The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 19, 2013

After three decades of waiting, Johnson takes his seat

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

—  Tuesday’s event was something Clark Johnson first hoped would happen in January 1985, but his 1984 run against Republican Rep. Mark Piepho for a state House seat came up short.

The longtime DLFer from North Mankato waited nearly three decades to try again, winning a special election to fill the seat left vacant by former Rep. Terry Morrow’s resignation, and — one week later — taking the oath of office from House Speaker Paul Thissen.

When he raised his right hand to take the oath, his left was placed on a 90-year-old Bible.

“Just two days ago, I found a Bible my dad was given when he was 9 years old,” said Johnson, who said it was particularly meaningful. “I was pretty close to him.”

His father was there at the Capitol in spirit and his wife, April, was there in person, but the whirlwind nature of the campaign and election didn’t allow the swearing-in to be extended to the next generation. The Johnsons’ adult daughters are both overseas and couldn’t attend.

Johnson didn’t get to experience the energy and pandemonium that comes with the first day of a post-election legislative session — when dozens of new members are surrounded by hundreds of family members and friends, when the oath is taken en masse, and when the ceremonies of opening day take place. But he did get the honor of taking the oath at the speaker’s podium, the giant portrait of Lincoln looming overhead.

A few hours later, Republican Tama Theis of St. Cloud was sworn in — filling another vacant seat after winning a Feb. 12 special election.

Both missed the freshman orientation that gets newbies ready to deal with the sometimes arcane process and rules of legislating, but Johnson said he’s fortunate that Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, is his legislative next-door neighbor.

“Luckily, Rep. Brynaert is part of the orientation committee, so she gave me some materials,” he said. “Rep. Brynaert has been fantastic.”

Brynaert said there’s great value in the orientation day at the Capitol and a three-day retreat for freshmen to learn about the expertise and resources available to lawmakers, to participate in mock committee hearings, to develop bonds with their classmates and much more. Plus, the session has been under way for six weeks and is picking up speed.

“In a certain regard, Clark’s been thrown into the fast and furious ocean wave that’s going on here,” said Brynaert, who’s in her fourth term in the House.

Johnson has one advantage over most newcomers to the Legislature. He knows where the bathrooms — and pretty much every other room in the Capitol — are located.

“What’s fun is I worked 23 years in Youth in Government,” he said. “I’ve been all over this building.”

Youth in Government, sponsored by the YMCA, provides a legislative experience for teenagers from across the state in January of each year — playing the role of lawmakers and other state officials in the Capitol just before the real session begins. Johnson said another adviser in the program told him it was a good progression: “Now you’ve moved from Youth in Government to Adults in Government.”

That experience, plus a long career at Minnesota State University helping train students to become high school social studies teachers, gives Johnson a better handle on government than other late-starting freshmen would have, Brynaert said.

The late arrival does bring one distinct disadvantage — being at the end of the line in picking an office, Brynaert said.

“I was assured he wasn’t in a broom closet,” she said.

Although Morrow’s office was gone, two of his committee assignments were still available. Johnson will replace Morrow, who resigned his seat in early January to take a job in Chicago, on the Agriculture and Transportation Finance committees.

Johnson also will serve on policy committees dealing with Health and Human Services and Environment and Natural Resources.