New House session missing a familiar face


Sheldon Johnson

Sheldon Johnson reflects on time in public office

 

When the new legislative session started on Jan. 8, a familiar face was missing from the House chambers. 

Sheldon Johnson, former DFL representative for House District 67B, retired at the end of 2018 after 18 years in office.

Johnson announced his retirement over a year ago, making for a wide open race last fall, which DFL Rep. Jay Xiong won.

After nearly 20 years of service, Johnson spoke to the Review about his time in government.

 

 

Unplanned career

Johnson said running for and serving in public office wasn’t really a part of his life plan. 

After serving on various community boards — the district council, Harding High School PTA, environmental groups and helping with Kathy Lantry’s city council race in the late 1990s — a group of neighbors asked him to run for the House.

At the time, then-Rep. Steve Trimble, who had served the district since 1987, had decided to run for county commissioner. 

“I got talked into it,” said Johnson. “It’s good to ask people to run because they may not be thinking about it.”

He was elected in 1999 and began his first term in 2000, in a state under the leadership of then-Gov. Jessie Ventura. 

“It was pretty intimidating at first,” Johnson said of his first term in office. A lot of it was spent learning “the ins and outs” of the capital and the complexity of issues, as well as finding colleagues interested in similar things.

He found the staff in the Legislature to be “fun and pleasant,” adding he didn’t realize how much work they put into the research and construction of bills.

While he believes partisanship has become more caustic recently, mostly as trickle down from the federal level, he said state government was also very partisan when he first started. However, he said he found it was often for show and that he could be a “calming and articulate influence,” finding ways and issues to work with everyone, including those from across the aisle and across the state.

Part of what helped was his background. Johnson grew up in Braham, a rural town in east central Minnesota, on a dairy farm. Given his rural upbringing, he found he could relate to rural legislators and the concerns of their constituents.

After graduating high school, he moved down to the Twin Cities to attend Bethel University for a bachelor’s degree in social work, and later the University of St. Thomas for his master’s in psychology. He lived in the Midway neighborhood for a few years before moving to the Highwood Hills neighborhood on the East Side in 1981, where he’s been ever since. 

Johnson’s original line of work was corrections in Ramsey County, working as a probation/parole officer for 35 years, 11 of which overlapped with his time in the Legislature. 

His career in corrections gave him experience that he later used in the House when crafting bills, particularly on the issue of providing services to people in prison and how those services affect their ability to adjust to post-prison life. 

It was one of a number of issues Johnson took up as a legislator. 

 

For the East Side, for the state

In a legislative career of nearly two decades, there were a lot of bills and issues Johnson covered, but the ones that stood out to him span a variety of topics. 

In 2006, Johnson took up the issue of broadband internet and access, especially in rural Minnesota. 

He didn’t just push for better access — he wanted it to be acknowledged as essential infrastructure, much like electricity, and he wanted to make it affordable. It was an issue he was able to work with Republicans on, especially in relation to rural Minnesota, which eventually led to the creation of the Ultra High-Speed Broadband Goal Task Force. 

St. Paul City Council Ward 7 member Jane Prince, who has known Johnson for more than 20 years and worked with him on a number of local issues, said his environmental advocacy also stood out at the state level, especially when it came to East Side issues like cleaning up the Pig’s Eye superfund site and protecting the Mississippi riverfront.

Johnson’s East Side House partner, DFLer Tim Mahoney, who represents District 67A, said that Johnson often worked on quality of life issues, like local government aid, and served on the State Government Finance Committee. 

Mahoney said they may not have been exciting, high profile issues, but they were essential and impactful at the local level.

“He was just the everyday East Side guy who just went to represent his constituents,” Mahoney said, adding that he and Johnson worked well together, each carrying expertise and interest in different issues.

“I don’t think you could find a better partner,” said Mahoney. “He compliments me, and I, him.”

 

Natural progression

There were a number of things that played into Johnson’s decision to retire. Besides his 65th birthday coming up and having set that age as a transition-point goal, he also felt that after 18 years it was time for new representation in the neighborhood, a place that has changed a lot, especially demographically. 

After announcing his retirement at the end of 2017, Jay Xiong, a former House staffer, announced he would run for the seat, garnering the DFL endorsement and going on to win, with Johnson and Prince serving as co-chairs of his campaign. 

Besides natural progression, Johnson was also hit hard by Lyme disease this past year, causing him to miss the last two months of the 2018 legislative session. 

The disease, a bacterial infection spread through the bite of a deer tick, causes symptoms that feel like the flu, including fever, headache and fatigue. If it goes undiagnosed and untreated, the infection can spread to the joints causing arthritis, and affect the nervous system and heart. 

He said he’s doing better now but the episode served as a reminder to take care of himself, and reinforced that he was ready to move onto the next stage in life. 

Outside of that, Johnson is also a grandpa now, with two grandsons under the age of 1. 

“They’ve been a real joy,” Johnson said. “They’re funnier than heck.”

He said he’s also looking forward to traveling, especially to the Southwest U.S., Hawaii and Nova Scotia. 

Overall, while he’s looking forward to getting back to his hobbies — playing basketball, tennis, cross country skiing he said he’ll also miss some aspects of life in the House.

He’ll really miss the staffers, he said, pointing out they are tremendous at what they do behind the scenes. He said he’ll also miss the Capitol building itself and its beauty, especially after its recent renovation.

Asked if he’ll continue to be involved in politics in retirement, Johnson said he’ll stay involved at a local level, but that he’ll “defer to the younger people” and “not stick his nose in when it doesn’t belong.” 

He said if asked, he’ll provide guidance, but he’s looking forward to seeing a younger generation take over.

“I think it’s good to have some change.” 

 

–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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