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Johnson On Big Stage, But He's No Political Rookie

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Republican Jeff Johnson was never one for fiery, rally-the-troops rhetoric in the Minnesota House. He didn't relish chances to antagonize the political opposition. And with some exceptions, the bills he sponsored during a six-year run were more heady than headline-grabbing.

As Johnson campaigns for governor, he's had to answer for stances in the Legislature and more recently in two terms on the Hennepin County board, where as an outnumbered Republican he's often been in the minority on key votes. County commissioners typically don't have as much of a hands-on role in shaping policy, so Johnson's time at the Capitol is the best window into a political style he argues would serve him well given the divided government he would face.

"I don't tend to be a bomb-thrower even after I've been around for a while," Johnson said recently as he reflected on his days in the state House. "I'm someone who believes in listening and learning before you spout off too much."

A lawyer for Cargill Inc. at the time, Johnson grabbed at a sudden open House seat in 2000 when a Republican incumbent ended his campaign within weeks of the filing deadline. He built on connections gained during an unsuccessful Plymouth city council run to win the abbreviated legislative race. Johnson tacked on two more victories before running unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2006. He re-emerged to snatch a county board seat in 2008.

When Johnson got to St. Paul, he focused on learning the ropes more than making a splash. His first bill was to shield more capital gains from the income tax — legislation he says was steered to him from House Republican leadership because of the complexion of his district. The first law to his name dealt with the grounds for school suspensions and disqualification from extracurricular activities.

Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum remembers his GOP colleague as a team player in a raucous caucus.

"He wasn't one who needed hand-holding. He wasn't an individual who would be hard to get along with, hard to reason with," Sviggum said. "He was not the person who was the outsider who has to get attention."

Johnson was chief sponsor of 71 bills as a legislator; at least 31 had at least one Democratic co-sponsor. Nine became law.

In his current race, Johnson has ripped Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton as having a "government always knows best" philosophy. As a House member, though, Johnson promoted legislation to make gory video games more difficult to buy, move medicine that could be used in meth-making behind pharmacy counters and put filters on school and library computers to block access to racy Internet sites. Today, he defends all as exercising a legitimate government regulatory role.

The video-game measure would have restricted anyone under 17 from renting or buying a mature-rated game and fine retailers that do so. It passed, but a federal judge struck the law down before it took effect. Johnson said critics have mischaracterized a bill he saw as providing parents information about violent games.

"If a parent wants a kid to have it, that's fine," he said in an interview this month, adding, "It was not to have government tell parents what they could or couldn't do."

Democrats controlled the state Senate throughout Johnson's House tenure, so any ideas had to have broad buy-in to become law.

On the campaign trail, Johnson often cites legislation that reined in government's power to seize private property for public use as a hallmark accomplishment. And he's sure to note his main Senate ally in the cause: Democrat Tom Bakk, an Iron Ranger who is now that chamber's majority leader.

The senator says he remembers little about working with Johnson back then and downplays the difficulty in getting the eminent domain bill through.

"By its nature it was a pretty bipartisan issue," Bakk said. "It is pretty hard to be against government taking somebody's land." (Johnson counters that Democrats are unwilling to give him credit because of the looming election.)

If Johnson wins next month, his agenda hinges on his ability to work with Bakk. That relationship could get off to a rough start because Johnson insists he would halt construction of a new Senate office building or lease out the space rather than let legislators move in, a stance Bakk dismisses as "silly" and "pandering to public opinion by a candidate who should know better."

Johnson said the building won't be the only thing he'll disagree with legislative Democrats over, but he's confident he can work with Bakk and company.

"I think we would have a fine relationship," Johnson said. "After an election everything is completely different than right before an election."

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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