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2006 was a bittersweet election for both parties

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2006 was a bittersweet election for both parties
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Bittersweet is how some are describing the mix of wins and losses by Democrats and Republicans in Tuesday's general election.


Massive wins by Minnesota DFL candidates in legislative races and constitutional offices were offset by the defeat of the party's most powerful player: Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar.

Likewise, the loss of Republican seats was offset by the victory of Gov. Tim Pawlenty

"It was a bittersweet evening for everybody," said Rollie Nissen, co-chair of the Kandiyohi County Republican Party. He said he was pleased that Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, defeated Johnson and happy that Pawlenty was re-elected. He expressed disappointed with Republican losses elsewhere in the state.

Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, also called the election results "very, very bitttersweet."

Rest, who has served as assistant majority leader alongside Johnson for the past two years, said the DFL caucus "is just reeling" from losing Johnson.

"He sacrificed his political career for all the rest of us. We're grieving, quite frankly," Rest said. "We're very sad."

The DFL caucus will meet today to discuss the losses and gains in the House and Senate. Rest said they will discuss the issue of new Senate leadership but said a decision on who would take Johnson's place as majority leader would not be made.

Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, said Johnson "did the best job that he could" as majority leader during difficult circumstances by holding together "divergent" parts of the caucus. Kubly said "that kind of leadership will be difficult to come by" and he doesn't know who will replace him in the top job.

Sam Nelson, chairman of the Kandiyohi County DFL, said local party leaders will have to "regroup" and "do some analysis" of why Johnson was defeated and start planning for the 2010 election.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said the day following the election was "a hard day" with mixed emotions about Democratic wins across Minnesota and the county combined with Gimse's win over Johnson. "I'm emotionally spent when I think about Dean and his race," said Juhnke, who said he'll have to work "doubly hard" in the House to gain ground for District 13.

Juhnke and Johnson were usually seen together at local events where legislative issues were discussed. "People know how hard he worked and how well we teamed up," Juhnke said.

It's not just Democrats who say they are sad to see Johnson leave office.

District 18 Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, gave his congratulations to Gimse but said Johnson was a "very good legislator and good for Minnesota and agriculture."

Dille said the absence of both Johnson and Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples, will mean a loss for rural Minnesota's agricultural issues. Sams was defeated for re-election in District 11.

Dille said Johnson's loss wasn't a total surprise. "I knew there were heavy-duty problems over there," Dille said, citing Johnson's "mistake" by adjourning a special session early one year and for resisting requests to put the marriage amendment on the ballot.

Nissen said voters' response to Johnson's tape-recorded comments that Supreme Court justices had assured him the state's existing marriage law would not be overturned took a greater toll than Johnson may have realized.

There was an uproar at the time because justices are not allowed to talk about issues that may come before them, and the justices denied that such conversations ever took place. Johnson eventually apologized to the Senate to settle an ethics investigation and called the comments "an embellishment."

Nissen said it was a major factor in Johnson's defeat Tuesday.

The Minnesota Family Council agrees. In a news release, the council said Johnson's admission to "sanding off the truth" in the matter apparently contributed to his defeat.

"We warned Senator Johnson that his constituents supported the Minnesota Marriage Amendment," said Chuck Darrell, director of communication for the Minnesota Family Council.

The Minnesota Family Council launched a direct mail campaign in the district, the release said, and conducted a get-out-the-vote drive on the eve of the election.

Rest said the campaign between Gimse and Johnson "devolved into personal attacks based on some social issues" that the candidates differed little on. She said both are pro-life and support traditional marriage.

Jeff Davis, president of the Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage, said his organization "achieved an historic victory" by helping to defeat Johnson and Sams. The group, which sought to have the marriage amendment on the ballot, campaigned against four Democrats and was successful in ousting two incumbents.

Davis said the voters decided that "marriage matters in Minnesota" and they "won't put up with someone who repeatedly obstructs" putting the marriage amendment on the ballot.

The group supported Gimse who signed the "marriage protection pledge," said Davis, adding that Johnson was "blatantly on the wrong side of the issue."

Both candidates spent considerable funds on campaign advertising, and political parties and political action groups spent money on the candidates' behalf.

"A lot of money was spent on both sides," said Nissen, and "both sides were guilty of over-exaggeration on some parts."

Dille and Juhnke both said that winning and losing is part of the political game. Dille said Johnson, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1978, has had a successful political career.

Life is full of "ups and downs and that's no different for Dean Johnson," said Dille. Johnson has had a "long history of winning," but politicians needs to know how to win and lose, he said.

Although Gimse will be the new kid on the block, Nissen said he's confident Gimse will "fight hard for what the district needs."

Rest called Johnson "a decent man, a nice guy and a great leader for us." She said he was a "great friend to everyone" and a "great counselor and comforter to many of us."

Johnson did not return repeated phone calls Tuesday and Wednesday from the Tribune. He issued a press release Wednesday. (See related story.)

Also, calls to Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, the Senate minority leader, were not returned.

Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750