GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson: A primer
Screengrab of Jeff Johnson
After a crowded but largely uneventful primary season, Gov. Mark Dayton finally found out who his general election challenger will be late Tuesday night. Jeff Johnson, the former Hennepin County commissioner and GOP-endorsed candidate, snagged the nomination with 30 percent of the vote, beating out former Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Zellers by about seven points.
Now the race is down to Dayton and the GOP-endorsed Johnson, with a few third-party candidates as well. But after debates that largely featured the GOP candidates arguing over who was the most conservative, what can we expect from Johnson's policies in the general election?
We decided to lay out where Johnson stands on a number of issues. We'll just highlight a few, but you'll see pretty quickly that Johnson and Dayton differ quite a bit:
When Mark Dayton first ran for office in 2010, his message on taxes was relatively simple: "Tax the rich." What he ended up doing, however, was more complicated. He did follow through on that campaign promise, mostly through the income tax and estate tax. But he and the legislature also passed more than half a billion dollars in tax cuts last session that should last through much of 2015.
Johnson's decidedly more conservative. He insists he won't raise taxes at all if elected, saying in a statement back in July that "I've never voted for a tax increase.... As governor, my philosophy will not change."
Despite his statement, which seems to put an end to the issue, conservative groups have actually hit him hard for not being conservative enough. The anti-tax group Americans For Tax Reform blasted Johnson last Tuesday for not signing its Taxpayer Protection Pledge -- basically, a piece of paper saying he won't raise taxes at all, no matter what. The group calls this Johnson's "Read My Lips" moment -- that while he may be talking the talk right now, it needs to see a signature before it believes him.
For Johnson, improving business in the state largely means changing the tax code, which he says will help manufacturers and farmers in the state who need it. When asked by MinnPost last year about how he would increase employment, he pointed to two policies: making the permitting process easier for businesses, and reforming the entire tax system, including lower sales and business taxes.
"I think we should be looking at the corporate tax rate so that at least it is competitive with the states that surround us," he told MinnPost.
Overall, though, Minnesota is doing pretty well right now. The state's unemployment rate is sitting at 4.5 percent as of June, significantly better than the country as a whole. And for the Twin Cities metro, the number's the same. That obviously doesn't tell the full story, but it's something Dayton will certainly try to use to his advantage as we get closer to November.
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Johnson has separated from his party's other candidates on this issue for a while. While the other Republicans vying for the governor's seat were against medical cannabis, Johnson has supported it for months.
"When I hear doctors say, 'I've had patients who at the end of their lives are suffering terribly, and if I had this option it would be a better option than anything else I could give to them to die peacefully,' that's powerful," he told us earlier this year. Johnson even singled out the program in Illinois, which was restrictive in who qualified for the program but did allow loose-leaf cannabis.
Dayton, on the other hand, has wavered quite a bit, though he ultimately ended up supporting the relatively restrictive bill passed by the legislature in May that allows certain forms, like pills or liquids, and only for specific ailments. Advocates still desire a lot more, though, like the legalization of loose-leaf marijuana. That's something Dayton's yet to endorse.
"It's to me impossible to believe someone is going to buy 2.5 ounces of marijuana and not smoke it or not sell it to someone else who will," Dayton said during the negotiations in May. "It just defies common sense in my judgment."
This one's tricky. Johnson's actions say one thing on privacy, but his words say another. The GOP candidate has been largely criticized for approving the use of the Kingfish cell phone tracking system as Hennepin County commissioner. As we've described, the programs basically mask themselves as fake cell phone towers and collect cell phone data to catch criminals. But it can also collect data like outgoing numbers from those nearby who aren't bad guys, making privacy advocates worried.
It's now a vote Johnson regrets. In a December 2013 campaign Facebook post, Johnson writes: "Locally, we have widespread unauthorized and unwarranted access of individual data in state databases. These abuses can't be ignored. Given that experience, I would not support the Kingfish purchase today."
Dayton's record is just as mixed. Under his watch, the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has spent nearly $300,000 on similar programs. But he also signed into law a new cell phone data privacy bill this year that should help to monitor and limit those programs by police.
There are a whole host of other issues, too, and we'll be sure to cover them as the election gets closer.
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