Jeff Johnson, a Detroit Lakes native, Hennepin County commissioner and the state Republican party’s endorsed candidate for governor, calls himself a “traditional conservative,” likening himself to a Reagan Republican.
Former President Ronald Reagan, who served two terms after being first elected in 1980, pushed against labor unions and cut taxes but later in his presidency allowed some taxes to increase. Part of the popularity of former movie-star Reagan was his charisma and image of strength.
Johnson, who will turn 48 this Nov. 11, has the clean-cut looks that seem to fit his background as a church Sunday school and confirmation teacher. He also tutored at homeless shelters in Minneapolis and Chicago.
Johnson, of Plymouth, was elected to the Minnesota House in 2000 and served three terms. During that time, colleagues elected him as assistant majority leader and he served as chairman of the Civil Law and Elections Committee and the House Republican steering committee.
Minnesota Republicans elected him in 2011 to represent them on the Republican National Committee. He was re-elected to the post, running unopposed in 2012.
In a recent interview, Johnson described himself as socially and fiscally conservative with “libertarian leanings on economic issues and on government’s roles in people’s lives,” adding, “I don’t believe government should be picking winners and losers in the economy.”
Asked for elaboration, he mentioned Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton during trips recruiting businesses to locate in Minnesota.
“I think the state is heading in the wrong direction,” Johnson said about why he wants to be governor. “I don’t believe there is a lot of balance and common sense.”
Johnson will face three Republican candidates for governor in the Aug. 12 primary.
Johnson lists three points that he is focusing on in his bid for governor: jobs, education and to “make government work.”
On jobs, he said he wants to “make Minnesota’s economy competitive with neighboring states through a lower, simpler tax code and elimination of unnecessary regulation.”
On education, he states: “Enact real education reform and narrow the achievement gap by empowering parents, requiring more spending accountability and providing meaningful school choice.”
On the government-working point, Johnson said he would “initiate a top-to-bottom audit of taxpayer-funded programs and fund only those that prove they are producing real results.”
He talked about too many unnecessary regulations, including the new one on requiring new homes with a certain minimum value to have fire sprinkler systems.
Elaborating on education reform, Johnson said he would like to have the “parent trigger” setup, like in New Jersey and California, where if children are in a failing school, the parents are allowed to give an up or down vote of confidence on their school. Then if a majority or super majority vote against, the parents can have some control, such as changing the administration or maybe being able to go to a charter school.
“I hear over and over from parents that they have no role (in their school), they are shut out,” he said.
Looking at the high-funding formula for the state’s metro schools, he acknowledges the challenges those districts have with poverty and crime. But that’s still no excuse for having a graduation rate of less than 50 percent, “and the cost per child is crazy,” he said.
Asked about transportation funding in the state, Johnson said the priority should be on roads and bridges and that the high-cost ratio for funding rail-type transit is not efficient.
Johnson described his approach to government leadership as first determining where political parties can agree on issues and starting there to get things done.
Asked about the controversy of mining companies seeking approval for mining copper, nickel and other metals from sulfide ore in northeastern Minnesota, including near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Johnson said he only favors approval if the mining will be performed in an “environmentally responsible way.”