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DL native Jeff Johnson working hard to win primary voters for governor

Jeff Johnson is the Republican-endorsed candidate for governor this year. Nathan Bowe/Tribune

Jeff Johnson, the endorsed Republican candidate for governor, is counting on party faithful and other people who pay attention to politics to help him carry the day on the hot summer primary election on Aug. 14.

His main rival in the primary, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, may be getting more than his share of Twin Cities media attention and donations, but that may not matter to those who show up to vote on Aug. 14, which is often a low-turnout primary, Johnson said.

He said Pawlenty "is not engaging at all, he's done maybe a campaign event a week, he's spending a bunch of money on attack ads against me that are less than honest.

Pawlenty spent $300,000 on an ad buy that Johnson said are "the single most dishonest political ad I've ever seen... if someone from my campaign brought me an ad this dishonest about Tim Pawlenty, I'd fire them."

Pawlenty has raised $2.1 million, and has $1 million left, while Johnson raised $306,000 and has $193,000 left to spend. The third candidate in the primary, Matt Kruse, has raised only a nominal amount.

Heavily outraised and outspent by Pawlenty, Johnson — a Hennepin County commissioner who grew up in Detroit Lakes — said he's going to win the old-fashioned way, by hitting the road and working hard.

"In a low-turnout primary, money is not a good indicator of who will win," he said. "Tim is not working hard, I don't know what his message is, and he did not get endorsed," Johnson said. "We're just trying to get out to meet voters face to face and tell them how we're going to make Minnesota better, that's a better strategy."

Johnson said the biggest issue he would tackle as governor is to "change the culture in St. Paul with state agencies—the DNR, the EPA, BOWSER, Human Services, Education, pretty much all of them," he said. "There are a lot of great state employees, without question, but there are also many who believe their job is to control and direct and tell everybody else how to live their lives, as opposed to serving the people who pay their salaries."

Johnson said the state needs to clean house. "That means who you choose in leadership for each agency is important, they have to have real-world experience and they have to be fearless," to make the changes that need to be made, he said.

"There are a lot of differences between Tim and me," Johnson said. "He tends to be less conservative than I am. The biggest difference is we didn't see any changes in culture or attitude in the state agencies (when he was governor) and the good things he did all disappeared when the Democrats took over, because there was nothing fundamental about his changes."

Born in Detroit Lakes, Johnson graduated from Detroit Lakes High School in 1985. He received a triple Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science/history in 1989 from Concordia College and attended Georgetown University Law School, earning a law degree in 1992.

Johnson then practiced at the law firms of Lord, Bissell and Brook in Chicago and Parsinen, Kaplan & Levy in Minneapolis. He joined Cargill in 1998, practicing employment and labor law until starting his own company, Midwest Employment Resources, providing employment law and human resources services to companies throughout the country.

In 2000, Johnson successfully ran for the Minnesota House of Representatives in district 34B, and served as Assistant Majority Leader from 2003 to 2007. In 2006 he ran for state attorney general, but lost to the DFL candidate Lori Swanson, now running for governor in the DFDL primary election.

In 2014, Johnson defeated three other serious Republican candidates in the primary election to become the party's nominee to challenge incumbent Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. He was defeated in the November general election by a six-point margin.

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