Lacy Johnson seems like he’d be really good candidate for the Minnesota Legislature. There’s just one problem.

Jeff Johnson, Lacy Johnson
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
During a recent appearance with GOP governor candidate Jeff Johnson, left, Lacy Johnson stuck mostly to issues of economics and talked about creating opportunity for poor people and people of color.

Lacy Johnson has a perfect profile for a candidate in Minnesota legislative district 59B.


Johnson, a Mississippi native who’s lived in north Minneapolis for nearly four decades, is a University of Minnesota graduate with a career in software programming and systems engineering. A member of a prominent north Minneapolis congregation, Johnson helped found a charter school and currently leads a startup to help economically disadvantaged young people get careers in computer technology. He’s African-American in a majority minority district.

So what’s the problem?

Johnson will appear on the November ballot with a label that hasn’t attracted a lot of support in 59B: Republican. While the district is economically diverse — it includes the Mill District and North Loop as well as Near North and north Minneapolis, it is not politically diverse; it is one of the safest DFL districts in the state. Two years ago, incumbent Rep. Ray Dehn defeated Republican Margaret Martin by more than 50 points.

Hillary Clinton did even better, topping Donald Trump 78.7 percent to 12.9 percent. And in the August primary this year, Dehn won a relatively close DFL primary 52.6 percent to 47.4 over Lisa Neal-Delgado — an election in which the two DFL candidates combined to received 6,306 total votes. In the GOP primary, Johnson got 418.

So Johnson has no illusions about his chances. “Yes, this is going to be hard. It might even be unfair. It might be tough sometimes. But we have to do this,” he told a group of supporters earlier last month in a storefront on West Broadway.

A bid to stop ‘single-source’ politics

Johnson knows he could have taken an easier route and run as a DFLer. “But part of my message to the community is we must diversify our support,” he said. “We must make people earn our votes and not take them for granted.”

The north Minneapolis community needs to let politicians know what it wants and require politicians to “come to us and say how much are they willing to give us for our votes,” Johnson said. “We need to get out of the single-source type of politics.”

The district is 43.4 percent white, 39.3 percent black, 9 percent Asian and 1.3 percent Native American. It is also relatively poor, with 28.8 percent of all residents living below the poverty line and 46.3 percent of children in that category.

As a candidate, Johnson — who has never run for office before — sometimes doesn’t sound much like a Republican. He has avoided giving direct support to President Donald Trump (though he did get endorsed by “Bikers for Trump”). And during a recent appearance with GOP governor candidate Jeff Johnson, he stuck mostly to issues of economics and talked about creating opportunity for poor people and people of color.

“Nonprofits pour $15 to 20 million a year into north Minneapolis,” he said. “You give me $5 million and I’ll turn it into $100 million in a for-profit business and you won’t have to be coming back here year and after year.

“If we can lessen this community’s dependence on government, it’s going to reduce the cost of government. If we can challenge government to be more effective, it’s going to lower the cost of government. And if the cost of government is lower, then we can lower taxes.

“When I see these young men walking around sagging, I don’t see potential criminals,” Johnson said. “I see doctors and lawyers and nuclear physicists and mechanics and plumbers. And it’s just a shame that a lot of the county has given up on these people and they come up with these handouts for them because they don’t look at them like they look at themselves.”

Differs with Dehn on schools, immigration

In other ways, though, Johnson does sound like a mainstream Republican, and he expects to be criticized for some of his views, such as the idea that keeping black families together is important. “It’s not a politically correct thing to say, but I don’t think we’re gonna solve these issues otherwise,” he said. “I don’t think there’s enough money, I don’t think there are enough programs out there to take the place of the family. And I’m challenging black men themselves to do a better job of leading and supporting their family, of staying with their family and supporting their children.”

Johnson also supports charter schools, saying he thinks the public schools need the challenge of competition for students and for dollars. He also recently had a spirited disagreement with Dehn over sanctuary cities, which call on local police to not ask the immigration status of people they come in contact with, and not to cooperate with federal immigration officials in holding and turning over undocumented immigrants.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Candidate Lacy Johnson, upper right, shown with House Speaker Kurt Daudt and other Republican candidates for the Minnesota House in June of this year.
Dehn said the immigration debate is being used to divide Americans and said immigration is an economic advantage for the United States. Communities are safer, he said, if all residents feel safe reporting crimes and cooperating with local police, something they are unlikely to do if it could expose them to immigration authorities.

But Johnson said laws should be followed, and people who break laws should expect to pay the price. Civil rights leaders who were arrested in the 1960s expected they would be punished for civil disobedience. “They expected to go to jail for it,” Johnson said. “We black people didn’t get rewarded for breaking the law.”

Dehn responded that just as race determines the likelihood of being arrested, it also increases the severity of the punishment. “I’m grateful for the people in the civil rights movement. Without their breaking the law, our country would look very, very different.”

What does representation look like?

In an interview, Johnson said he doesn’t necessarily think a majority-minority district like 59B should be represented by a person of color. “It should be represented by people who understand the issues of a majority of the people,” he said. “It’s pretty difficult for a non-African American to understand a community that’s majority African-American. It’s a challenge. Not that it can’t be done. If anyone is capable of doing that, then race shouldn’t come into the picture.”

Dehn, who finished second in last year’s Minneapolis mayoral election, said the concerns Johnson voices about the effectiveness of political help for north Minneapolis are something he hears frequently, something he heard in his narrow primary win over Neal-Delgado.

“People are really questioning what their leadership is, what it looks like, how are they advocating for their issues that are critical to them,” Dehn said during an interview last week. “I think Lisa (Neal-Delgado) did a very good job of tapping into people on the north side and having conversations about what their representation looks like. I applaud her for that.”

The primary was closer than any since Dehn won an open DFL primary in 2012 by less than a percentage point. “There’s a misconception in Minneapolis and some areas of St. Paul that these aren’t competitive districts,” he said. “I tell people, they may not be competitive in November but they sometimes can be really competitive in August.”

State Rep. Ray Dehn
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Ray Dehn
Dehn said he needs to do a better job telling people what he has done and what realities he faces being a DFLer in a Legislature controlled by Republicans.

“Like many disadvantaged communities, there’s a large turnover of people who move in and move out and don’t know the work I’ve been doing around criminal justice, around issues of equity and trying to address issues of poverty and education,” he said. “In some ways people don’t know the work I’ve been doing and that falls on me.”

“It is hard to convey to people that if you are a member of a body where majority matters and if you’re not in the majority it makes it real, real difficult,” Dehn said. He wasn’t able to pass a single bill in the last four years. So he said he tries other methods. Such as working with Gov. Mark Dayton’s Department of Administration to push for increases in contracts to disadvantaged businesses in the district, those owned by women or people of color.

But he said Johnson’s criticism of nonprofit agencies and government spending in North Minneapolis is based on expectations that are not realistic. “The thought that nonprofits are going to be totally transformational in people’s lives I think it very optimistic,” Dehn said. “I believe in some ways there are small gains that get made but I think in some aspects, nonprofits are out there to make sure things don’t get worse for people.

“Sometimes we have individuals who are able to do amazing stuff through their work with non-profits — whether it’s through building wealth, whether it’s through going through a program like Neon for young entrepreneurs.”

But he was not convinced that Johnson’s proposal for growing the economy by giving government money to start-up businesses is the way to go. “I think you could have the same criticism that Lacy has for nonprofits as you might for government giving money to entrepreneurs to start businesses… just supporting entrepreneurs in and of itself I don’t think will be transformational.”

“People on the north side are very capable given that they have opportunities before them, giving that we’re able to break down barriers and breakdown obstacles.”

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 10/02/2018 - 05:36 pm.

    What you did not get at is that at the debate Mr. Johnson did not really say how he was going to turn the Northside around. Rep. Ray Dehn is my state representative and he has done a great job considering the Republicans are tabling bills which the majority of people want passed like Ray’s universal background check bill. There are environmental bills which Ray has co-authored along with his house colleagues which you do not mention and that is another area where the Republicans tabled bills on doing environmental testing in the schools. I have actually put out Ray’s stands on issues on the face book page with a link. You really have to do cooperative economics on the Northside because people do not have much. Credit is not easy to get in such a situation. I live in Elliot Park, one of the other areas which Ray represents. We have millionaires and homeless people here. He also represents Byrn Maur besides other areas of downtown Minneapolis. Ray is very honest about the situation. On the mayoral campaign he had the most diverse office of any one running and also run the office very collaboratively. He lives on the North Side, which you did not bring out in the article. He had more of idea of people’s struggles in many ways than Mr. Johnson did. I think we need to look at the person, not the outside cover. I am happy that he represents my district and happy to keep him there.

    • Submitted by Ineye Bobmanuel on 10/29/2018 - 11:20 pm.

      I want to five a step by step critic of your argument. First I want to day that his idea of wealth creation will greater opportunities to those on the northside than more affordable housing. I assume you are a homeowner and if not would you prefer affordable housing or afford your own home? Second I can’t be for certain that the majority honestly prefers universal background checks and there are 2 reasons for that. One the majority of mass shootings are committed by white males who legally purchased there firearms. Whats the chance that a majority white male legislature is going to create a law to restrict themselves? Secondly the next target of the universal background check is young black males who some, not many have criminal records which prevent them from legally possessing firearms. This group won’t even attempt to buy legal firearms. As for the environment I don’t see how any local legislature can have any tangible effect on that. Pollution is a federal issue covered almost entirely by the Commerce Clause. It’s hard to even respond to the “people don’t have much” comment. There’s actually plenty of successful business people on the northside. It’s this false narrative from the media and others that perpetuates this image. Also this lack of credit is misleading. There’s plenty of cash advances, subprime auto loans and contract for deeds. What there is not is a group of individuals educating people on the proper use of credit and how to use it for building wealth( buying a home, starting a business) instead of consumerism. As for tokenism with these minorities in his office, I think Dehn’s constituents would be better served with results, not photo ops.

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/02/2018 - 07:24 pm.

    What a terrible candidate.

  3. Submitted by Roy Everson on 10/03/2018 - 02:44 am.

    “Johnson knows he could have taken an easier route and run as a DFLer.” The usual route for an urban conservative intent on winning is to run as an “independent.” Hide the GOP label and hope some personal charm or opponent’s weakness will carry the day. (Mr. Callaghan, please check out the legislative race in Columbia Heights.) An urban conservative running as a Republican is either naive or else is auditioning for the state GOP or a gig as a radio talk show host.

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/03/2018 - 09:14 am.

    The picture showcases the problem. Mr. L. Johnson is with Jeff Johnson, the Republican Party’s standard bearer and ex officio leader (for this election). J. Johnson is a wealthy suburbanite who has tried to present himself as less urban and more “down to earth (remember his cringeworthy “tofu” ad?). He has echoed hysteria about Muslim “infiltration” of the political system, and has embraced his endorsement by President Trump.

    However much L. Johnson may differ in the details, today’s partisan rigor demands that he support J. Johnson with minimal dissent at the most. He will especially be held to the shibboleth of endorsing and backing Trump, which has to be an uncomfortable idea for any African American politician. J. Johnson is just an albatross around L. Johnson’s neck.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/03/2018 - 09:32 am.

    As a 30+ year north-sider its the great philosophical political divide. The lefties can only understand throwing $ at problems and not expect or follow up to determine if their were any results, the righties can only understand so called self reliance, but don’t have the time or determination to understand the problems.So if you are of low to no income, it is far easier to take a hand out and the lefty, “its not your responsibility” position, than the right, its 100% up to you to “pull your self up by your boot straps”. As a number of N/S non-profits have shown the answer as always is probably some place in between. But our political system won’t allow those answers.

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/03/2018 - 03:02 pm.

      Johnson is acknowledging some government subsidies are necessary, he just want to redirect them towards solutions that reward effort.

      Also, his observations regarding the destruction of black families, and the derilection of too many Black fathers is a conversation that is long overdue.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/05/2018 - 08:45 pm.

        Dude, you need to get out more, that conversation has been going on for years in this neighborhood. We had a councilman for the 5th ward that preached that for going on decades, and still does, Madd Dadd’s etc, and probably near every black preacher on the N/S,

  6. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/03/2018 - 09:38 am.

    The North side has been represented by Democrats for decades, and today it’s worse than ever. Minneapolis sports one of the worst employment records for Black Americans in the country. North side schools are a wreck.

    President Trump, noting the same situation nationally, said to black voters “what do you have to lose?” That message resonated in many urban black communities, and they voted Trump.

    They were rewarded with the lowest black unemployment rate in decades. Life has measurably improved for many black families.

    C’mon, Northside; what do you have to lose?

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 10/03/2018 - 10:18 am.

      No they did not have increased support for Trump. This is just false.

      Exit polls showed that Trump support among African Americans was higher than the last two presidential elections (involving Obama) but lower than every other Republican candidate going back 40 years. Also more black voters stayed home than in the last two elections. Why do Trump supporters insist on spouting falsehoods about things that are easy to verify with data?

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/03/2018 - 11:37 am.

        Well Dan, I notice you chose the Washington Post, which picks up CNN’s hate for Trump for print media. I could post my own polls, but let’s let that lie.

        I notice you did not dispute the fact that Black Minnesotans suffer one of the worst income inequalities in the country, that Northside schools are a mess or that the Democrat party has controlled the Northside for decades.

        Given those facts, the question remains; what have Black Northside Minneapolis residents have to lose by voting for Johnson?

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/03/2018 - 12:31 pm.

          If the Republican Party wants black folks’ votes, they should stop trying to prevent them from voting and ditch the Racist In Chief at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave while immediately disavowing all racists in its ranks.

          “Some very fine people on both sides”

        • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 10/03/2018 - 12:32 pm.

          How about some proof of your claims for the past 2 years, not just your expected comment. And don’t start with fox.

        • Submitted by ian wade on 10/03/2018 - 01:04 pm.

          Look, dude. It’s becoming extremely hard to even consider the opinion of someone who automatically dismisses information from long standing, well respected newspapers like the Post (47 Pulitzers) especially when those same people tend to embrace every crackpot conspiracy theory conjured up on the web. Trump didn’t reward anyone anything. Trump is coasting on an economy that was created by a Democratic president that gave him 79 months of continued job growth and 130% increase in the stock market.

        • Submitted by Roy Everson on 10/04/2018 - 01:22 am.

          Certainly the relatively low black jobless rate is a good thing regardless of who gets the credit. Brag brag brag that’s what he does, but when will Trump (or any president) say: “We will not rest until jobless rates for blacks and whites are the same”? From Trump, never.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/03/2018 - 12:20 pm.

      Sir, as a North-sider resident, your accusation is “false” speaking from experience and day to day involvement, feel free to prove me wrong! Yes there is a division between white and black in educational test scores, achievements, but as noted earlier, perhaps you should make some investigation why, what are some of the obstacles, before you throw out a blanket right wing talking point. Please also support your term “wreck”! Seems you are like “T” and can fix everything with a wave of the conman wand, Please also support your exit poll theory with some facts. Lowest unemployment rate, just like a right winger, take all the credit for something started 10 years ago, Per an earlier post on your behalf, it is OK to say anything, do anything, to win!

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/03/2018 - 04:16 pm.

        I don’t hear anyone talking about magic wands, sir.

        We’re suggesting that decades of leftist control, government handouts and more social programs than we could fit in an ore boat has done nothing to improve the lives of Black Northsiders. We’re suggesting trying something different. We’re suggesting Black Minneapolis residents have nothing to lose.

        BTW, I lived North for several years; not a good scene.

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/04/2018 - 10:09 am.

          No, “magic wand” Then please be so kind as to provide specific actionable items that will resolve the “wreck” and the “worse than ever”. Please also define “leftist control”? Something different being what? Kind of like “T” and making our friends enemies, and our enemies friends? “A few years” when decades ago? “Not a good scene” meaning? Appears as earlier, lots of comments, no substance!. How about, 26th avenue is no longer a major drug corridor, resolved 10-12 years ago, has also been completely redone including a bike trail as part of the city rounds program? How about housing prices rose faster on the North side earlier this year than almost any other place in the city? Zillow supported. How about, one of the biggest issues in the Home wood neighborhood is gentrification, (too much new money flowing into the neighborhood). How about we are probably one of the most diverse communities in the city? Is that a “wreck” or “worse than ever”? We’ve got our issues, but they aren’t what republicans (other than Carlson) typically like to address, investigate or understand, .

  7. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/04/2018 - 01:49 pm.

    Sure, sure, been there read that, lots of grandiose, as noted “zero” definitive action, perhaps you can point to something “different” “new path” that I missed? Like: “Lower taxes”, “individual accountability” , “improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government” Same o-same-o republican BS talking points. You know it is rather insulting, when folks re-generate this same old BS and don’t have the decency to at least call it fertilizer.

  8. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/04/2018 - 04:02 pm.

    I don’t blame folks who like to deny they have any responsibility for their actions. I figure they were raised that way, so I blame the feckless parents.

    If you’re raising kids hold them responsible for their conduct and include some appropriate consequences. You’ll be doing everyone a favor.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/05/2018 - 09:30 am.

      You mean like “Trump”, deny, deny, deny! Responsible for all good things, not responsible blame someone else for any bad things! Seems to be a right wing ethical value.

  9. Submitted by Ineye Bobmanuel on 10/27/2018 - 08:57 am.

    Lacy Johnson is exactly what the northside and the rest of 59b needs. Starting businesses and wealth creation is what is needed. You can’t inherit a job or a section 8 voucher. Being self sufficient and able to support one’s family is the goal for many, but if you don’t see that as an option you won’t try. The problem with the proliferation of non profits is you have to stay low income to benefit. The ultimate goal isn’t wealth creation because by their definition they are non profit. If the Republicans really implement the programs he is suggesting and the Democrats support the out of care for their constituents, not politics his term in the legislature will be a success.

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