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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

The Republican describes his approach to connecting with voters at the State Fair.

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."
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

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.

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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.