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‘We need to speak to people’s hearts as well as their minds’: a Q&A with GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson

MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Jeff Johnson: "I’m going to be very focused as governor. I am going to be very focused on two or three big things. The achievement gap and real education reform is going to be one of them."

A political candidate connecting with voters at the Minnesota State Fair has a job not dissimilar to the host of an infomercial. First, you have to connect with the customer personally. Next, you must convince them the product is worth their time. Then, you have to close the deal.

Republican candidate for governor Jeff Johnson, a man whom even DFL party chair Ken Martin describes as affable, may possess natural assets to make that tricky first connection — but making the sale is the goal. In an interview at his State Fair booth, he describes his approach to politics at the great Minnesota get-together. 

What’s the best way to connect with fairgoers? 
I never stand inside the booth. I’m always out in front of the booth. We have a steady stream. It’s very seldom that I’m standing there waiting for someone to come.  It’s just being out front there, being very accessible, and trying to move about from person to person.

What are you hearing from people? 
I’m hearing everything under the sun. There’s no real serious pattern. We have a lot of Republicans come and say, “Way to go” and ask, “How are you going to win?”  I get a lot of non-Republicans who come up and just want to meet me and hear what I’m about. Issue-wise, it’s all over the place. Health care and jobs are probably the two most common things that come up. Second amendment comes up from some people. And I’ve had issues come up that I haven’t even thought about before.

For example? 
It was just some sort of retirement benefit tax, something I’ve just never looked into. It gives me one thing to go back to the office and learn about. Somebody else wanted to talk about — they had made some changes to dog breeding laws.

Are you learning anything that you might use in your campaigning over the next months?
This just solidifies what I think I already knew. When you talk to people you need to personalize it. They need to hear not just the numbers that we as Republicans are so good at giving people the facts and the logic. They want to hear how it will affect them and how it affects other people. That has been really common. That is an important campaign piece that we as Republicans are never very good at and need to be better at. We need to speak to people’s hearts as well as their minds. I’m going to be very focused as governor. I am going to be very focused on two or three big things. The achievement gap and real education reform is going to be one of them. That is as personal and as people-based as you can possibly get.

Has any fairgoer talked to you about the achievement gap, in so many words? 
A few have. I’ve had a handful of people from Minneapolis who say, “Tell me what you think of education.”  I’ll talk about it. They have lived it. Their kid is either in a failing school or they’ve removed their kid from a failing school and they want to know what I would do about that as governor. I don’t know that anyone has ever used the term achievement gap but it’s always about their kid or their grandkid who’s been in a school that’s not serving them well.

Do you get approached by Mark Dayton supporters?
We do. We’ve had very few angry people, but we’ve had a couple. I talk to them for a little bit and say, “Hey, we don’t agree. Sorry.”

Are there perceptions of you that you feel compelled to correct?
There’s a commercial airing, that’s the only thing that’s out there right now. There’s no positive commercials for either of us. The only thing they’re seeing is the attack ad. I’ve had a few people who come up to me and say, “Are you really the Tea Party candidate,” or, “Did you really vote to cut education funding so you could help out your corporate friends.” People have taken note and they don’t just trust it. They want to come and hear from the candidate. It’s encouraging that people are asking me rather than just assuming it’s true.

What are one of your favorite fair-goer comments and one of your least favorites?
What’s my favorite fair-goer comment, I’ve got to think about that one. [An aide offers one: “I’m voting for you Jeff.”]  Yeah, that’s it, “I’m voting for you, Jeff.” That’s a good one. The least favorite fair-goer comment I can’t repeat. That was couple of days ago. It had a choice ‘F’ word in it.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/29/2014 - 11:26 am.


    His big idea to connect with people is to stand outside the booth, and his stereotypes are being confirmed by the self selective population that stops by to talk to him. Note, he DID vote to cut education funding, but maybe not just to help out his friends.

    Don’t change a thing Jeff, your campaign is perfect.

  2. Submitted by E Gamauf on 08/29/2014 - 03:55 pm.

    An affable man with the delusion that his party has facts

    Republicans – and “non-Republicans.”

    “Affable” is good. Although that in itself does not sway me into believing he would be a good governor.
    I note that he (JJ) thinks the GOP needs to win hearts, but that they are no good at delivering facts, either.

    I think Dayton is affable as well & he’s gotten results.

    My stint at the fair showed campaign workers by far outnumbered visitors at all the political booths, but nowhere was it as obvious as in the Republican booth.

    Maybe that’s why JJ has to mingle in the crowd?

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/29/2014 - 02:00 pm.

    I Can Only Assume

    That by “capturing people’s hearts” Mr Johnson hopes their emotional response to him will overcome their ability to think logically or consider any actual, factual evidence,…

    and they’ll trust him enough to vote for him based on how they feel about him,…

    while ignoring the effect of two terms of Tim Pawlenty followed by a Republican-controlled legislative biennium here in Minnesota,…

    and the dismal results produce by Gov. Walker’s Republican-dominated government next door in Wisconsin.

    All I can say in response is the old aphorism regarding our state’s current government under DFL control:…

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/29/2014 - 08:53 pm.

    Yeahhh Surrre…

    Ask any Jeff Johnson type how do you get a better car and they will tell you that it will cost more money, ask about a nicer house and again, it will cost more money, a finer vacation: more money, a nicer suit of clothes: more money. The list is endless: better costs more. Now ask them how to improve education and the first thing they will tell us: “Well spending more money sure won’t make a difference”. The GOP main operating principle: when fact collides with ideology, make up new facts. Sorry Jeff, we don’t need you to “Scott Walker Minnesota” as you offered to a Tea Party audience earlier this year.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/31/2014 - 12:50 pm.

      Edward, that is a comment that actually deserves a thoughtful response; I don’t see many and congratulate you for it.

      You’re right. People are willing to pay more for quality. And, in the free market, you usually do get what you pay for. A Corvette costs more than a KIA; a Hugo Boss suit costs more than one from The Men’s Warehouse; a custom built home costs more than a tract home.

      However, if you’re a big government supporter, it’s a bad idea to compare the free market to government supplied services.

      People pay more for a Corvette because it’s demonstrably better than a KIA. Anyone can see the craftsmanship in a Hugo Boss suit, anyone who puts one on can feel the quality fit. The details in a custom built home are always a focus of attention during sales presentation.

      In Minnesota, $15.7 billion, more than 40% of the entire state budget, was allocated for public education this year. St. Paul and Minneapolis high schools receive more than $20,000 per pupil from multiple sources. (For comparison, this year, Blake is charging $26,950) For that, the district’s fail to graduate 40% of their students. 25% of those who go on to college, the cream of the crop mind you, need remedial work in Math and English.

      I’ve asked this of so many teacher union bosses and lefty school board members I’ve lost count, so I don’t expect an answer, but it’s worth considering the question rhetorically… How much, exactly, do you need to graduate 80% of students with a even practical grasp of Mathematics and use of the English language? $20 Billion $50? $100 Billion? I have never received an answer other than “just more”.

      No Edward, when dealing with a monopoly, especially a government monopoly, more money doesn’t buy you a superior product. Again. thanks for the question.

      • Submitted by richard owens on 09/02/2014 - 08:34 am.

        Please don’t disrespect our State’s public sector.

        The State of Minnesota is a customer!

        In fact, our public sector spending buys more goods, more labor and materials than any other customer Minnesotans HAVE. The money is spent HERE, the products of the spending are REAL.

        Thomas, the State of Minnesota spends its money ALL IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR.

        The mistaken belief that this is somehow a bad thing has given rise to anti-government sentiments embraced by virtually all Republicans, and even some Democrats.

        Public sector spending in salaries supports families of employees, public purchases support businesses in building, transportation and virtually every part of Minnesota’s economy.

        Your economics make an artificial distinction between a dollar spent by some other consumer and one spent by a government. It’s all GDP. It isn’t spent in overseas adventures or on private speculation.

        You do reveal your bias and perhaps your motivation for spreading this anti-government meme in your contemptuous labels, “Union bosses” and “lefty school board members”.

        Americans should appreciate their State and Local governments and their purposeful spending.

        Most people in the world would love to have a strong public sector and a good public customer.

        • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/02/2014 - 01:28 pm.

          Richard, you’ve initiated a new topic, we were discussing value. Value aside, I do agree that if spending is the criteria to be measured, government wins hands down.

  5. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/30/2014 - 06:16 am.


    I would be happy if the GOP would be more (a LOT more) science based instead of religious based. We need to get society and our policies back to logic and reason as its primary source of guidance, not superstition and ghosts.

    If Johnson wants to appeal to hearts, that will come along once a well reasoned argument has been laid down. But if he refuses to seek out the best solution no matter what its source is, then he’s already lost half the population.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/31/2014 - 12:20 pm.

    “I Can Only AssumeThat by

    “I Can Only Assume

    That by “capturing people’s hearts” Mr Johnson hopes their emotional response to him will overcome their ability to think logically or consider any actual, factual evidence,…

    and they’ll trust him enough to vote for him based on how they feel about him,…”

    Greg, did you vote for Barack Obama?

  7. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 09/02/2014 - 04:25 pm.

    Twice as expensive to educate at private schools v. public

    That private sector sure works cost miracles, doesn’t it?

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/02/2014 - 08:28 pm.

    27,000 is not twice 20,000…even in public school math class.

  9. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 09/02/2014 - 10:59 pm.

    Facts v Unsubstantiated Claims

    US average annual cost to educate a kid in non-religious private school = $28K

    US average annual cost to educate a kid in public school = $13K

    Ratio = 2.2 to 1

    [in current dollars; figures rounded to nearest thousand; private school cost = tuition divided by tuition share of total cost, assuming 81%]


    As for the quality of mathematics education in public versus private schools…

    Grade 4
    “The average private school mean mathematics score was 7.8 points higher than the average public school mean mathematics score, corresponding to an effect size of .29. After adjusting for selected student characteristics, the difference in means was -4.5 and significantly different from zero. (Note that a negative difference implies that the average school mean was higher for public schools.)”

    Grade 8
    “In the first set of analyses, all private schools were again compared to all public schools. The average private school mean mathematics score was 12.3 points higher than the average public school mean mathematics score, corresponding to an effect size of .38. After adjusting for selected student characteristics, the difference in means was nearly zero and not significant.”

    So, to translate for the empirically-challenged, US private schools cost more than 2x as much and get the same or worse results compared to US public schools.

    Since US public school teachers earn 28% more than private school teachers, the obvious economic explanation is that the higher-quality instructors will go for the higher income. So despite slightly larger average class sizes (economy of scale), the higher quality instruction equalizes or exceeds results compared to the private sector — at less than 1/2 the cost.

    Economic principles continue to hold when ideological blinders about government are removed.



  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/03/2014 - 10:04 am.

    Facts devoide of reality produce nonsense

    You can count dollars but if you don’t look at how those dollars are being spent you produce gibberish. US public schools are more costly than private schools because they have a much larger mission and a much more complex and demanding student population. Private schools for instance don’t have special ed programs and aren’t required to by law to accept large numbers of non-english speaking students.

    Not only that, but despite or maybe because of their lower per student expenditures private schools under-perform when compared with public schools. Studies that control for private school selective student populations for instance show that equivalent private school students do more poorly on math than matched public school students. Private school student do no better on reading and writing.

    You can always do something cheaper, but the notion that the private sector does things cheaper AND better is fantasy pretending to be wisdom.

  11. Submitted by Mike Lhotka on 09/03/2014 - 05:22 pm.


    Rural schools do not get close to the funding Minneapolis does and produce.

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