Johnson challenges Wolf in Senate District 37

Loose metal rods for campaign signs rolled in the truck bed every time Sen. Pam Wolf turned a corner, making a peal of thunder as the first-term Republican worked her way through noontime traffic to door-knock a neighborhood near the National Sports Center in Blaine.

“These are the first Alice Johnson (campaign) signs I have seen north of 109th,” said Wolf, gazing at the distant blue and white signs, after walking a short distance from her pick-up truck.

Wolf, 48, was one of a wash of new Republican state senators elected two years ago in a taking of the majority that broke nearly 40 years of Democratic rule. She defeated fifth-term DFL Sen. Don Betzold of Fridley by winning about 53 percent of the vote.

But this was after losing to Betzold in 2006 and in a run for the House two years before.

Sen. Pam Wolf stands in the entrance to the family garage, brightened by Wolf campaign signs yet to hit the streets.
Sen. Pam Wolf stands in the entrance to the family garage, brightened by Wolf campaign signs yet to hit the streets.

These were sharp campaigns and Wolf, standing in the garage entrance of the family home in Spring Lake Park shortly before leaving to door-knock, indicated a certain dread of the upcoming weeks to the Nov. 6 election.

“Because I know the icky stuff is coming,” Wolf said of an anticipated “smear” campaign against her in the form of negative advertising.

Still, unlike in her earlier races, independent expenditure campaign mailings already have gone out on her behalf, so Wolf feels someone is watching her back.

“All I can say is being at the door and talking to people, my hope is I will have an influence on the people who are going to go to polls,” she said.

A teacher by profession — she has taught students from kindergarten up, coached high school basketball, college softball, as a pitcher herself in college put a softball over the plate at 80 mph — Wolf recently lost her teaching post at Pines School in Lino Lakes, along with a score of others, following the transfer of the school from Anoka County management to the Centennial School District.

Wolf laughs at the idea that she is a steely, strategizing politician.

According to candidate campaign school “gurus,” her use of yellow in her campaign color scheme is wrong and her door-knocking skills a mess — 30 seconds at the door, no more, Wolf said of one piece of advice she routinely breaks.

As a senator, Wolf voted against the Vikings stadium bill — voters at parades have thanked her, she said — and she voted for the proposed same-sex marriage ban and Photo ID constitutional amendments.

“Typically, I’m not a blame thrower. But I do blame the governor (Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton) for that one,” Wolf said of the 20-day state government shutdown in 2011.

A “lights-on” bill could have been passed and shutdown averted, she said.

While carrying bills dealing with school bus safety, child passenger restraint, studded bicycle tires, Wolf’s most closely watched bill was the so-called Last In, First Out (LIFO) legislation, which would have changed state law that protects teachers with the most seniority in times of teacher layoffs.

Advocates argue existing law wrongheadedly can protect mediocre teachers.

Dayton vetoed the bill.

“Everybody but Education Minnesota (the teachers’ union) supports it,” Wolf said.

In the past Wolf has said she would serve two terms in the Senate.

“I can’t predict life,” said Wolf, who hopes to start a charter school for high-risk students.

“It’s never been my goal or intent to make this a career,” she said.

But she is already being urged to run for a third term, Wolf said.

“I’m not throwing my (campaign) signs away,” she said.

“(But) my intent is that I would serve this next term and move on.”

Wolf is one of a group of Republican state senators an administrative judge panel recently ruled violated state campaign law by distributing campaign literature paid for by taxpayer dollars.

Although Steve Sviggum, who directs communications for the Senate Republican Caucus, immediately took blame for allowing a link to a fund raising site to appear on the literature, Wolf was fined $75.

“I totally don’t agree with their decision. I think it’s totally bogus,” Wolf said.

“The whole thing is so stupid.”

According to Wolf, among other things, the literature piece was clearly not designed as campaign literature and it was the first piece of literature she ever used from Senate communications.

“Never again. I will always do my own shop,” Wolf said.

If the fine becomes an issue in the campaign, Wolf would consider appealing the ruling, she said.

“I haven’t decided yet. It depends on how big a deal they’ll make it,” Wolf said.

Senate District 37, the district Wolf and Johnson are vying to represent, is a municipal hodgepodge.

In redistricting, Wolf lost Mounds View, Fridley, slivers of Blaine and Spring Lake Park, but gained nine precincts in Coon Rapids.

No city in its entirety in found in the Senate district.

On the recent sunny day in Blaine, a Democratic-leaning voter standing at the door, well-fed cats brushing by, asked Wolf if government had a role.

“Absolutely,” Wolf said. “I’m totally not in favor of anarchy.”

But Wolf also spoke of government crossing boundaries.

While Wolf is a relative newcomer to the State Capitol, DFLer Alice Johnson of Spring Lake Park served 14 years in the House before leaving in 2000.

One House Democrat, remembering her former colleague, said you did not walk over Johnson.

Johnson and her husband Richard Jefferson, a former lawmaker, in retirement have visited many countries, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and have a condo in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Former State Rep. Alice Johnson stands over a newly placed campaign sign.
Former State Rep. Alice Johnson stands over a newly placed campaign sign.

“I love surf fishing more than I like fishing on the boat,” Johnson said. “Just walk out into the ocean and throw the line out and wait for it to jiggle.”

After one memorable 30-minute fight, Johnson pulled a 37-pound black drum out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Johnson and her husband returned to Minnesota in the late winter to find local Democratic politics unsettled.

The Democrat expected to challenge Wolf had opted instead to run for the House, Johnson said.

“I supported her. I gave her money,” Johnson said of Connie Bernardy.

This left Johnson in a bind.

Dismayed by the perceived lack of genuine debate in the Republican-controlled Legislature — it’s almost pointless to detail your stance on an issue, she argues — Johnson did not want to run for the Senate.

At the same time, she wanted a credible Democratic challenger.

Someone running for the right reasons, according to Johnson.

“So I decided that the only thing I could do is for me to run,” she said, crossing the street one recent Saturday morning to speak to a neighbor trimming arborvitaes.

“To bring common sense and more civility,” Johnson said.

“So I’m hoping 12, 15 of us are elected, from both sides of the aisle.”

Things have changed since the last time Johnson ran for office a decade ago.

For one thing, less than a third of her former House district is contained in Senate District 37, she said.

Beyond this, families have come and gone.

“This isn’t a ‘gimme,’ no,” Johnson said of winning in the new Senate district.

Still, Johnson believes voters all across the state are weary of partisanship.

She has completely thrown herself into the campaign, Johnson said.

“Listen, I’m giving up my winters on the Gulf of Mexico to do this,” she tells voters.

“And I’ll be as hard of a working legislator as I was for 14 years.”

Johnson, entering the final weeks of the campaign already 10 pounds trimmer, stresses education as key to the state’s economic health.

“My jobs program is a good education,” she said.

School funding should not stand on property taxes, Johnson said.

With the homestead credit taken away, people are feeling the property tax pinch more, she said.

According to Johnson, she would not have supported LIFO.

Teachers are getting a bad rap, Johnson said.

Voters are asking about the proposed amendments, she said.

“I tell them I don’t believe either one of these amendments should be in the constitution,” Johnson said.

“The constitution, as I see it, is the place to give people rights, not take them away.”

Johnson accepts the comment from the former House colleague about not being a pushover.

She was determined to make things work out if she thought it was the right thing to do, Johnson said.

“If opponents did not take me seriously, I’d have to let them know I was serious,” she said.

As for her opponent, Johnson said she has never met Wolf.

After campaign volunteers had left her home with arms full of blue and white campaign signs one recent Saturday morning, Johnson, 71, indicated one feature of running for public office is constant.

“No, I never feel confident,” she said.

“I feel good. I feel we’re doing all we can.”

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