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Democrats turn out to honor Johnson

VERMILLION -- Bernie Hunhoff remembers hearing about a young "country lawyer" who was making a remarkable impact in the Legislature in 1979.

That young lawyer was a freshman Democrat from Vermillion who was bringing up issues rarely discussed in the state Capitol then and now, said Hunhoff -- women's rights, children's rights, civil rights and health care.

That man was Tim Johnson.

"He stood out in Pierre," said Hunhoff, a longtime legislator who also ran for governor, and now serves as the Democratic leader in the state House.

He said Johnson's intellect, ability to forge compromises, and his talent for getting things done made him a politician worth watching. The other thing that was noteworthy was his lack of a need to take the credit.

"He's not so much a progressive or a conservative as he is a consensus builder," Hunhoff said. "He likes to get things done. That perfectly describes the career of Tim Johnson."

Several other prominent South Dakota Democrats attended Johnson's retirement announcement Tuesday at the University of South Dakota. They said they liked him as a friend, and admired him as a man who could win elections and get things accomplished.

Ben Nesselhuf, the chairman and executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said Johnson's quiet, friendly personal style and effectiveness as a legislator highlighted his long career.

"Tim always shied away from the limelight, keeping his head down and working hard for our state," Nesselhuf said. "... Johnson delivered without pomp, and that's why South Dakotans trusted him for so long to do the people's work in Washington."

Johnson said he feels that is a reason he was so successful in a state that has more Republicans than Democrats.

"I have maintained moderation," he said. "I won the middle of the campaign and left the left wing and far wing alone. I can't win them anyway. I'm proud of my record."

Matt Varilek, the Democratic candidate for the House in 2012 and an aide to Johnson before and after his campaign, assisted his boss when he entered the room.

The other Matt who ran for statewide office in 2012, Public Utilities Commission candidate Matt McGovern, was also at the announcement.

"He has done so much for South Dakota," McGovern said. "He's been a great public servant for the state."

Scott Heidepriem, the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010, also was in the crowd, and spoke with Johnson seconds after he ended the press conference.

Heidepriem said he first met Johnson in 1976, when he was the USD student body president and hired Johnson as a lawyer to assist students. Other lawyers applied, he said, but Johnson stood out.

Heidepriem later worked in the Legislature with Johnson when Heidepriem was elected to the state House in 1982. Johnson moved to the state Senate that year, and Heidepriem was a Republican, but he said the two of them worked well together then.

When Heidepriem switched parties, he became even closer with Johnson. He got to know the Johnson family even better when he was a law partner with Johnson's son, Brendan Johnson, for four years.

It wasn't just elected officials who celebrated Johnson's career and discussed their admiration for him on Tuesday.

Several of his staffers were in the room, and they talked about him, laughed as they recalled moments, and had tears on their faces at times. Johnson referred to them and his loyal supporters as "Team Johnson."

Drey Samuelson, Johnson's chief of staff and an aide and friend since the 1986 campaign for the U.S. House, watched the announcement from Washington, D.C. Samuelson said Johnson's health is better than it was when he ran for a third term and won in 2008, but Johnson felt it was time to go.

He said seeing Johnson working, talking with the press and living an active life is impressive. Samuelson said he recalls seeing Johnson unable to speak and barely able to move after a Dec. 13, 2006, brain hemorrhage.

"He's an inspiration to me, not just a boss," he said.