Life of law and politics shaped GOP governor hopeful Johnson

Jeff Johnson
Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, center, is greeted by his supporters after returning to a watch party, Aug. 14, 2018, in Plymouth.
Alex Kormann | Star Tribune via AP file

There was that time Jeff Johnson took on the Grim Reaper.

Technically, it was Grim Reaper Ltd., and Johnson's client, Jack-O-Lantern Inc., was in a contract dispute with the company.

"Who likes the Grim Reaper? That's a popular position," Johnson joked in a recent interview, where he struggled to remember any particulars in the case. It settled out of court.

There aren't readily available public documents from that case or the dozens of lawsuits Johnson worked on during his early days as a lawyer, first at firms in Chicago and Minneapolis and later at Twin Cities-based Cargill, the global agribusiness giant. The same is true for the consulting work he's done for companies since branching out on his own almost two decades ago.

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Better known for numerous roles in public life and party politics — three terms in the Legislature, three terms on the Hennepin County board and a stint on the Republican National Committee — Johnson is more guarded when it comes to his career in the law and subsequent days as a consultant who has traveled the country to conduct trainings and workplace investigations.

Citing confidentiality, Johnson shares little about clients he worked for, other than to say they ranged from small operations to Fortune 500 companies. But he's likely to lean on that experience if elected governor, particularly when it comes to steering executive-branch policies to deal with cases of sexual harassment and job-place discrimination.

With the #MeToo movement in full bloom, the issue of harassment in government and politics will almost certainly confront Minnesota's next governor, a job Johnson is running for against Democrat Tim Walz.

Johnson, 51, said his background will be an asset.

"An allegation by itself isn't enough," Johnson said. "You need to do the investigation, and if you are convinced that it happened or more than likely happened, you need to take action, and I certainly will."

Jeff Johnson at a news conference.
Jeff Johnson at a news conference outside a former state Workforce Center in Minneapolis.
Brian Bakst | MPR News file

'How not to get in trouble'

A Detroit Lakes, Minn., native, Johnson arrived at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C., in 1989 fresh out of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. He admits he wasn't sure what kind of law he even wanted to practice.

"I didn't have a clue," he said. "I just knew I wanted to be a lawyer."

But politics was already a constant. He volunteered on a Washington, D.C., mayoral campaign. And he was elected president of Georgetown's student bar association, citing it as his proudest achievement in a 1992 school yearbook.

He organized appearances by prominent speakers, including Green Party icon Ralph Nader and conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza.

It was a time when rules around affirmative action and the status of gay people in the military sparked big campus debates. Despite being president, Johnson found himself on the losing end of some propositions.

"The student body and the student government and the faculty were all extremely liberal," said Norm Semanko, a fellow conservative and fellow student bar leader at Georgetown. But he said Johnson didn't take the opposing views or the defeats personally.

"He definitely had a rudder and definitely was willing to listen to others," he added. "That is a great attribute of his."

After law school, Johnson said he ended up at the Chicago firm Lord, Bissell & Brook doing reinsurance work, "which that's about as boring as you can possibly get in the law."

He welcomed a chance to move back to Minnesota to take a job at what was then the Parsinen, Kaplan & Levy firm in Minneapolis. Still a "baby lawyer" at the time, Johnson said he assisted the firm with larger employment law cases dealing with discrimination or harassment, usually from the employer's side.

"It's usually a woman, and there's allegations of a lot of inappropriate actions and comments that take place, and it becomes a he-said, she-said sort of situation," he said. "That's what a lot of these cases look like, and we still see those today."

He said 90 percent of his cases he's worked on in his life were settled in mediation, meaning he rarely saw himself inside a courtroom.

In the late 1990s, Johnson went on to work as in-house counsel at Cargill. There, he worked on labor negotiations and started doing more training, traveling the nation to train managers in the company "how not to get in trouble," he said.

Charting his own course

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson speaks to delegates.
Jeff Johnson speaks to delegates at the 2018 Republican Party state convention at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

Johnson's election to the Minnesota House in 2000 meant the end of his time at Cargill — he said he couldn't accommodate the traveling part of his job with Cargill and be a legislator — but he decided to keep the training piece of his work going.

In 2001, he founded Midwest Employment Resources Inc., conducting training and investigations into allegations of harassment or discrimination in the workplace. Johnson doesn't have any employees or a business website, and he won't disclose his clients due to the often-sensitive nature of his work, he said.

According to Johnson, he's been hired by Fortune 500 companies all the way down to small mom-and-pop shops with fewer than 20 employees to do training and investigations.

"I could spend 15 to 20 hours on one [investigation], or I could spend 100 to 150 hours, depending on how complex it is," he said.

Johnson said he interviews all parties involved to figure out what happened, and then hands his report off to the company that hired him. He has no role in handing out discipline.

Jeff Johnson, who shares the candidate's name but is the head of the Minnesota Continuing Legal Education chapter, said he's hired candidate Johnson to help teach classes on employment law for human resources professionals and attorneys trying to keep their licenses.

"He taught for us full day courses for us by himself, so you've got to be kind of engaging to keep an audience for a full day," he said. "The audience always seems to appreciate him. He got good ratings, which matters to us."

In materials from a 2016 presentation in Oregon, now-candidate Johnson describes how to properly "deliver a termination message." "Be decisive, honest and BRIEF..." the materials read. "Candy-coating the reasons for termination might seem easier at the time, but it runs the risk of creating significant problems on the witness stand if a dispute arises."

#MeToo in St. Paul

Johnson left the Minnesota Legislature in 2006, but back then, he said there were problems with harassment on "both sides of the aisle."

The conversation over harassment in state politics didn't open up until late last year, when two male legislators resigned following allegations they sexually harassed women. Another representative is seeking re-election amid a House investigation into an allegation he made advances toward a young woman.

Last month, GOP state Rep. Jim Knoblach suspended his re-election bid as he faced allegations of inappropriate behavior from his daughter, which he denied.

Johnson said there are changes that can be made in any workplace, and the first thing he usually recommends to a business is more training for employees.

"It's just crucial," he said. "It's amazing to me how many people still don't seem to understand what you can't do in the workplace. It blows my mind."

When he first got to the House, Johnson said there was no regular harassment training plan in place. He offered to do in-house training for his peers, which he did for several years.

He also said he supports a proposal from current DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, whom Johnson unsuccessfully challenged in 2014, to create a central office to receive, investigate and follow up on sexual harassment complaints in state agencies.

"A central location probably makes sense because you then have one standard for everybody and you can be certain that you have effective, professional people serving in that role," Johnson said.

Overall, Johnson is supportive of the #MeToo movement. He's glad women and men are speaking up more about behavior they've seen in workplaces, sparking a national conversation about what's appropriate behavior.

But he's worried the investigative piece of looking into allegations has been overlooked as part of the debate.

"I have seen situations where an allegation means guilt, and that's not the way it's supposed to work," he said. "Where there's an allegation, therefore this person must be fired or this person must resign. My response is: 'Well, if it's true, of course that should be the case, but let's find out if it's true first."

Johnson, Walz on handling sex harassment complaints state agencies

Last year, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton ordered a review of how his agencies have been handling sexual harassment cases. What he found was a system where each agency handles complaints differently, with little structure and follow through for victims.

Dayton proposed creating a centralized office to receive, investigate and follow up on any complaints, but later vetoed $4 million in funding because the Republican-controlled Legislature tied it to other measures he opposed.

Here's how Republican Jeff Johnson and Democrat Tim Walz say they'd handle the issue as governor.

Jeff Johnson

"A central location actually probably makes sense because you then have one standard for everybody and you can be certain that you have effective, professional people serving in that role. As long as there is also an alternative for people within in that agency, if for some they don't want to go to that central location, they can still talk to someone in the agency, who can then talk to someone in that central location. I think that would work better probably than what we are doing now."

Tim Walz

"Sexual harassment in the workplace is pervasive across all industries, including state government. We must ensure Minnesota's Executive Branch serves as a model for how to provide a safe, respectful workplace for every employee. That's why I support creating a centralized office within the Executive Branch that ensures sexual harassment violations are taken seriously and treated consistently across all state agencies."