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Gubernatorial candidate has deep DL roots

Jeff Johnson, center, chats with Mike and Jodie Herzog, left, and Mark Hagen. VICKI GERDES/TRIBUNE

Detroit Lakes native Jeff Johnson has run for public office a half dozen times now, with only one, a 2006 bid for the State Attorney General’s Office, having ended in defeat.

He served as a representative in the Minnesota House for three terms, from 2001 to 2006, and is now in his second term with the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners.

He has also been a successful attorney since graduating from law school in 1992, working first for a firm in Chicago for a couple of years before taking a job with Cargill as in-house legal counsel and making the move to Plymouth with his wife, Sondi.

Together, he and Sondi have also raised two children, sons Thor, 15, and Rolf, 12.

But in May, Johnson took on what is, without doubt, his biggest challenge to date: a campaign to become the 41st governor of the State of Minnesota.

His first hurdle will be to win the Republican Party’s endorsement.

On Monday, he and his family were in Detroit Lakes for a campaign rally and fundraiser at a condominium residence on West Lake Drive.

“Some people say I’m too nice a guy, that I can’t get endorsed (for the governor’s race),” he told a group of about 30-40 supporters at the fundraiser.

“I guess we’ll find out,” he added.

Johnson also noted that, while he has great respect for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton as a person, there are a few things about Dayton’s policies that he would like to see changed.

Specifically, he added, he plans to focus his campaign on three main areas: jobs, education and “making government work.”

“We need a governor who will create a business climate to rival North Dakota and Wisconsin,” Johnson said, noting that currently, the state is ranked last in the nation in terms of the number of new businesses being started within its borders.

“We can’t withstand that,” he said.

Johnson also noted that Minnesota is ranked dead last among the 50 states in terms of narrowing the achievement gap (the perceived disparity in academic performance between low-income, minority students and middle class white students).

“It affects us all,” Johnson said. “When we are giving up on 10 percent of the kids in this state … we know where they are going to end up.”

Thirdly, he noted, he would like to focus on “directing taxpayer dollars to programs that actually produce results.”

Johnson said that he would like to direct state funding toward programs “that can prove they are producing the results we want,” and stop funding those programs that “just don’t work.”

A 1985 graduate of Detroit Lakes High School, Johnson earned his undergraduate degree at Concordia College — where he met his future wife Sondi, a Crookston native — then moved to Washington, D.C., to get his law degree from Georgetown University.

He took the job in Chicago because that’s where Sondi was living at the time.

“We had a long distance relationship for three years,” he said.

But both of them wanted to settle back in Minnesota before starting to raise their family, Johnson said, and it wasn’t until they moved to Plymouth that their first son was born.

They still make regular trips back to Detroit Lakes to visit Jeff’s parents, Bob and Dianne Johnson, as well as sister Jodi Olson and her family, who also make their home here.

He said his interest in politics began at an early age.

“I just always had an interest,” Johnson said.

When he was still in junior high, Johnson served as a “door knocker” for then-State Senator Cal Larson during his re-election campaign in the early 1980s.

“Fifteen or so years later, I served with him (Larson) in the Legislature,” Johnson said.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454