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Republican gubernatorial primary: Johnson paints himself as ‘big-tent guy’

Bill Salisbury

St. Paul Pioneer Press

PLYMOUTH — Members of the North Metro Tea Party cheered Jeff Johnson, the Republican-endorsed candidate for governor, when he bounded onto the Mermaid Ballroom stage in Mounds View for an evening forum this month.

The 150 partisans applauded when he pledged to cut taxes, slash government red tape and “fight Obamacare every step of the way.”

That’s standard fare for the four GOP candidates for governor competing in the Aug. 12 primary for the right to challenge Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton in November. But Johnson received a warmer tea party response than most pols. The master of ceremonies, Minnesota Tea Party Alliance President Jack Rogers, endorsed him before he handed over the microphone.

That was music to DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin’s ears. Democrats are trying to portray Johnson as a “tea party candidate.” They note that he’s spoken at many tea party meetings and has referred to members and himself as “we.”

Why is that a big deal? “There’s only one group that tests more negatively than the tea party, and that’s Congress,” Martin said.

But it might be difficult to make the tea party label stick to Johnson.

While the attorney, Hennepin County commissioner and former legislator embraces the tea party as “an important part of the coalition that I need to win,” he’s also a “big-tent guy” who welcomes support from all GOP factions.

He told the Mermaid Ballroom crowd that while he wants their support, he also is appealing to “liberty Republicans,” the business establishment and even moderates who voted for the Independence Party’s Tom Horner for governor in 2010.

Johnson won the GOP endorsement at the state party convention in Rochester in May because he had widespread support across party factions.

Republican activist Sheri Auclair of Minnetonka said she first saw Johnson’s skill as a “uniter” at the 2012 state party convention, where supporters of presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul battled for national convention slots. As tension mounted, Johnson, then the state’s Republican National committeeman, gave a speech that “tamed 2,500 activist delegates,” Auclair recalled. “It was just jaw-dropping.”

Johnson, 47, of Plymouth, is not a charismatic leader. He’s a thoughtful, mild-mannered Norwegian Lutheran.

He tipped off his style when he told the tea party crowd that he would “go after Mark Dayton … (but) do it in a way that doesn’t come across as mean or nasty or angry, because mean, nasty, angry Republicans just don’t do well in statewide election in Minnesota.”

He’s taking the same approach in the primary, declining to bad-mouth his rivals.

He was knocked off the campaign trail last week while recovering from abdominal surgery at Maple Grove Hospital.

During his three terms in the Minnesota House from 2000 through 2006, when Republicans controlled the House and DFLers the Senate, Johnson earned a reputation as a problem solver willing to work across party lines. He teamed up with Sen. Tom Bakk, now the DFL majority leader, in 2006 to pass an eminent domain bill that increased property owners’ rights.

“I learned that if you want to make significant change in divided government,” he said, “you have to pick one thing at a time, go find the Democrats who agree with you on that one thing and get it done — and not be distracted by 17 other things that they disagree with you on.”

Johnson campaigns on a three-point platform that he unveiled when he launched his campaign 14 months ago. He wants to create jobs by cutting taxes and government regulations, close the achievement gap between students of color and their white classmates, and measure state programs to identify the ones that work and get rid of the ones that don’t.

Although the Republican Party has been riddled by debt, state GOP Chairman Keith Downey said the party will give Johnson and other endorsed candidates a significant boost. By last week, he said, it had opened 16 “victory centers” across the state where volunteers were being mobilized to make phone calls, canvass voters, distribute literature and provide other ground-game efforts.

Johnson trails in the money race. After spending more than $180,000 to win the endorsement, his campaign had $33,000 in its treasury at the end of May. By contrast, Orono businessman Scott Honour’s campaign had $227,000 in the bank, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert had $104,000 in cash and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers had $95,000.

Johnson acknowledged he wouldn’t meet his fundraising goal of $1 million before the primary, but he asserted that he didn’t need to raise that much because his rivals were spending far less than he expected on television ads.

Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes and graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead and Georgetown University Law School. He and his wife, Sondi, have two sons, ages 13 and 16.

Johnson practiced law in Chicago and Minneapolis and worked for Cargill before starting his own employment-law business in 2001. He served three terms in the Minnesota House, then lost an election for attorney general in 2006 to DFLer Lori Swanson. He is in his second term as a Hennepin County commissioner.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.