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'If people come out, I believe I'll win'

Jeff Johnson, 62, didn't mince words with what he sees as a state government overstepping its bounds and hurting everyday Minnesotans in the process. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

NISSWA—In late June, governor candidates gathered in Nisswa for the annual Economic Development Association of Minnesota conference to discuss the commercial drivers of the state.

Every member of the crowded DFL field was there. As for the Republicans? Jeff Johnson, the Hennepin County commissioner, served as the only GOP face on the panel. The party-endorsed candidate answered questions alongside his DFL counterparts, in the notable absence of his primary opponent Tim Pawlenty.

Johnson, 62, is no fan of state government getting in people's business—literal business, or their own personal decisions in life, from cradle to grave. He spoke candidly about a state hostile to business, arrogant agencies that bully Minnesotans and state legislators who wanted to tell people how to live their lives.

"My compulsion for running is to change the culture of state government, the attitude of state government," Johnson said. "Many state agencies right now—their leadership at least—believe it's their job to control and direct and, unfortunately in some cases, bully. That requires a fundamental, generational change. ... If we don't change that attitude, we can't change those smaller policy issues."

At the same time, Johnson noted some good uses of government—carefully allocated, heavily scrutinized and held accountable. He said he's supportive—and a proven instigator—of bipartisan work, harkening back to his career as a private practice lawyer who specializes in employment and labor, often mediating between disagreeing parties. That skill, in turn, Johnson utilized when he served as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, then as the lone conservative on the Hennepin County Board.

"That's quite helpful in government," Johnson said. "Because in government people disagree about everything. ... I think that's an important job of a governor, to say, 'OK, this is what I want to get done, let's see who the allies are'—whether they're DFL or Republican. Set everything else aside and get that one thing done."

As such, much of what characterizes his criticism of Gov. Mark Dayton's administration is not so much their fundamental ideological differences, Johnson said, as it is poor management and a lack of leadership on Dayton's part.

Solid bipartisan legislation is being written, Johnson said, but it's just not getting anywhere because of bickering and infighting in St. Paul.

"That's just a complete lack of leadership from the governor," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, it seems like we in Minnesota have decided that each legislative session should end in chaos because we've been doing it for so many years. There's blame to go around for both parties on this one."

In that vein, Johnson said he would take aim at the last-minute backroom deals during which many legislators—to say nothing of the out-of-the-loop public—are foggy on what the legislation entails, as well as omnibus bills hundreds of pages long no politician could fully read and comprehend in time for an educated vote.

Johnson said he would veto any bill, irrespective of party, surpassing the constitutionally mandated single-subject limit or any bill that doesn't come with a minimum 48-hour period for assessment by lawmakers and voters alike. He said he also advocates a pay-for-performance standard for both the governorship, as well as the state Legislature.

Born and raised in Detroit Lakes, Johnson first studied at Concordia College in Moorhead in 1989 and earned his law degree at the University of Georgetown in 1992. He then practiced law in Chicago, then firms in the Twin Cities. He has been self-employed since 2001—during which he served in various public offices, never going beyond three terms or six years, he noted, as a proponent of self-imposed term limits. He has been married to his wife, Sondi, for 25 years and shares two sons with her.

The dark horse

During the EDAM conference, Johnson humorously thanked his gubernatorial candidates across the aisle—Tim Walz, Erin Murphy and Lori Swanson—for meeting with him face to face to discuss issues, something he hasn't seen from his primary opponent Pawlenty.

Humor and hyperbole often go hand in hand—this isn't the case here, as the former governor and now 2018 gubernatorial candidate has been all but absent from the campaign trail (aside from, locally, a jaunt through the Brainerd Fourth of July parade).

This has led some pundits to characterize Pawlenty's candidacy as a "dark horse" bid, or a "back-door" run through the August primaries.

Sizing up Pawlenty—who sports a national profile and a political machine behind him—Johnson said the Aug. 14 primary will come down to whomever can mobilize their respective voter bases better.

During a month that typically sees poor voter turnout, which itself takes place before a midterm election when voters are less inclined to hit the booths, Johnson said it may come down to a handful of key votes to decide who the GOP nominee will be come Nov. 6.

"Anyone who is resigned to (Pawlenty), we can control that. It's going to be a low-turnout primary, because it's in August, so if people come out, I believe I'll win," Johnson said. "That's why I'm traveling around the state, seven days a week, engaging people one on one."

While he said he would not look to offer undue criticism for Pawlenty's politics at this time, he characterized Pawlenty's under-the-radar approach as an "outdated strategy," with which a candidate intentionally avoids meeting voters or reporters on the grounds they might get asked a difficult question or stray from talking points.

Instead, Johnson noted, Pawlenty's likely to fall back on his name recognition and pad his war chest as much as possible—a strategy Johnson rejects at a fundamental level because it's out of touch with voters and disingenuous.

"(Voters) just want to know where we stand on issues, instead of dancing around them," Johnson said. "This is what we all get taught as baby politicians—if you get asked a tough question, pivot to a talking point. That's the old way of doing things and that's what he's doing with his campaign, not showing up to things. I just don't think you can win an election that way."

The opioid epidemic

The number of Minnesotans who succumbed to drug overdoses rose from 129 to 637 between 2000 and 2016, according to a report filed this September by the Minnesota Department of Health. In 2016 alone, 395 deaths and more than 2,000 hospitalizations were directly tied to opioid abuse—though these statistics do not capture other indirect social impacts.

Johnson said the Minnesota Legislature had a good solution—a bipartisan bill allocating funding for aspects like treatment, prevention and education (which Johnson particularly supported, whether it's schools or community-based) to curb the epidemic.

"It ended up blowing up in the end because it was in one of the bills the governor vetoed," said Johnson, who noted he was happy with the bipartisan process and how it worked, up until the end. "That goes back to basic leadership. If there is something that fundamental that both parties agreed upon, they should have found a way to actually get it done."

Economics of Crow Wing County

Crow Wing County has experienced episodes of economic challenges as a result of shifting job markets and the loss of community cornerstones through the decades—for example, the departure of iron ore companies from the Cuyuna Range area during the '60s, or the closure of paper mills in Brainerd, with the Wausau mill shuttering in 2013.

"There are a lot of economic development programs I think can be helpful if they're held accountable for job creation," Johnson said, speaking in reference to funds like the Minnesota Investment Fund, the defunct Angel Tax Credit Program and others. However, cutting unnecessary red tape and opening avenues for business startups is crucial, he said.

"It's not a government program that's going to solve this problem, it is government changing our policy about job creation. We are hostile to job creation in this state. Any other state I go to, we have that reputation."

Taxes are too high, Johnson added—whether it's corporate giants, small business or individuals, the state's high tax rates are crippling to job growth and the commercial drivers that spur job growth.

And there's too much regulation, Johnson noted as he took aim at so-called arrogant state agencies like the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the Pollution Control Agency or the Department of Human Services. They are government entities overstepping their bounds and bullying businesses, Johnson said, everyone from big business (which can handle the paper load better and actually benefit from restrictive practices), all the way down to mom and pop shops and day cares (which are hurt much more and present the strongest promoters of job growth).

"Until we change that attitude, until we take less money from people and especially small businesses, until we cut back on the regulations, we cannot solve that problem," said Johnson, who noted a fixable thing would be to restructure the process for business permits. Companies can get permitted in a matter of two weeks in other states, he said, while they have to wait more than a year in many cases in Minnesota.

Meeting the needs of a changing workforce

Currently, Minnesota is riding a 17-year low for unemployment in the state. However, there are some shifts on the horizon, which include industry automation, as well as changes in the workforce from a manufacturing/retail-heavy model to one in which health care- and service-based jobs pose as the healthiest areas of growth.

Reflecting national trends, many new jobs are going to require some form of post-secondary certification or degree, which may leave many Crow Wing County residents in the lurch going forward into the 2020s.

Johnson said he is opposed to a $15 minimum wage—characterizing it as not only a problem for small business, but also a significant hurdle for vulnerable groups such as non-college educated workers, felons and others.

"It's great for the middle-class kids in the suburbs who get a raise from $12 to $15 at McDonald's or wherever, but the people who are harder to hire?" Johnson said. "They just get harder to hire."

Addressing post-secondary education

At Central Lakes College—an institution that educates about 5,500—about 50 percent of the student population falls below the poverty line, 50 percent are first-generation students and 65 percent are in a precarious housing and food situation, according to Hara Charlier, president of CLC.

Demographics such as students of color, first-generation students and students in difficult financial situations are more likely to drop out or fail to complete their degrees, Charlier added.

Johnson said the governor's prominent executive role can be used as bully pulpit to promote alternative options—counteracting an over-emphasis on four-year degrees, he said, when there are a plethora of viable (and needed) jobs through community college, trade apprenticeships and other forms of post-secondary certification. These alternatives are also often a lot cheaper than more traditional paths to accreditation.

"It's about kids making the choice that makes the most sense for them, not forcing them into a box that says you have to get a four-year degree to be successful. We should be celebrating kids who choose a different path because it's the right path for them," said Johnson, who noted fostering partnerships between business communities and educational institutions means students will be ushered into viable, well-paying jobs that also meet the needs of business.

In addition, Johnson said he's in favor of a system bypassing funneling money through colleges or K-12 schools—which then dictate the money by their various metrics and points of emphasis—and instead divert state funds directly to students, who can best optimize these monies for their own use.

"They can go out into the market and say, 'What is the best option for me?'" Johnson said. "It creates a level of competition that isn't there now and it completely empowers the student."

In a more exploratory note, Johnson said he is in favor at looking at new paths for education in Minnesota—such as restructuring and holding institutions accountable so as to ensure the fastest, most cost-effective path through college, or instituting a fixed price for some bachelor's degrees at $10,000, or enabling the private sector to contract with students to share debt loads and ensure a viable workforce for the future.

The issue of housing

It is not the role of government to fund and build affordable housing, Johnson added—though, he said there are a number of ways the state government in St. Paul can incentivize housing projects and the private sector, including businesses, to spur the creation of housing for workers.

Aside from that—between over-regulating building ordinances or taxing initiatives to the point of unprofitability—it's often government that stymies housing. Rolling back regulations in this regard forms a crucial part of his platform, Johnson said.

"Government has created a larger problem than anything else," Johnson said. "The average cost (of housing construction) is considerably higher than anything across the borders because state government has created regulatory requirements that drive up the cost by a lot."

Health care

"(Minnesota) used to be first until the government mandated that everyone had to be covered," said Johnson, who pointed to overregulation and government meddling as a reason why the state's health care system has suffered in recent years. "I think if you asked anyone 15 years ago, they'd say Minnesota had one of the best, if not the best health care systems in the country. ... We are in a considerably worse place than we were before the ACA (Affordable Care Act), before Obamacare."

His answer is twofold, Johnson said—much of the issue being a lack of personal agency by health care recipients across the state, as well as a lack of options for these people when they're given the ability to determine their own care. Rectifying the larger issue of health care means rectifying those discrepancies, he said, which means rolling back unnecessary mandates and creating a free market system driving competition, which then drives down costs and dries up quality. Johnson said he would be in favor of joining into some kind of compact with other states of the Upper Midwest.

"If someone wants a health care plan that's catastrophic, who am I as governor to say they can't do that?" said Johnson, who characterized current state practices as a model in which people are bullied and forced into different forms of care.

In terms of a free market system versus a single-payer health care system, Johnson characterized the latter as "the worst idea possible"—citing examples like California and Vermont, which moved toward a single-payer plan, but found them infeasible.

By following that plan, Johnson said, Minnesotans will find their taxes skyrocket, their wait times increase and their care quality suffer. Instead, he noted, it should be a free market system with a few protections by state government, such as in the case of people with pre-existing conditions who can't find care as an option. For these cases, Johnson said, it should be the role of government to provide subsidies.

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