Sen. Johnson says redrawn districts could help break partisan gridlockHe said the problem is gerrymandering, a process by which congressional districts are drawn in bizarre shapes to place as many Republican or Democratic voters in them and virtually ensure success for the party that draws the borders.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Sen. Tim Johnson said redrawn congressional districts could help break the partisan gridlock in government.
“I’ve never seen it so divided and so partisan,” Johnson said Friday during a stop in Mitchell. He served 10 years in the U.S. House after serving eight years in the state Legislature. Johnson is in his third term in the Senate and noted that he has been in public office for 34 years.
He said the problem is gerrymandering, a process by which congressional districts are drawn in bizarre shapes to place as many Republican or Democratic voters in them and virtually ensure success for the party that draws the borders. It’s named for Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts governor who was ridiculed for drastically redrawn borders that benefitted his Democratic-Republican Party in state Senate elections.
Johnson said he is fed up with modern efforts to ensure candidates have safe seats.
“What we need is reform of the gerrymandering process,” Johnson said. “I would like to see a panel of bipartisan judges or whatever decide where the lines are drawn and not the legislatures or the Congress. Some states have gone down that route.”
He said with far left and far right politicians in office, little progress is made.
“The two parties, especially the House, can’t get along with each other,” Johnson said, while also noting the impact of lobbyists pushing for their pet issues. “It’s become more political because there are more groups up there taking positions on things.”
In addition, he said “campaigns nowadays cost a fortune” and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has brought “unlimited money” into politics with the addition of socalled super PACs who fund campaigns.
Johnson said moderates like him are increasingly few in number.
“The far left and far right win all the time, but we centrists have a difficult time winning,” he said.
But he said he has been able to win in a Republican state for more than two decades, and that shows a moderate can be successful. If election lines were drawn to include fair numbers of both parties, he added, it might mean more people like him would be in office.
Johnson said the tension and political discord don’t just cause gridlock. They also make Washington a difficult place to work, which he said reminded him of an earlier period of partisan warfare.
“The Gingrich years weren’t fun,” he said with a chuckle, referring to the fiery former House speaker who ran the House from 1995 to 1999.
Ironically, Gingrich had to shift congressional districts when the one he had represented was gerrymandered, forcing him to run in a new district.
While in Mitchell, Johnson conducted separate meetings with area school superintendents, The Daily Republic and local business and city government leaders.
Following are some of his comments on other issues.
House Speaker John Boehner should put the farm bill up for a vote in the House, Johnson said.
“Boehner is afraid that he doesn’t have enough votes without using Democrats,” he said. “I think Boehner is too afraid of the tea party and he’s reluctant to do anything that a huge majority of the Republicans, the tea party included, doesn’t approve of. He’s ignoring the Democrat votes that are there for the asking. I hope he comes to his senses and finds a bipartisan way. The Senate already has.
“There’s no reason to deny the farm bill when there’s a great need for bipartisanship.”
Johnson said he feels President Obama is underappreciated.
“Obama is wrong on some things but right on most things,” he said. “He’s a good person and I respect Obama.
“That is frustrating to me, that there is so little recognition of all that he has done: Closing off two wars, brought some 40 months of economic growth and saved the auto industry, and he’s been great on health issues and military issues in general. He’s come down hard on the big banks versus the community banks. And I have to respect him on that.”
He said the political climate, with Republicans pledging to make Obama a one-term president, explains why Obama hasn’t received more credit for his accomplishments.
Vice President Joe Biden is a close friend who Johnson feels did a good job in his debate with Republican VP candidate Rep. Paul Ryan.
“It was good. The word is that so far it was even, but it energized the Democrats after Obama’s dull debate,” Johnson said.
“I know (Biden) quite well. He is a friend of mine. In fact, when I had my AVM (a cerebral arteriovenous malformation), he got up there personally to see me numerous times and his wife Jill brought up a quilt for Barbara and me to keep warm with. He has a busy agenda, he was running for president at the time. I thought, doesn’t he have better things to do than see me?”
Both men have suffered brain injuries, he noted. In 1988, after dropping his first bid for the White House, Biden had a life-threatening aneurysm and two subsequent seizures. Johnson suffered his severe brain bleed on Dec. 13, 2006.
“He’s a good friend and ally and I respect him,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the stimulus effort in 2008 and 2009 was good for the country.
“It was more effective than people think,” he said. “There were some mistakes made. There was nothing in South Dakota that I apologize for.”
He said his former aide, Matt Varilek, is running a strong campaign against Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.
“It’s a close race, but I support Matt Varilek and wish him well,” Johnson said. “He’s a good guy, a bright guy, and he deserves to win.”
Noem and her supporters have tried to link Varilek to Obama, including during the congressional debate in Rapid City Friday.
“I remember the same trick was done to me,” Johnson said, saying efforts were made to tie him to President Clinton. “Respond if you can, but respond with the facts. He has nothing to do with Obama and his issues.”
Johnson continued to answer questions on his political future. His third term in the Senate ends in 2015, but he has declined to say if he will run in 2014.
“I’m not ready to announce re-election yet,” Johnson said. “It’s two yearsplus away. I’m working hard and I enjoy the Banking Committee, I enjoy the Appropriations Committee.”
He is the chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee as well as the Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans’ Affairs, and Related Agencies, and sits on 13 other committees and subcommittees.
Johnson said two things will happen whenever he leaves the Senate.
“I know I won’t be a lobbyist,” he said. “I will spend my time in South Dakota.”
His son, Brendan Johnson, South Dakota’s U.S. attorney, came to visit recently.
He had work to do in the area, the senator said. He added he has no idea if Brendan Johnson is considering a career in elective office.
“You’d have to ask him,” Sen. Johnson said. “He’d be good at politics, but I don’t know if he has any interest in it. Politics isn’t for everybody.”
He said he and his wife, Barbara, are recovering from their injuries after a pair of falls this summer. Johnson, who was wearing a sling, broke his right shoulder in a fall in his office, while Barbara Johnson broke a shoulder and wrist in a fall while running. “We had one good arm between us. She’s pretty much all healed,” he said. Johnson said he saw a doctor Thursday. “My health in general is excellent,” he said.
“The AVM is still there with consequences. Better than it was four years ago.
“I continue to get better. My speech is somewhat better, I’m told. It’s a long process. I don’t have any trouble with cognition. Sometimes I get frustrated with my speech or my mobility, but other than that, I feel good.”