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.

"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.

Johnson has her own track record of neighborhood politics up on the city's north side, where she was raised and has lived once again for the past 23 years. Aside from her reputation for being concerned with what she calls "the integrity of the city," Johnson's grassroots credibility still earns her the admiration of her colleagues on the council.

Gary Schiff, an openly gay council member currently representing the city's Ninth Ward, lights up at the mention of her name: "I love Barb Johnson." Natalie Johnson Lee, an African American woman who represents the Fifth Ward, says that despite their political differences, Johnson's the first person to turn to over any knotty policy question. Even Candy Sartell, a neighborhood activist in the Fourth Ward who has clashed with Johnson in the past, says: "I think she really does care about what she does. When you have those kinds of ties to the community, it's hard to dispute."

Johnson was first elected to the council in 1997, succeeding her mother, but it's really in the last two years that she has emerged as a leader. As her power has grown, so has her outspokenness; she is known among colleagues for making comments and casting votes that anger other council members. But Johnson chooses her battles wisely and commands the respect to fashion voting blocs for or against measures before the council.

"You need 10 votes to get seven," she says, "because you never really know who's going to do what when it comes to roll call."

Even if you disagree with her politics, it's hard not to appreciate Johnson for her candor. It's more than just savvy with Johnson, it's that rarest of all traits found in politics these days: honesty.

 

That old saw aboutMinneapolis being governed by a "weak-mayor system" is true; nearly every piece of policy that the city's top leader may want enacted has to go through the City Council. Over the years, plenty of mayors have gone about seeking changes in the city charter, looking for more autonomy in decision-making. But the effective ones, for better or worse, find allies on the City Council to get things done.

In turn, the top political players in Minneapolis tend not to be mayors, but City Council presidents. For most of the 1990s, Jackie Cherryhomes used her position as council leader as a bully pulpit, micromanaging the city's affairs through a powerful faction that she cultivated on the council and her alliance with former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. Prior to that, former Mayor Don Fraser wisely aligned himself with Sayles Belton when she was council president.

But two years ago brought a changing of the guard rarely seen in Minneapolis city politics. Sayles Belton was trounced by political novice R.T. Rybak. And a host of city council members opted to not seek reelection, paving the way for seven new faces taking an oath of office on inauguration day in January 2002. (Another seat was filled last year after a longtime council member was convicted on federal charges of public corruption.) In short, there was no longer any clear pecking order at City Hall.

There ensued a scramble for plum positions during the council's internal elections. The process proved messy; many "locked-up" votes changed at the last minute, and some council members didn't get the executive or committee posts they expected. The resulting acrimony helped ensure that it would take a while to forge working alliances on the new council.

Barb Johnson, who was beginning her second term representing the Fourth Ward, initially sought the council's presidency, but lost and instead ended up heading the council's Ways and Means/Budget Committee. Johnson's fate was nothing if not timely: A serious city financial crisis was looming as the newcomers took office. Every proposal that came before the City Council was colored by budget shortcomings, and Johnson had the tightest grip on the purse strings. Votes from the rookie council members were wildly unpredictable, and most of Rybak's campaign promises took a backseat to hard fiscal realities. It became clear that no one else at City Hall was as powerful as Barb Johnson.

Johnson had the added advantage of witnessing firsthand the operation of the Cherryhomes coalition that preceded her. She made particular note of the former president's partnership with then-Ways and Means chair Joan Campbell. She learned the strengths and weaknesses of both. "Jackie was more, I don't want to say devious, but she managed all kinds of stuff," Johnson says. "I don't have a desire to be controlling."

And though she is an old-school DFLer in some regards, Johnson's defining trait is her watchful eye over the city's bottom line. Last month, as the council grappled over Rybak's proposed $1.24 billion budget for 2004, it was Johnson who led her colleagues through several long budget mark-up sessions, poring over every detail of the city's finances. Observers point to a "budget cabal" consisting of Johnson, Rybak, Council President Paul Ostrow, and the 13th Ward's Barret Lane. Johnson shrugs it off, saying that "the budget comes from the mayor, and we try to pass it pretty much intact." But Johnson's fingerprints are all over the final result.

"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.

"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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