to run for mayor or any other higher office. And why would she? While she's not council president, the position Alice Rainville believed held the key to the city, Johnson is, in effect, in the best place she could be. "Maybe I'll go back to nursing when this is all over," she says. "But for now I'm quite happy to stay where I am."

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