Wisconsin an issue in Minnesota governor’s race

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson addresses supporters after winning the GOP endorsement for  governor. Tom Scheck/MPR News

Minnesota Democrats are using some remarks Jeff Johnson made about Wisconsin to rile up opposition to the Republican endorsed candidate for governor.

Johnson told a tea party group recently that he’d like to implement Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s policies here. That has Democrats upset, but Johnson isn’t backing down.

Walker’s push to remove collective bargaining rights from most public employees set off a firestorm of protests across the Badger State in 2011. Republicans and business leaders praised Walker for what they said was putting taxpayers ahead of unions. But Democrats and their allies said Walker was trying to bust unions.

That debate is now front and center in Minnesota’s race for governor after Johnson brought up Walker’s record at a tea party event in May.

“My plan would be to go all Scott Walker on Minnesota,” said Johnson as he pledged to help elect Republicans to the Legislature to win control from Democrats. “He has a Republican House and a Republican Senate. And that’s where we really change things.”

In an interview, Johnson didn’t back off his support for Walker’s policies but said his governing style would be different from Walker’s.

“I do agree with most of his policies,” Johnson said. “I do think his approach has been more abrupt than it should have been.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

Johnson said as governor he’d have to work with a DFL-controlled Senate for at least two years that would oppose any changes to collective bargaining. But he added that he thinks Walker’s ideas are working.

“There were allegations that his changes would destroy unions and essentially be the end of the world for some things,” he said. “What it’s actually done is give more expendable income to school districts that they could spend on teachers and they can spend on the classroom as opposed to other things that they were going to.”

Johnson said Democrats are using his comments about Walker to mobilize their supporters.

It appears to be working.

Democrats, DFL-aligned groups and public employee unions have been quick to criticize Johnson.

St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Mary Cathryn Ricker said she doesn’t believe that there’s any evidence Walker’s policies are providing more money for local school districts. Her union will have extra motivation to re-elect DFL Gov. Mark Dayton if Johnson wins the Republican primary, she said.

“This will certainly be something that lands on their radar screen,” Ricker said,  “and if anything it will just reinforce the convictions of wanting someone who believes teachers, trusts teachers and wants to hear our ideas.”

Democrats will highlight Johnson’s comments throughout the campaign, said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. He said he’s happy to compare Wisconsin’s economy under Walker with Minnesota’s under Dayton.

“I think it’s ironic that suddenly Wisconsin has become the rallying point for the Tea Party and for Republican groups in this state because in every indicator by comparison, Minnesota is doing far better than Wisconsin at this point,” said Martin. “Why would you want to be Wisconsin?”

While Democrats are criticizing Johnson’s comments, some Republicans are praising them. North Metro Tea Party coordinator Jack Rogers said he believes unions and others complaining about Walker’s policies are worried about losing union dues if similar policies are enacted in Minnesota.

“It’s not about taking care of particular groups of people. It’s about what takes care of the individual. Jeff Johnson is very aware of stepping in and doing that,” Rogers said. “If that causes a group a problem because it takes away political power or muscle power or money power from them, God bless him for doing it.”

Rogers said the tea party has not formally endorsed a candidate for governor, but he says he and many other tea party members are backing Johnson in the upcoming Aug. 12 primary.

Johnson is running against Orono businessman Scott Honour, former state Rep. Marty Seifert and Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

  • P Gustaf

    If I was a Democrat, I’d be tickled by this remark. Wisconsin’s economic performance has been mediocre under Walker, and Minnesota’s has been pretty good under Dayton. They should play this on loop until the election.