Have You Seen Me?

No, he's not David Letterman's lost nephew: GOP attorney general candidate Jeff Johnson
Michael Dvorak

Here's a name that won't ring a bell: Douglas M. Head. Way back in 1967, the obscure Mr. Head became the last Republican elected attorney general in Minnesota, a position he held until 1971. In the following 35 years, the state's top litigator and law enforcement official has been a DFLer. That is particularly galling to pro-business, law-and-order Republicans, who have seen their party achieve relative parity in virtually every other statewide electoral arena. Meanwhile, past and present DFL AGs like Skip Humphrey and Mike Hatch have gleefully made waves and gained votes by going hammer-and-tong after tobacco companies and HMOs.

To reverse their hexed history of failed AG candidates, the Republicans are relying on Jeff Johnson, a three-term state representative from Plymouth. A staunch religious conservative, Johnson had lined up the support of 90 out of 97 Republican colleagues in the Minnesota Legislature by this time a year ago. During the 2005-06 legislative session, Johnson authored a politically popular bill circumscribing the government's right to seize private land through eminent domain. He also used the session to shore up his credentials as a law-and-order crusader, singling out such issues as computer identity theft, meth use, and predatory sex crimes.

By contrast, the DFL spent much of the past year in disarray. With incumbent AG Hatch moving up to challenge Tim Pawlenty for governor, his heir apparent was supposed to be former House minority leader Matt Entenza—until it was revealed that Entenza had paid a private investigator to snoop on Hatch, of all people. This sordid intra-party subterfuge forced Entenza to abort his candidacy abruptly on July 18. In Entenza's stead, the skeletal leadership of the party eventually endorsed State Sen. Steve Kelley, an act that felt like a consolation prize, given that Kelley had finished as the runner-up to Hatch for the DFL's gubernatorial endorsement just weeks earlier. But the party's imprimatur didn't prevent former Congressman Bill Luther and first-time candidate Lori Swanson, Hatch's solicitor general, from running against Kelley in the September primary.

Both parties' AG races yielded primary-night surprises. Swanson's upset victory on the DFL side can be attributed to the boost she got from Hatch's campaign machine and from the fact that she was the only woman among the three candidates, and the only one who didn't bear the mantle of "career politician." Johnson's surprise was far less pleasant. Perennial candidate Sharon Anderson, a figure for whom the words "gadfly" and "eccentric" may be too charitable, managed to poll 42 percent of the Republican primary vote despite overwhelming support for Johnson among party activists. In other words, nearly half of the people sympathetic enough with Republican principles to get out and vote in the party's primary still didn't know who Jeff Johnson was. Or at least that's the most positive spin on the results.

The only two polls taken on the AG race thus far, both conducted right after the September primaries, bear this out. Both showed Swanson leading by at least 13 points, but that seems to be based mostly on gender or party affiliation. The number of undecided voters is huge—35 percent in one poll, 18 percent in the other—and the highest level of name recognition achieved by any of the candidates was Swanson's meager 51 percent. Johnson's own name recognition a month ago stood at 28 percent. Minor-party candidates such as John James from the Independence Party and Papa John Kolstad from the Greens amount to potentially significant wild cards in a race where no one is really well known.

During a debate on MPR earlier this month, Swanson twice was able to use elements of Johnson's legislative voting record to put him on the defensive. First, she alleged that a bill Johnson co-authored three years ago would have eliminated state funding for the University of Minnesota's academic health center if its researchers used private donations to conduct embryonic stem cell research. When Johnson complained that Swanson was engaging in wedge-issue politics to distract voters from the real tasks of the AG's office, Swanson countered that conservative state legislators had asked the AG's office for a legal ruling on the stem cell research issue, making it entirely germane to the campaign.

In separate phone interviews with City Pages, Swanson and Johnson expounded on their positions. "Johnson says he's pro-business," offered Swanson, "but I can't think of anything more anti-business than shutting down the University of Minnesota, which is what his bill proposed, because they do stem cell research."

Johnson countered that "most people think if the private sector is doing it, the private sector can do it. It is not a stem cell issue, it is a government-funding issue." He adds that he was one of 28 bipartisan co-authors, and that after Swanson had raised the subject during the debate he went and talked to Rep. Tim Wilkin, his Republican colleague from Eagan and the primary author of the bill. "[Wilkin] said it is an issue that he has been struggling with for years because the academic health center of the University of Minnesota apparently has been contemplating doing embryonic stem cell research on new lines, which, based upon what I call a compromise that was worked out at the federal level a few years ago, would have been at least arguably a violation of federal law," Johnson says. "Or at least they would have lost federal funding for the academic health center; that is what [Wilkin] is saying. He offered up a bill that would have denied funding to the academic health center if they did what he felt was a violation of federal law." Johnson claims, however, that the point was not to de-fund institutions at the university, but to "get their attention and start a discussion, which is what happened."


During his six years in the Legislature, Johnson has been a steadfast opponent of abortion rights. In a March 2005 interview with the right-wing blog Bogus Gold, he said that he reads the Bible every night and was then reading the sixth or seventh of the Tim LaHaye/Jerry Jenkins Left Behind novel series about the end of the world and the coming of the Christian rapture. (His other favorite book: What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer's voluminous and meandering chronicle of the 1988 presidential campaign.) Johnson told City Pages that his position on stem cells is "similar to the Bush administration's," which is to say he opposes research on new lines of embryonic stem cells. And for the record, he would support shutting down state funding for the academic health center if the U embarked on research into new lines of embryonic stem cells.

During the audience-participation segment of the MPR debate, a questioner asked Johnson about another bill from the 2003-04 session that he co-authored (with Rep. Joe Opatz, DFL-St. Cloud) that would have required plaintiffs in civil lawsuits to post a bond equaling 10 percent of the amount they hoped to recover before they could file their litigation. Echoing a talking point in Swanson's opposition research on Johnson, the questioner alleged that if the bill had become law, rape victims would have to post bonds to sue their attackers in civil court. In speaking to City Pages, Swanson added another example: A victim of arson would have to post a bond for 10 percent of the value of his or her burned-out home before being allowed to sue the arsonist. "Think how many poor or middle class people wouldn't be able to file," she says.

Johnson responds that "the intent of the bill was to reduce frivolous lawsuits." But he acknowledges that "if someone was raped and wanted to sue their alleged rapist, I would agree that it is not reasonable that they would have to put down a bond. It should not be part of that bill—if it ever was. I have to go back and look at it. Again, I don't think it ever got a hearing on the House floor."

Johnson's website lists three "top issues" in his AG campaign: "keeping our kids safe," "protecting consumers," and "promoting job growth." The first takes in measures that range from requiring Level II or III sex offenders to wear GPS tracking devices at all times (the subject of a bill Johnson introduced at the lege this year) to restricting minors' access to violent video games, and its centerpiece is an ambitious plan to combat meth usage through law enforcement, treatment, and education. (The primary treatment program preferred by Johnson would be the faith-based Teen Challenge, though he insists he's willing to endorse any program that works.) On the stump, Johnson has repeatedly criticized the Hatch regime and Lori Swanson for concentrating their efforts on corporate wrongdoing—at the expense, claims Johnson, of workaday public safety issues. "County attorneys all over the state are frustrated," says Johnson, "because they are not getting the help they want and used to get from the AG's office."

"He is just plain wrong," Swanson retorts. "Over the years we have tripled the number of homicide cases where we have helped county prosecutors, we have quadrupled the number of sex offender cases, and our overall number of public safety cases is up." Johnson labels these claims "a shell game. It is almost impossible to get reliable figures out of this AG's office."

Under the heading of consumer protection, Johnson offers two main proposals. One is to improve safeguards against electronic identity theft through measures such as the "security breach bill" he co-authored last session, which would have required companies to notify affected customers whenever corporate databases were hacked or otherwise compromised. His second consumer protection proposal is tort reform. How does limiting the ability of consumers to sue manufacturers or service providers amount to consumer protection? It's all about the money, Johnson says: "Frivolous and excessive lawsuits drive up the cost of products and services for all consumers." Three years ago, Johnson was one of five authors of a bill that would have halted any class-action lawsuit against insurance companies and instead referred such matters to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. (Bad idea, Swanson counters: "Right now we get more complaints about Commerce than we do about the insurance companies.")


Promoting job growth, in Johnson's view, includes his proposal to limit the government's reach under eminent domain proceedings. But it also includes standard Republican boilerplate about "reducing government red tape" and working to prevent political or economic measures that "drive jobs out of Minnesota." During his time at the lege, Johnson has voted against amendments requiring health insurers to provide such services as hearing aids for children with hearing loss and ovarian cancer screening for women at risk of contracting the disease. (Prostate cancer screening was already covered at the time).

"We have more mandates on our health insurers than any state in the country," Johnson claims. "That is one of the reasons why our costs are high. I know it is great politics to be able to say we are requiring this or that to be covered, but every time you do that, you take more choice away from the consumers. You are requiring every person who has insurance to pay for hearing aids for a child even if they don't have children. That doesn't hurt the insurance companies and the HMOs, it hurts the consumers. Everybody has got to buy a Cadillac health insurance policy, and if there are people who can't afford a Cadillac health insurance policy, too bad for them."

For all the debate over policy positions and pieces of legislation, Johnson accurately points out that one of the biggest differences between him and Swanson is "more of a philosophical issue. I don't think just being openly antagonistic toward business is a positive thing. I think we can recognize that most businesses are good and most businessmen are law-abiding people, and then we can aggressively go after the ones who aren't. Most businesspeople are just like you and me; they are trying to make a living. So I won't go in there with the assumption that they are bad, and I'll be a little less antagonistic."

The policy extension of that philosophical outlook is that Johnson favors limiting taxes on businesses, be they the "offshore" corporate tax loophole Hatch hopes to close, or legislation that might raise the cost of unemployment and worker's compensation. Back in 2001, he voted against a bill that gave consumers the right to seek financial compensation when they are harmed as a result of a health plan decision to deny coverage for medically necessary care. And in the last session, he voted against amendments that would have required Minnesota's nonprofit HMOs—which are regulated by the AG's office—to disclose the 20 highest salaries on their payroll and keep no more than three months' worth of operating cash in reserve.

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