In 2008, shortly before I abruptly relocated to Arizona for an unexpected but welcome work opportunity for my wife, I stood on the stage holding a Jeff Johnson for County Commissioner sign at the Hennepin County endorsing convention.
Jeff Johnson and State Senator Warren Limmer were both seeking the endorsement for the county commissioner seat that was being vacated by the retiring Penny Steele.
I had met Johnson in 2006 during his campaign for Attorney General, which he ended up losing by the widest margin of any constitutional race that year. (We met at the MN State Fair while my wife and I were working the booth for Tim Pawlenty and handing out Governors-on-a-stick, if memory serves me correctly.)
From 2000 - 2006 Johnson represented an adjacent district to mine in the MN Legislature. He built up a pretty average body of legislative accomplishments- a bit too nanny-ish for my tastes, but hey, it's a big tent. Johnson was the chief author of legislation restricting the sale of video games to minors, and he's also the guy you can thank every time you get treated like a criminal because you want some Sudafed.
But Johnson was a "nice guy," seemed like a decent Republican, plus I was a constituent of Warren Limmer for quite a few years and he never knocked my socks off, so I backed Jeff for Commissioner.
I left for Arizona in July of 2008, and returned to MN in late 2011. Johnson was elected RNC National Committeeman earlier that year.
In 2012, the "liberty" wing of the Republican party swept into power in MN, and that's when the reinvention of Jeff Johnson began in earnest.
In May of that year Johnson gave his infamous "get over it" speech to the MN State Convention, trying to endear himself to the liberty faction of the party. Later that year when Johnson ran unopposed for county commissioner but chose to shoot an ad and spend over $22,000 on advertising, it was an open secret that he was running for Governor.
A few months into his second term as county commissioner Johnson officially stepped into the Governor's race and it became clear that he was going to be pandering hard to win the support of the liberty delegates, as he saw them as his path to victory.
Gone was the old fashioned family values conservative who was worried about the effect of pornography and violence on our youth. In his place we got a guy who would co-sponsor an event headlined by 9/11 truther, all in the name of liberty.
Gone was the team player that Republicans had just voted to help lead them. Instead we got a guy who wouldn't endorse incumbent Congressman John Kline over challenger David Gerson, for fear of upsetting some liberty delegates.
Johnson's most stunning flip-flop was on the topic of Kingfish, a $425,000 device that was purchased by Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek in 2010 that can be used to track cell phones. Johnson was a leading proponent of Kingfish in 2010, but when it became a potential campaign liability in 2013 in the wake of the NSA spying scandal, Johnson couldn't throw his old friend Stanek under the bus quickly enough.
Johnson raced to Facebook to say he would not support the purchase of Kingfish today, but of course hasn't felt strongly enough about it to actually try to restrict the Sheriff's office's use of the device. Gone was the law & order conservative. Instead we got a cheap and transparent pander. I hope Sheriff Stanek was able to get the tire tracks out of his uniform.
It was in the wake of Kingfish and the truther convention flaps I decided that Jeff Johnson could not win the Governor's race, and that I could not support him. Johnson's response in the face of a challenge- to put up an incredibly weak defense then pivot to playing the victim, is a game I have seen played too many times, and it's never played by winning campaigns.
In the ensuing months as I have watched the Johnson campaign sputter I have felt encouraged that my determination about Johnson was the right one. Johnson has tried hard to turn himself into someone he is not in order to get elected. Every time I see him deliver his pre-programmed "It's none of the government's damn business!" applause line in his stump speech I cringe. (But not as bad as I did the time he tried to tell the joke about New York Times reporters hiding up President Obama's butt.)
His statement on Dayton's state-of-the-state speech was, I believe, supposed to make him look tough, but came across as petty, and childish. "Mark didn't go to my birthday party, so I won't go to his!"
Johnson has developed a "nice guy" persona over the years, and his attempts to ditch that have been embarrassing.
I would say that Jeff Johnson would have been better off just running as himself instead of trying to pander and reinvent himself, but I think the issue is that once you remove the ambition there just isn't that much left to justify a run for higher office.
Johnson's only tangible accomplishment on the Hennepin County Board, the only one he mentions in his stump speech, removing the UN Flag from the plaza, turns out to belong more to Davis and Emmer. Heck, Jeff wasn't even present for the vote to remove the flag. That's a convenient fact he forgets to mention during his speech.
After 5 years under commissioner Jeff Johnson my tax burden as a Hennepin County Taxpayer has not gone down, and government spending is still way up. Johnson defenders will tell you there's not much he can do with one seat. True enough, but I'd ask Johnson what he has done to recruit and support candidates for the other suburban board seats, like lone Republicans have done in other counties. Hey, but your ad when you ran unopposed sure looked slick.
Johnson's campaign has stalled recently. He turned in a pathetic $32,000 in the first quarter of 2014, despite the fact that he has been in the race for an entire year.
I expect he will be eliminated quickly at the state convention and have heard reports that he has been calling delegates and asking them to support Dave Thompson after he is eliminated, in an effort to deny the endorsement to Marty Seifert.
It's too bad what happened to Jeff Johnson, but it's ultimately predictable. Voters reward authenticity, and they can usually see through someone's attempts to remake themselves into something they are not. I, among others, told Johnson that the liberty wing of the party was not going to be a major player in 2014, but the strategy was set, and Johnson ultimately unsuccessfully reinvented himself for nothing.
I would hope that future campaigns could learn a lesson from Johnson's experience, but I've been around long enough to know that won't happen. Ambition makes people do dumb things.
Later this month Republicans will gather to select someone to endorse for Governor. I haven't yet decided who I will be supporting, if anyone, but I know it won't be that guy, because That's Not Jeff Johnson. Or worse yet, maybe it is.