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.
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.
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.”
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.”