At an old-fashioned community center in Hamel, Hennepin County commissioner Jeff Johnson hosted an old-school rally Sunday to announce that’s he’s running as a Republican candidate for governor.
The room, packed with supporters in “Johnson for Governor” red shirts, offered a contrast to Johnson’s only Republican competitor for now, Scott Honour, who announced his candidacy with a series of media interviews. Johnson, 46, a former legislator from Plymouth, said he wasn’t drawing any distinctions between him and Honour and said he expects the Republican field to widen. But he told his supporters he considers himself to be the strongest Republican candidate to beat Mark Dayton.
He elaborated in an interview with MinnPost prior to the campaign event and discussed some of the issues likely to be hot topics in the 2014 campaign. Here are excerpts from that interview:
MinnPost: Are you going for the endorsement of Minnesota Republican Party?
Jeff Johnson: Yes.
MP: If you don’t get the endorsement do you intend to go a primary?
JJ: I don’t. I intend to abide by the endorsement.
MP: How do you plan to differentiate your campaign from the other Republican candidates?
JJ: There are two things that I will focus on to show that I am the strongest Republican candidate in the race. I am the strongest challenger to Mark Dayton. I’ve got the best shot at winning. If I win, I have a record to show that I can actually be effective in divided government.
I actually think the endorsement piece is important. I know there are some people in the party that say the endorsement doesn’t mean anything anymore, but I think they just don’t want it to mean anything. It will particularly mean something if we can endorse someone who is trusted and liked enough by non-Republicans to actually pick up a lot of independent votes.
I throw one other thing on top of that: I have a very strong electoral base in Hennepin County, and we just have not done particularly well as Republicans in Hennepin County in statewide races lately and I think that will help a lot.
If I’m elected I think I have a unique history of someone who was in the Legislature in the time of divided government and actually can prove that I am able to accomplish my goals rather just fight about something or just talk about something. I carried some of the biggest, most difficult free-market conservative bills that we had in that six years. In almost every instance I figured out how to work with Democrats in the Senate and actually get it done, whether it was eminent domain reform or the meth bill or “joint and several,” the biggest lawsuit reform we’ve seen in decades in the state.
MP: How do you expect the DFL to criticize you and how do you intend to respond?
JJ: I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit, trying to think of what video they will put out against me the week after I announced. I don’t think there’s a lot there, although when you’re in the Legislature for six years, I’m sure they can dig up plenty of things that were in omnibus bills or maybe some other bills that I voted on. I suspect they will try to make me or anybody else that’s a Republican who’s been in the Legislature look like a right-wing arch-conservative.
Interestingly, as I think about the endorsement battle and our conservative activists, I think opponents on the Republican side can just as easily go in and pick apart an omnibus bill to suggest you’re not conservative enough.
MP: Are you suggesting you are not a right-wing arch-conservative?
JJ: I would call myself a mainstream conservative Republican, but that probably means different things to different people. I am fiscally conservative first. That’s the set of areas that are very important to me. And then, education issues are very important. I think we need to be much more innovative when it comes to public education in Minnesota. I’m also a social conservative. I’ve never run because of those issues, and frankly I’ve never been elected because of those issues. I think my constituents have always elected and re-elected me because of my leadership on the fiscal side of things.
MP: What would be your approach to balancing the state budget?
JJ: My approach would be not to raise taxes. I can say that right off the top. And part of that comes from my experience on the county board. I will be very open to tax increases when I am convinced that government is already spending every penny we have efficiently and effectively and responsibly, and I think we are far from that right now.
We would start with the assumption that we don’t need more revenue and go from there.
MP: In what areas could wiser spending choices be made?
JJ: Certainly, the human services area. [A recent study] compared Minnesota to similar states in size, population and budget. We tracked with a lot of those states where we spent in certain areas, including education. But the one biggest outlier was still our human services area. I think the biggest problem is that at the state level, it’s real work to reform and in some cases to cut some of those programs so that we’re a little more in line with the states that surround us.
MP: How would you modify the new health care exchange?
JJ: I’ve always supported the concept of an actual marketplace exchange but unfortunately this exchange never even had a chance of being market-based because there’s so much federal and state control over it. I’d have to say I’m not a fan of it. However, it passed. I would be aggressive in making it less expensive and, more importantly, at least somewhat more market-based.
MP: As a county commissioner, how do you view mandates that are passed on from the state level?
JJ: Every mandate is not evil but there are certainly many that are unnecessary. A great example, one of the very first bills I carried as freshman legislator, I found eight or 10 mandates that the state passed down to school districts. I tried to eliminate them because that was an issue I heard from teachers and parents and administrators. I can tell you that was one of the most difficult bills I every carried because every mandate was in there based upon some interest group getting it there in the first place. That would be the thing that I would focus on as governor – more local control, fewer state mandates.
MP: How would you improve education outcomes in lower-achieving schools?
JJ: One of my priorities is to tackle the achievement gap head on because I just think it is shameful that we are the worst or one of the two or three worst in the country and we have been for a few decades now. It really comes down to more empowerment of parents, more choice for parents.
I would really encourage charter schools. In general, they are success stories for students.
I would get administrators and teachers involved in my administration who have proven they can succeed in some those tough circumstances. Harvest Prep is a great example of that. They have taken kids who have fallen into a demographic that says they are probably not going to succeed and they get them to succeed. I think we need to bring them in and learn from them.
[Another possibility is] the “parent trigger” enacted in three or four states that says that if your kid is in a school that is failing, then you as a parent have the opportunity to force change. It really gives power to the parents. I love that idea. We have to wait a couple of years to see if it actually makes a difference.
MP: Would you support raising the minimum wage?
JJ: I would not. I wouldn’t because I think the main consequence of that is that young people and the least experienced people who are looking for jobs are just going to have fewer options.
When we require them to pay more, generally business owners will either cut costs or raise prices to make up the difference, and cutting costs almost always means laying off employees or cutting hours or not hiring anyone. That’s a form of mandate.
MP: What can state government do in increase employment?
JJ: This one is not rocket science. The more government taxes and the more government controls and the more government regulates, the weaker our business climate becomes.
A couple of things that I would focus on is to reduce the regulatory burden in Minnesota. I have heard from so many business owners that the permitting process in this state is very onerous because there are often layers of duplication.
I think taxes are extremely important. We need to have a competitive tax structure in Minnesota. I think that means more than just saying, we need lower taxes. I think we have to look at reform of the whole system.
MP: What would you propose in tax reform?
JJ: A couple of things that [Governor Dayton] proposed I think actually make sense. I do believe that we need to broaden the sales tax base and lower the sales tax rate. Exactly where you expand it to is difficult and it’s a politically ugly question. I give him credit for proposing that because I think that concept is correct. His problem is that he broadened it and then he lowered it just a little bit rather than making it revenue neutral. It became a way to raise more money. And then, of course, the business-to-business piece was disastrous. That was something he should have dropped.
I think we should be looking at the corporate tax rate so that at least it is competitive with the states that surround us.
MP: Would you support increased background checks for gun control?
JJ: I would not. What I would have supported is the compromise bill that Representative Deb Hilstrom came up with. Generally, it strengthened penalties for existing gun laws and it dealt with “straw” purchasers. It cracked down on that. It improved data sharing, so background check databases had more current and accurate information.
We could have done something that was positive with respect to guns and gun violence. My concern is that gun-control advocates, they really focus on restricting the rights of law-abiding gun owners rather than improving the laws we already have.
MP: Would you support the legislative proposal to legalize medical marijuana?
JJ: You stumped me. I don’t know.
MP: Do you support gay marriage or civil unions?
JJ: Here’s where I am. I support traditional marriage and I think it should be the law in Minnesota, so I do not support gay marriage. But I also believe that any couple should be allowed to enter into contractual unions that allow for certain rights like hospital visitation or inheritance rights or end-of-life decisions, things like that.
Regardless of what issues like this are before me as governor, I’m not going to be focusing on it. I just believe the governor should be focused on issues of the budget and education because that’s what most of the people of Minnesota want us to work on.
MP: Would you support further restrictions in Minnesota’s abortion laws?
JJ: I am pro-life so I would likely sign pro-life legislation if it came before me but I would not expend any political capital on the issue or be proposing any changes at all.
MP: How would you improve transportation in the state?
JJ: I think we have to focus on the infrastructure we have and make sure that what we already have is in good repair and safe because that’s not even the case in some places. And I don’t think we should be proposing – an example would be hundreds of millions for a train from Minneapolis to Duluth that not a lot of people will ride and then claim that we can’t maintain the highways we already have.
Every decision that I would make on transportation, I would measure every transportation request, at least in the metro, on whether it would relieve congestion.
I will have a significant bias when it comes to roads because 98, 99 percent of Minnesotans use the roads, a very small percentage use public transit. So in prioritizing, think we have to have our greatest focus on roads and bridges.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be open to other modes of transportation because especially in the metro area, we simply have to. I believe one of the most cost-effective forms of mass transit is our bus system.
MP: Would you support a gas tax increase?
JJ: I would be ready to think about a gas tax increase or frankly any tax increase when I am convinced that state government is spending every penny wisely. I think we are just so far from that right now. Certainly right now I would not be supportive of a gas tax increase.
MP: What have you learned as a legislator and county commissioner that you think would serve you well as governor?
JJ: I’ve learned that you can have a good idea to change something and get it done if you are willing to work really hard at it and sit down with people who don’t agree with you on anything else and figure out how you can get that one thing done.
I have learned that government is not very careful with our money and I see that more up close in local government. It’s been closer to me on the Hennepin County Board than it was in the Legislature.
One thing I really learned on the Hennepin County Board is that public employees often have the best ideas of how to reform government and that they are, many times, afraid to say anything because they might get in trouble or eliminate one of their friend’s jobs. [So] we created a way for public employees to suggest or create cost-saving reform measures anonymously and we actually got a lot of good ideas from that.