Editor’s note: During November and December, Capitol Report is profiling all 65 of the newly elected members of the Minnesota Legislature.
Alice Johnson, Senate District 37
In Alice Johnson’s first run for the House in 1986, she faced a DFL primary against Stan Kowalski. Her opponent almost certainly enjoyed superior name recognition owing to his background as a professional wrestler — a career that included a stint in the tag-team duo Murder Incorporated.
Despite that impediment, Johnson won the contest by more than 40 percentage points. She faced a more serious threat in the general election, defeating Independent Republican Gordon Backlund by less than 2 percentage points. Johnson went on to serve seven terms representing Anoka and Ramsey counties, including stints as chairwoman of the K-12 Education Finance Division and the Sales & Income Tax Division. She even met her husband — former six-term DFL Rep. Richard Jefferson, who represented Minneapolis — while serving in the House.
In other words, nobody will have to show Johnson where the bathrooms are at the Capitol.
But it’s been more than a decade since Johnson last served in the Legislature. She’s not even close, however, to having the longest gap between legislative posts in state history. That would be Thomas Smullen, of the then-Farmer Party, who left the House in 1875 and returned to the Senate in 1931.
Part of what drove Johnson to seek a return to the Capitol was a perception that the level of civility and cross-party discourse has eroded significantly. “I saw all the bickering and the lack of willingness to work together and to compromise,” she said. “That was what concerned me a lot.”
Johnson cites her tenure as K-12 finance chairwoman as evidence of her ability to transcend partisanship. During that budget cycle, the DFL legislative majorities and GOP Gov. Arne Carlson negotiated a budget that increased per-pupil spending and provided greater flexibility to local school districts in how they used that money.
Prior to joining the Legislature in 1987, Johnson served on the Spring Lake Park City Council. Her resume also included a stint working as a secretary for the DFL House caucus.
In 2012, Johnson defeated first-term GOP Sen. Pam Wolf by 6 percentage points in a district that includes all of Blaine and parts of Coon Rapids and Spring Lake Park. She prevailed despite more than $150,000 in spending by GOP-aligned independent expenditure groups seeking her defeat.
Johnson’s top priority for committee assignments is a return to the education finance division. “That’s my first request, and the most important one for me,” she said.
In her free time, Johnson enjoys playing golf and traveling with her husband. Their most recent foreign trip took them to Mexico in 2011 to witness the Monarch butterfly migration.
Greg Clausen, Senate District 57
Democratic activists in the Apple Valley area sought out Greg Clausen four years ago. As a veteran school administrator with four decades of experience in education, they wanted him to consider challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Chris Gerlach for the Legislature in 2010. “Over the years I just started talking with people about politics, and as we talked they would say, ‘Jeez, you’ve got good ideas. You should think about running,’” Clausen said.
Clausen knew it would be an uphill battle. What was then Senate District 37 leaned Republican and had elected Gerlach to the Senate twice and to the state House three times before that. But things changed suddenly in March, when Gerlach announced his retirement after 14 years in the Legislature. The announcement came just days after it was revealed that Gerlach’s direct mail company, Capitol Direct, had sent out literature criticizing some of his fellow Republican senators for being reticent to back a right-to-work constitutional amendment.
The opening in what was now Senate District 57 (after redistricting) enticed Clausen to jump in the mix. He declared his candidacy just in time to win the DFL endorsement later that month, and Clausen went on to trump Republican nominee Pat Hall, the brother of Republican Sen. Dan Hall, by nearly 10 points.
His background is almost entirely in education. Clausen has worked as a teacher, coach and assistant principal at Apple Valley High School, and he was the Rosemount High School principal and district office administrator. He retired in 2008, but it wasn’t long before he was back at work again, writing grants and trying to secure federal funding for schools. Clausen is also a member of the Dakota County Affordable Housing Coalition and the Heading Home Dakota Committee to end homelessness.
Clausen says his experience as an educator and administrator has prepared him to help tackle the projected budget deficit and education issues in St. Paul. “That’s a high priority for me,” Clausen said. He would also like to serve on the Health and Human Services Committee after years of working with homeless groups in his community. “We really need to try and make sure people have the services they need to prevent homelessness,” he said.
He and his wife Bobbie have three grown children and three grandsons. Clausen earned his bachelor’s degree from Augsburg College and his master’s degree and an educational specialist degree in secondary administration from the University of St. Thomas.
Bobby Joe Champion, Senate District 59
After an orientation and meet-and-greet session for the incoming class of freshmen in the Senate, the new legislators were given a tour of the Capitol building. Bobby Joe Champion said his goodbyes and headed home to Minneapolis.
“I didn’t think I needed the tour,” Champion said. “I’ve actually been taking a tour of that building for a few years now.”
Indeed, with two terms as a state representative under his belt, Champion’s will be a familiar face to Capitol regulars. They should probably get used to having him around. Among the incoming class, Champion’s is one of the safest Senate seats in Minnesota. His Election Day success was virtually assured after he declared his intent to run in the Minneapolis district left open by the retirement of Sen. Linda Higgins. After a first-ballot win in the Senate District 59 endorsement contest, Champion coasted to victory in the general election with 82 percent of the vote.
His election maintains the slight level of diversity in the Senate; the retirement of Sen. John Harrington leaves Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, and Champion as the only black members of that body. Champion’s is the single most diverse district in the state and includes large African-American and Hispanic populations in north Minneapolis. In part due to that area’s longstanding issues of crime and poverty, Champion repeated a message he sent as a representative: He doesn’t “have the luxury” of identifying a singularly important issue to him or his district.
“The way I view my priorities, it’s really through a lens of improving the quality of life for my district,” he said.
Step one on the path, Champion said, involves taking a long look at cuts made to education programs over the last biennium. With the state’s economy apparently on surer footing this time around, Champion is eager to see spending rededicated to schools.
“In the last couple of years in the Legislature, there was so much focus on cutting,” Champion said.
To Champion’s way of thinking, the source of any restored funding, and the solution to the state’s challenge of designing a balanced budget, is rather obvious. Champion supports a progressive tax system and said he favors a plan wherein wealthy Minnesotans would “pay a little more as an investment toward improving all of our quality of life.”
A tax increase on high-income Minnesotans should be coupled with a thorough review of possible spending cuts, which Champion said he would consider as part of a mixed approach to shrinking the state’s $1 billion-plus deficit.
“We have to have the top income earners pay their fair share,” Champion said. “And we do have to balance that with some things that we have to cut — but not cut to the place where we destroy our quality of life.”
Foung Hawj, Senate District 67
Foung Hawj’s initial run for a Senate seat didn’t suggest that he had a bright future in electoral politics. In a crowded, nine-candidate DFL primary field in 2010, Hawj (pronounced “Her”) won just 10 percent of the vote, finishing in fifth place.
But that setback didn’t deter him from pursuing elective office. Even before Sen. John Harrington, who won that 2010 contest, announced that he wasn’t going to seek re-election, Hawj declared his intention to run for the post again. When Harrington bowed out, Hawj already had a jump on the DFL primary field.
This time around he faced just two other challengers: former St. Paul City Council member Tom Dimond and St. Paul city inspections official Robert Humphrey.
Perhaps more importantly, Hawj was the only Hmong candidate in the field. In 2010, four candidates of Hmong descent competed for votes from the ethnic bloc, which makes up a large portion of the population in this district on St. Paul’s East Side. This time around, Hawj secured endorsements from two of his former rivals. Ultimately he prevailed in the three-way primary with 44 percent of the vote.
Hawj becomes the only Hmong member of the Legislature. In 2002, Mee Moua became the first individual of Hmong descent in the country to win a state legislative seat. She was joined the following year by state Rep. Cy Thao. But both Hmong legislators opted not to run for re-election in 2010. Hawj is intimately familiar with that history; he produced a documentary, “The Time is Right for Mee,” that chronicled Moua’s groundbreaking campaign.
“I figured someone has to keep Hmong American history [alive],” Hawj said. “It’s a valuable resource for future generations.”
Hawj says his top legislative priority will be jobs and economic development. His blue-collar district has seen a steady reduction in manufacturing jobs in recent decades, including the shuttering of facilities run by 3M, Stroh Brewery and Whirlpool. He also hopes to work on issues related to the environment and telecommunications at the Capitol.
Hawj was born in Laos during the Vietnam War and emigrated to the United States as a child. He earned degrees from the University of Kansas and the Rochester Institute of Technology. For more than a decade, Hawj has run his own multimedia production firm, with clients that have included the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Hawj is a veteran DFL activist, serving two terms as a precinct chair in St. Paul. In the early ’90s he helped to found the party’s Hmong-American caucus.
In his free time, Hawj likes to fish and spend time on the water. He’s a frequent visitor to the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness.