Retired county commissioner reflects upon nearly 4 decades of service

What does a guy do after serving nearly four decades on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners?

In Randy Johnson’s case, the answer was take a long vacation, longer than the rigorous county board schedule ever allowed. His destination: Florida.

That prolonged winter exodus was followed by more recreational travel, this time to Vancouver, Canada, where his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren live.

Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson

And even in retirement from the county board, frugality still guides Johnson in his decision-making.

That condominium Johnson and his wife rented in Florida? It came at a discount because the pool was out of commission this winter for reconstruction. Their flight to Vancouver? It didn’t go that far. Experience has proven that it’s more economical to fly into Seattle and complete the trek by car, Johnson explained.

But there were plenty of reminders from his 38 years on the county board waiting for Johnson when he returned from Vancouver this spring. He has boxes of files, mementos and other keepsakes from his tenure, waiting to be sorted and disseminated.

Johnson amassed approximately 1,100 boxes of records and other documents during his county board career, and whittled the collection down to about 150 by the end of last year. He knew by Thanksgiving he wouldn’t get the job done prior to departing for Florida, so he rented a storage unit to warehouse the remaining boxes.

“That’s my ongoing project,” he said.

His archives included everything from travel records dating back to 1979, his first year on the county board, to copies of congressional testimony he gave in Washington, D.C, and “most of it brings back really good memories,” he noted.

Many of the important documents he wants to hold onto in some fashion have been scanned into digital files, an option that didn’t exist in 1979. Much like the county he governed, Johnson has changed with the times.

“At least once a year, digitize your files,” he said.

Unexpected career

Johnson was an attorney living in Bloomington when a county board opportunity presented itself in 1978. His predecessor, Tom Ticen, shocked his supporters when he announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the board, Johnson recalled. Having been involved in politics in high school, including attending county board meetings, Johnson realized county governance was the area he was most interested in serving, should he ever seek elected office, he said.

Johnson was living in Bloomington at the time, but working in Washington, D.C., as assistant general counsel to the Federal Election Commission. Johnson flew home shortly after Ticen’s announcement, made a few phone calls and announced his candidacy for the seat.

To political handicappers, Johnson didn’t stand a chance, he recalled. He did have Ticen’s support, despite the fact Ticen was a strong Democrat and Johnson had the Republic Party’s endorsement. Johnson had been active in political campaigns prior to his run for the county board, but he didn’t have an elected or appointed office to point to in support of his candidacy, he noted.

And he was running against Gertrude Ulrich, a well-connected, well-known Richfield resident. Her political and community connections were responsible for Johnson’s underdog status, but he persevered, and learned a few important things through his campaign experience. One of the most important things: Don’t door-knock during Minnesota Vikings games.

Johnson would be elected to the board 11 times, and he was unopposed in four of those elections. Nobody envisions holding an elected office longer than many people spend in their professional career, and that includes Johnson. He expected to serve one or two terms on the board and go back to practicing law, but the appeal of county board service remained strong.

“I liked what I was doing,” he said. “I liked the issues that the county is involved in.”

Transportation matters, public health and solid waste are among the many issues Johnson became well versed in during his county board career. And he was involved in memorable decisions that had significant impacts upon the county.

Merging the Hennepin County and Minneapolis library systems was not without controversy, according to Johnson. City-run suburban libraries had long been merged into a countywide system, and the Minneapolis and Hennepin County systems worked well together, while maintaining their autonomy.

Residents of Minneapolis saw their library system as a crown jewel of the city and didn’t want countywide governance diminishing the importance and value of the system, which was struggling to maintain its neighborhood libraries in the early 2000s, he recalled.

The conversation was not a new one, but the closing of neighborhood libraries in Minneapolis, at the rate of about one per year, prompted the merger. County residents weren’t necessarily supportive of the idea, as they viewed it as a bailout of sorts for the Minneapolis system, Johnson explained.

The merger of libraries was one of many controversial issues that the county board faced. The county followed the lead of a few suburban cities during the 1990s in prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants. The issue generated more public testimony than the financing of a Minnesota Twins ballpark several years later, according to Johnson.

Opponents argued that the issue should be decided at the state level, yet the state balked at moving ahead. The county went ahead, and eventually the state followed suit. To this day, Johnson hears from opponents of the idea who appreciate the effort the county made in leading the movement, he said.

For Johnson, the choice was easy. He was a longtime opponent of smoking in public places and had a “no smoking” sign placed on the door of his office in 1979, at a time when smoking in county buildings was permitted. The times changed, but the sign remained on his door until his retirement in December, he noted.

The county makes major decisions and oversees a prominent medical center that wields great influence upon health care throughout Minnesota, and beyond. Yet sometimes the county’s issues and decisions take a backseat to city council and state legislative issues. The county’s governance has been described as invisible at times, and Johnson has a theory for why that is. “It’s very well run,” he said, noting that Hennepin is frequently touted as one of the best-run large counties in the country.

Satisfaction

Johnson was encouraged to seek higher office on a few occasions, but he declined. He was satisfied with his role as a county commissioner. “I never looked at it as a stepping stone position,” he said.

When Bill Frenzel decided to step down from the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990, people encouraged Johnson to run. He knew the rigors of flying back and forth between Minnesota and Washington, D.C., on behalf of the National Association of Counties, and didn’t see the national stage as particularly appealing, especially given the fact his daughters were in elementary school at the time. Besides, he would have been a small fish in a big pond as a U.S. representative, where seniority plays a major role in the issues you’re most involved in.

At the county, Johnson was working on issues of importance to him, he was one of seven people involved in the decision-making, and the issues he concentrated on weren’t dictated by seniority, he explained.

When Dave Durenberger retired from the U.S. Senate in the mid-1990s, he was encouraged to seek higher office yet again. Having worked on Durenberger’s first two campaigns, he knew the rigors of canvassing the entire state for votes and chose to continue focusing his efforts at the county level.

Life after

Johnson considers himself an attorney who took a detour into public service rather than a politician with a law degree. He has maintained his attorney’s license, and that’s not going to change in retirement from the county board.

He plans to continue his involvement with the National Association of Counties, and will attend its national convention in Ohio this summer. He will also maintain his membership with the National Council for Science and the Environment, having served on its board for most of its existence, he noted.

And he plans to spend more time in those libraries he has helped oversee, as a volunteer.

Knowing the ropes

Johnson represented multiple cities and has called Bloomington home since 1975. Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead praised Johnson’s ability to consult and advise Bloomington officials regarding opportunities available in conjunction with the county, from bonding for the construction of a new hotel to bringing county social services to a facility shared with the Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People headquarters.

If there was an opportunity that affected his district, “Randy could shepherd it and really got the job done,” Winstead said. “Randy was always one who knew his community and represented it well,” he added.

“We got more than our fair share in the city of Bloomington.”