Sunday, March 06, 2005

MN Attorney General Candidate Jeff Johnson Interview

Jeff Johnson is currently Assistant Majority Leader in the Minnesota State House of Representatives, and candidate for the Republican nomination to become Minnesota's next Attorney General.

I met Rep. Johnson in his office, across the street from the Capitol in Saint Paul. More information about Rep. Johnson is available here, and here.

Me: First Question. Why politics instead of the private sector?

JJ: Well, I’ve done both. And actually am doing both right now. Since I graduated from law school I’ve always been in the private sector and continue to be. But since I was a kid, I’ve had an interest in politics and government and in policy things. I always knew that I would run for office some day. Honestly I thought it would be when my kids were grown up and I was closer to retirement. But this opportunity to run for the House kind of fell in my lap.

Me: How did that happen?

JJ: Well… It would have been 2000. And I had been very active in our Senate district Republicans. I was treasurer, and was helping out with the campaigns. Henry Van Dellen was the incumbent Republican House member, and had been in for ten years or so. And he had an opportunity to start a business and make a whole bunch of money. He had been endorsed in 2000 to run again, and probably wouldn’t have even had a DFL opponent. And I think it was about two weeks before the filing deadline in June, he called me up and said, “I’m pulling out of the race.” And he called up a few other people who had been active. And I literally had about forty-eight hours with my wife to decide. We had one little boy then. And I thought, when it happens like this, you can’t really pass it up. I think it’s supposed to happen that way. So I just jumped at it.

And that campaign was about getting the endorsement. Because out in our district unless you’re kind of freaky, and you get the Republican endorsement you ought to be able to win. So it was literally a two week campaign. I had my list of two hundred people to convince to vote for me. And that’s what I did for two weeks.

So it kind of just came out of the blue.

Me: In brief how would you describe your experience as a legislator so far?

JJ: I’ve loved it.

I came in knowing that I wasn’t going to do this all that long though. I had always said that it would be either three or four terms. And this is my third term. Because I think there’s some really good people who have been here a long time. But I just think turnover is good in the legislature. Because there are lots of great people who are just waiting to try this and could come up with some new ways of handling things.

I have liked it but I’m ready to move on. Either to the private sector full-time, or the public sector full-time.

Right now I’m doing this, and then I have my own business, and also work for the law firm. And I know my wife is ready for me to have one job. Whether it’s here or somewhere else I don’t know.

But it’s been a great experience. And I would recommend it to anybody who can swing it from a career / financial perspective, which isn’t always so easy for a lot of folks. But if you can do it…. If you put your mind to it you really can change some things, and pass some legislation that actually affects peoples lives.

There are some people here who I think choose not to do that. They’re here for whatever reason. But there are others who really make a difference. And that’s kind of cool.

Me: In the Legislature, what are some of your highlights, and what are some of the things you didn’t really like?

JJ: Highlights for me were passing legislation that I thought mattered. And in particular, I’ve had a bill every year, except for this year, that eliminates mandates on schools – state mandates on our school boards – that I think is important. We’re constantly complaining about not enough money and not enough local control. And I found out very quickly, when you actually try to eliminate mandates it’s like World War Three. Because they’re there because some political interest got them there. Usually Education Minnesota, but sometimes other folks. But we actually accomplished some of that, and eliminated some mandates.

And a big tort reform proposal I had, the Joint and Several Liability revisions, that was probably two years ago. We had been shooting at that for twelve years, and finally got it passed a couple of years ago, and that was my bill.

So those are two highlights from the legislative perspective.

Also… I really enjoy the people here. On both sides of the aisle. There’s just a lot of really good folks here that are trying to do the right thing. Some of them I couldn’t disagree with more about how they go about it, but they’re here for the same reason I am – because they think they can make life better for Minnesotans. So that has been a highlight for me.

This is kind of cheesy I think, but when school groups come in, I just think that’s so much fun. Because they’re so eager to learn what the place is about. And generally they’re pretty honest about what they think. They tend to ask the toughest questions of anybody that comes in, because they’ll just say whatever is on their minds. So that’s been fun.

The lowlights? The time is difficult. Especially when you’re doing anything on the outside, and you have a family. And that’s been hard. We’ve been able to do it as a family, and I’ve still been able to… I turn down a lot of evening things so I can just go home and be with my kids. And no one has ever complained about that. So it’s something you can do. You can balance your family life with this, but you really have to work hard at it, and sometimes tick a few people off. I do get frustrated. There are plenty of folks who have family problems. Once they come here they end up divorced or whatever. And then they blame it on being in the legislature, which is just a bunch of BS, because… If you decide you’re going to make it work, you can make it work. Just like being an accountant or a lawyer or whatever. It’s up to you.

That has been hard, but doable.

And then just that so many people take everything so personally. And if you happen to disagree with them on a political issue, you’re a bad person. Or you’re not as good a Christian as they are. I’ve heard that… I’ve gotten plenty of letters from people who say, “Because you’re not willing to fund things the way I would, where are your Christian values,” or, “How can you call yourself a Christian?” Which just drives me crazy. I just don’t think you have to get that personal about things.

That’s been that hardest part, probably.

Me: I’ll phrase this as generally as I can and you can answer it however you’d like: Why are you running for Attorney General?

JJ: I have watched what’s happened in the Attorney General’s office the last six years. And there is truly an opportunity there to do some things as Attorney General to make a difference. And they’re not happening right now because the office has become all about Mike Hatch, and Mike Hatch wanting to move on to higher office. And it seems to me every important decision that’s made over there is based on Mike Hatch’s political future as opposed to what should the Attorney General be doing for Minnesotans.

In particular… What I have spent the majority of my time on here are K-12 issues, and kids issues. And that’s what I think the Attorney General’s office should be focusing on primarily is kids – the most vulnerable folks in our society – and how to keep them safer. I’m not one of these people who claims that I care more about children than the other guy just because we disagree on things. I’m sure Mike cares very much about kids too. But it certainly has not been a priority.

And a perfect example of that is … I’m carrying the Meth bill in the House. We haven’t seen it nearly as significantly in the Twin Cities, but it is just devastating rural Minnesota. And what it’s doing to kids out there and families… it’s really kind of scary.

And I never heard Mike Hatch say a word about Meth until a month and a half ago or so, when all of a sudden it was all over the papers and all over TV, and became the most important media issue out there. And then all of a sudden he has a press conference and decides that he’s going to have this legislative agenda to tackle it. He had his press conference. Never heard a word about it from him since. He got his press. And that was that. He hasn’t been around here trying to convince us to pass anything that he would want. It was a publicity grab like he’s so good at, and nothing more.

We should have an Attorney General who’s working on issues like that. And working on sexual predators with the governor, rather than making a political issue out of it.

That’s the main reason I’m running. I’d like to see someone do something different over there.

Me: How would you handle those issues, if you were in office, differently than Hatch did?

JJ: They’d be on the top of my agenda. There are legislative things that need to be done to fix them. I would be out front proposing the agenda as the Attorney General – as the chief law enforcement officer in the state. And then working that legislative agenda to get it past.

I have pretty good relationships on both sides of the aisle. That’s going to get strained a little bit more now because I’m running for higher office. But what I have been able to accomplish over here has mostly been accomplished quietly, just because that’s how I think I get things done better. And so you sit down with key legislators, both in the Senate and the House; you work with the Governor, and the bureaucrats over in the agencies, and you actually get these things done, rather than get a headline out of it and then move on to your next victim.

That would be a main difference. I wouldn’t just talk about these things. We’d actually get some of them done.

Me: What is your assessment of the state’s lawsuit against tobacco companies? That’s one of the crown jewels of Mike Hatch’s term in office. (Post-Interview Correction: It was AG Humphrey who preceded Hatch as Minnesota AG who conducted this lawsuit)

JJ: No one has asked me that question before. To be honest… I think Attorney Generals around the United States, including in Minnesota have gotten a little out of hand with litigation. That is probably a good example of it.

I did not follow that case real closely because it started when I wasn’t even back in the state yet from Chicago, where I worked for a while. But in the reading I’ve done of it the lawsuit seemed a bit farfetched to me. But I think it worked because public opinion… You know everybody hates tobacco companies, just like we all hate insurance companies now, and we hate fast food companies and pharmaceuticals. And the Attorney General, and Attorney Generals all over the country, realized that is we put enough pressure on these folks they wouldn’t have the guts to actually take the lawsuits to fruition, because if they lost it would be three times what the settled for.

I have to be honest with you. I’m not exactly sure what I would have done. It’s a little hard, I think, as Attorney General to say… Everybody else is suing the tobacco companies, you can get in on it and make billions for the state. Do you just pass it up and say that’s no good? I’m not sure what I would have done.

But I can tell you that I’m going to have less of an interest in using litigation against big companies than Mike Hatch does. Because in the long run I don’t think it’s all that great for the state, because it affects your business climate. It affects who wants to come to Minnesota; who wants to expand in Minnesota; who wants to leave Minnesota, from a business perspective. And that affects average people like you and me who are looking for jobs.

The other thing on that issue that really bothers me is the Attorney General’s power to hire an outside law firm that made hundreds of millions of dollars on this case. Forgive me, I don’t know what the final number was. But it was hundreds of millions of dollars. It made multi-millionaires out of about thirty or forty lawyers at Robins, Kaplan. I actually have a bill that I haven’t introduced yet that says if the Attorney General’s office feels that it doesn’t have lawyers capable to handle a case like this, and determines they have to go outside, that they have to use the bidding process just like any other agency would in choosing a contractor. You might not always take the lowest priced provider, because they might not have the skills. But you have to do it out in the open. And that choice certainly wasn’t done that way, and they ended up with an awful lot of money that probably should have gone to the taxpayers.

Me: What are your ideas about tort reform?

JJ: I was chief author of the Joint and Several bill, and I think that has been a very positive thing for the state. I’m supportive of tort reform, although not every proposal, because like anything else any change is called reform even if it doesn’t necessarily improve things.

I have a bill right now… There are several statutes in Minnesota that provide for attorney’s fees recovery of plaintiffs, if they win a lawsuit. For example in a sexual harassment case, if the plaintiff wins they recover all their attorney’s fees from the defendant... the company that harassed them. But there’s no similar provision that provides that the defendant gets their attorney’s fees if they win the case. And I have actually a couple of bills. One of them is called Modified Loser Pays. Essentially it says that in any case if you make an offer of settlement, and the other side turns it down, whether you’re plaintiff or defendant, if the other side turns it down and then you go on to trial and you do worse by a certain percentage than that offer of settlement, you’re going to have pay the attorneys fees for the other side from the point of that settlement offer on. That’s probably not going to pass because it’s pretty bold.

One that probably has a better shot says that for all of these statutes that provide for plaintiffs to recover their attorney’s fees… same concept. If the defendant makes an offer and they do worse at trial they don’t get to recover their attorney’s fees from that point going forward. So they’d still get some of their attorney’s fees, they wouldn’t have to pay the other side, but they wouldn’t recover as much in attorneys fees.

To me that is the best way to deal with what I think is the biggest problem in our legal system – frivolous lawsuits, that have just gone rampant, especially in the employment context.

There’s a bill out there to cap med-mal damages. Which I support, but I’m not enthusiastic about, because I think it’s kind of a simplistic answer to a complex problem. But it will come to my committee and we’ll pass it out. And I’ll support it. But I think there are better ways of doing it. That is one.

There’s also a bill for some class-action reform, which is probably the best bill out there for tort reform purposes. Essentially it doesn’t allow the trial lawyers to recover ninety percent of the money, and then the folks who were supposedly hurt get a handful of bucks. The perfect example of that was the Blockbuster case a few years ago. I can’t even remember why blockbuster was sued, but they were sued by a class of several thousand people. And in the end the lawyers recovered seven million dollars and each of the plaintiffs got some coupons for free movies. That’s screwed up. And the class action bill deals with that to an extent. I think that’s an important issue that the Attorney General should be leading on. But that certainly won’t happen as long as a DFL’er is in there.

Me: Do you have aspirations to office beyond Attorney General?

JJ: Not right now. I don’t know what would happen in ten years, or fifteen years, or twenty years. I truly want to be Attorney General to do something with that office. And my thought would be you probably can’t do that in four years anyway. I think you probably need eight years, or maybe longer if possible.

So right now the answer is no, but it could conceivably change.

Me: If elected what do see as the two or three largest issues you’d be confronting?

JJ: I think tort reform is one of them. It’s certainly one I would spend time on. I think…

I put these two together: the meth, and the sexual predator issue. I put them together because they’re both crime issues. They deal a lot more with kids than anybody else. And those two… Unless we somehow get that solved in the next year and a half, before the next election, those two would be probably my top priority.

I also think the morale over in the Attorney General’s office is extremely low. From the lawyers I know over there. Mike Hatch really cleaned house of long-term lawyers over there that really had great skills but weren’t political and wouldn’t put up with the fact that everything was about partisanship and Mike Hatch. And a lot of them left… I’ve talked to a lot of them and they won’t go public with it, because they’re scared to death of the guy, he’s rather vindictive… But morale is really low over there. And you have so many good people that could be brought back again with a good Attorney General.

I think that’s a huge issue because one key job of the Attorney General’s office is to assist county attorneys in higher profile, more complex, criminal prosecutions that they just can’t handle in their own small offices in rural Minnesota. And there has really been … Most of the best criminal attorneys over there have left because they don’t want to work under the circumstances they had to work under. So there’s been a real de-emphasis on that part of the job… that part of the role of the office. One thing I would work on very quickly is to get some of those people back, and get some other good career criminal prosecutors who would be willing to come in and really beef up that part of the office.

Me: Switching gears a bit, and part of the reason I’m here, what is your strategy for engaging blogs like you would other reporters?

JJ: This came from Larry [Colson, Jeff Johnson’s eCampaign coordinator – ed.] because he knows this better than I do. I follow blogs to a certain extent, but not as much as some people have I suppose.

Out goal is to treat you folks just like we would treat the Star Tribune, or the Detroit Lakes Tribune, or whatever. If we have a press release to send out, we’re going to send it to you and everyone else. If we’re going to have a press conference, you guys will be invited to it just like anybody else. Larry, and I now, have been trying to watch what’s happening. We’re always watching what’s happening in newspapers and on TV to see if we get coverage and what it looks like. We’re going to do that with blogs as best we can now too. And try to follow up with people when they have questions, or want to meet and just talk. Essentially it’s the same media strategy we would have with the more traditional folks. And frankly I think we’ll probably get fairer coverage from you guys.

Me: I’m going to throw some strange stuff at you now. Getting a little lighter.

JJ: Okay.

Me: Three favorite blogs.

JJ: I like Powerline. But every conservative in Minnesota does now. I love Steyn Online. I just think he’s very entertaining. And probably Hugh Hewitt’s site. Those are the three that I probably look at the most. Although now all of a sudden I’m looking at lots that I’d never heard of before, just because of this whole thing, and seeing my name here or there.

Me: Three favorite books.

JJ: That I have read? Oh gosh. That’s a great question.

My favorite political book, and this isn’t a real deep book, but it’s called What It Takes by Ben Kramer. I don’t know if you’ve ever read it. But for a political junkie, it’s a great book. It’s about the 1988 presidential race. And he actually got inside access to three different Democratic candidates. It’s a fascinating book, and it’s very entertaining.

I hate to say this because this sounds so self-serving. But I read the Bible every night. And to me that’s probably the most important book that we have in our house.

I don’t know if you’ve read the Left Behind series or not. I’ve read about seven of them. And I’m right in the middle of the sixth or seventh one. I don’t even know what number. If you’re going to ask me what book I’m enjoying the most now, it’s probably that one.

Me: What is the most important reason people should support you for Attorney General?

JJ: Because I believe that we need an Attorney General who truly is concerned about how that office can help people rather than help himself or herself. And we absolutely have to have a different direction in that office. And maybe it won’t be Mike Hatch running. It might be Matt Entenza. It might be David Lillehaug. I don’t see their philosophy all that different, frankly. They’ll see it solely as a stepping stone to something bigger. And I recognize it can be that. It traditionally has been that. But if it’s used that way you really are not accomplishing anything for the people in Minnesota. And actually you’re moving backwards, as I think Hatch has because he’s poisoned the business climate in this state by his “sue first ask questions later” attitude.

I think changing the focus of that office is the number one reason they should vote for me.


Blogger First Ringer said...

Fantastic interview Doug! I think the rest of your peers will be using it as the definitive blog interview of a candidate.

One minor correction for you. Hatch didn't sue the tobacco companies---Humphrey did and used it as the platform to run for Governor in 1998. Hatch actually seems to have a real bitter relationship with some of those anti-smoking groups.

I had thought about contacting Larry Colson for an interview, but I think you may have covered the bases for everybody. Great job!

11:26 PM  
Blogger Craig Westover said...

First Ringer --

Doug does an excellent job with the interview, but no one ever covers all the bases. If an interview was part of you plan, you should pursue it.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous David Asp said...

Great interview. Thanks for doing this.

8:02 AM  

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