Sen. Alice Johnson finds the Senate busy but more sedate than the House

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Sen. Alice Johnson is busy.

The Spring Lake Park Democrat was greeting constituents the morning  after a marathon 12-hour Senate floor session (March 8) and says the number of visitors to her office exceeds anything she experienced when she was in the House.

Every 15 minutes, new people filter through.

“I think people are thirsting for something good to come out of our government,” Johnson said.

“I think they’ve felt, I don’t want to say hopeless, but that things aren’t’ right,” she said.

Johnson was one of those people.

 Sen. Alice Johnson, DFL-Spring Lake Park, turns to speak with seatmate Senate Tax Committee Chairman Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, on the Senate floor.
Sen. Alice Johnson, DFL-Spring Lake Park, turns to speak with seatmate Senate Tax Committee Chairman Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, on the Senate floor.

Short months ago she was enjoying retirement with her husband Richard Jefferson, a fellow lawmaker Johnson met serving in the House and then married.

The couple spent the last 12 years visiting foreign countries, climbing mountains, surf casting in the Gulf of Mexico.

But unsettled local DFL politics early last year had Johnson, who left the House of Representatives12 years ago, filing for office in Senate District 37.

“When I hung up the phone,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said of Johnson inquiring about candidates, “I thought, ‘If Alice Johnson still has the spunk in her when I served with her in the House, she’s going to be a member of the Senate,’”

Bakk’s premonition was correct.

Johnson defeated Republican Sen. Pam Wolf by a comfortable margin.

But Johnson flatly says being away from the Legislature for more than a decade took a toll.

“Because I was away for a dozen years, I really wasn’t up to snuff in what going on in legislating,” Johnson said.

“So it’s been kind of an adjustment time,” she said.

But the juices still flow.

“I sensed myself getting really energized when I’m working on things like special education, the school safety bill, mental health issues, early childhood intervention — I still find myself very, very passionate about those issues,” Johnson, a former House education finance chairwoman, said.

Johnson now finds herself serving in the Senate, a body one former House member sneeringly used to depict as populated by “the wigs” and a body often noted more for the sedateness of its debate than the sizzle.

(Senators have referred to sufficiently retrained former House members in the the Senate as “House broken.”)

But if House member caricature the Senate as stuffy, a smiling Johnson suggested little doubt exists in the minds of the her new colleagues about which body which is the most exalted.

And it isn’t the House.

“I would say, they (senators) think so, generally,” Johnson laughed, leaning back in her Senate office chair.

No, the Senate isn’t as “raucous” as the House, Johnson said.

It’s not meant to be.

There are fewer members.

And there’s decorum.

“It’s the protocol — you’re speaking only to the Senate President,” Johnson said of senators facing the front of the chamber rather than glaring across the aisle.

“It keeps it from getting kind of personal. And if it’s personal, it becomes emotional,” she said.

Johnson has been asked which body she prefers?

“My response is, ‘Well, I’m a little older now,’” Johnson said.

There’s something to be said for calmness.

In a sense, Johnson may feel more at home in the Senate.

Although her words have been few on the Senate floor,  it felt comfortable speaking.

That wasn’t always the case in the House.

“Even though I was only up for about a minute, it was like a milestone for me,” Johnson said of impromptu comments she made during the health-insurance- exchange debate.

“And it was very easy,” she said of addressing the Senate.

Although independent-minded, Johnson would not have run for office had her husband objected.

She doesn’t believe he regrets the decision.

But Johnson doesn’t downplay the disruption her returning to politics has made.

But she’s also philosophical.

“We had 12 really wonderful years of retirement together,” she said.

“How many married couple get that? And with good health,” Johnson said.

Johnson may run for reelection in four years, but does not see herself seeking a third term, she indicated.

In the meantime, she’s busy.

There are visitors to the office.

And she’s listens, listens to everyone, Johnson explained.

“If I only talk to people who believe what I do, you really don’t expand in your mind much,” she said.

Contacting lawmakers, visiting the State Capitol — that’s the stuff of citizenship, Johnson explained.

It shouldn’t be seen as a bother.

“And the more respect for it (government) we have, probably the more we will get out of it,” she said.

Bakk views the new senator as already bringing valuable insight on education to the Senate.

“This isn’t something she had to do,” Bakk said of Johnson.

“She just wanted to really get the Senate turned around and she was willing to put her retirement on hold to be a piece of getting the majority back,” he said.

“I’m really proud of that decision,” she said.

Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]