A new face: Mark Johnson takes over for longtime Minnesota lawmaker
After 34 years, Minnesota's Senate District 1 will have new leadership when the state Legislature convenes in January.
Republican Mark Johnson, an East Grand Forks attorney, will take the reins from LeRoy Stumpf, a longtime Democratic lawmaker who announced his retirement in February. That news sparked a six-way race for the Republican endorsement, which Johnson ultimately won.
Johnson fended off a primary election challenge and eventually defeated the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate, Kip Fontaine, with 61.4 percent of the vote on Nov. 8. He will represent the northwestern Minnesota counties of Polk, Red Lake, Pennington, Marshall, Kittson and Roseau in the state Senate.
After a long campaign season, Johnson is preparing for his first session in St. Paul, where he wants to work on issues such as health insurance and infrastructure. Just a couple of weeks before the election, the federal government announced Minnesota's individual health insurance market would see average premium increases of 59 percent.
"If we don't do roads and bridges, if we don't fix infrastructure, people will be upset," Johnson said from his small law office in downtown East Grand Forks. "But if we don't do health care, that's really going to hurt."
Johnson comes to office with far less experience and name recognition than his predecessor. Late in his career, Stumpf chaired the powerful Senate Capital Investment Committee, which handles proposals for public infrastructure projects in the bonding bill.
Johnson acknowledged he won't carry the same weight around the Capitol hallways that Stumpf did, but he said he and his Republican colleagues will be "in tune" with rural issues. The new Senate majority leader is Paul Gazelka, a Republican from Nisswa, which is just north of Brainerd.
"As an individual, it will be tough to make the impact that LeRoy did," Johnson said. "But now that I'm part of a group of strong rural senators, that makes a big difference."
For Stumpf's part, he hopes new lawmakers can work with their colleagues from the opposite party, something he was known for doing in his time in office.
"I think it's the center where we need to focus," he said. "I think that's where the future is for bipartisan work."
Already holding a majority in the Minnesota House, Republicans gained control of the state Senate with the help of Johnson's victory. Johnson hopes the new legislative makeup will help give Republicans some leverage over Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who is entering the last two years of his term.
Johnson said it was frustrating to watch the ending of the most recent legislative session, which ended without the passage of several major bills.
"Maybe we'll be able to work with (Dayton) a little bit more," he said. "It should be an interesting time."
Raised in the Mentor, Minn., area, Johnson graduated from Bethel University in St. Paul before earning a law degree from UND. Since 2012, he's lived in East Grand Forks, where he and his wife, Skyler, are partners in Sage Legal. Johnson is also a partner with his father in the family concrete business in Mentor.
Johnson will be the first state senator to reside in East Grand Forks at the time he was elected since Louis Murray, who served in the Minnesota Senate from 1951 to 1962, according to legislative records.
Johnson has been involved with the local Republican Party for a few years, and he said Stumpf's retirement announcement helped spark his run for office. Despite the district's conservative leanings—it sided with Mitt Romney in 2012—Stumpf had proved difficult to defeat.
Johnson said it was a good year for Republicans with the "Trump factor" behind them. In Minnesota's Seventh Congressional District, which covers the western side of the state, Donald Trump collected 61.4 percent of the vote, 7.7 more percentage points than Romney earned in that district in 2012.
Stumpf's experience and chairmanships also gave voters fewer reasons to make a change in previous elections, Johnson said.
"But when they're out, I think then people look at the distinction between ... a Republican platform or a DFL platform," he said.
Stumpf said the message of change seemed to resonate with voters here and elsewhere.
"It's a much easier thing to say than to actually do," he said. "So we'll see what kind of change occurs."