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Mitchell roots matter in Johnson's campaign

Mitchell resident and U.S. Congressional Representative candidate Dusty Johnson sits for a photo inside Cornerstone Coffee House and Deli. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Dusty Johnson has made Mitchell his home. And he's making it a big part of his campaign for Congress, as well.

It was a year ago today that Johnson launched his campaign from the Corn Palace in pursuit of South Dakota's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. And he said he's still committed to making his political dreams possible, starting from Mitchell.

"I do think it's important to campaign here," Johnson told The Daily Republic in an extensive interview this week. "In my experience, candidates lose when they take things for granted. Mitchell and really the entire surrounding trade area have been very good to my family and I. They've really stepped up financially and from a volunteer perspective, as well."

Johnson, 41, has made numerous visits to baseball games, track meets and town functions. He estimates he's shaken the hands of 250,000 South Dakotans and driven more than 100,000 miles in that time, criss-crossing the state for the vacancy created by U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem's run for governor.

That's not only been a method of getting around and being seen, he said, but hearing voters' concerns one-on-one.

"And frankly, those conversations are pretty valuable, too, because they're people that don't otherwise have your cell phone number," he said. "They just see you in the bread aisle and they grab you because they have something that they really want to ask you about."

And if he's elected to serve in Washington, D.C., that won't change, he said. The former state Public Utilities Commissioner and Chief of Staff for Gov. Dennis Daugaard said South Dakotans should have informal access to their members of Congress.

"In that way, if I'm elected, Mitchell will have sort of an outsized influence," Johnson said. "We're going to continue to live in Mitchell. My wife is going to continue to have her business in Mitchell. I'm going to continue buy bread in the bread aisle at County Fair. People can find me there. That's pretty powerful and I think that's the way it should be."

Johnson noted that would be a rare position for Mitchell. George McGovern famously carried the banner for the Corn Palace City for 22 years in Congress (18 in the U.S. Senate after four years in the U.S. House).

But first Johnson has a vigorous primary contest, facing Secretary of State Shantel Krebs, of Fort Pierre, and state Sen. Neal Tapio, of Watertown. The winner of the Republican primary on June 5 will take on Tim Bjorkman, of Canistota, who is the lone Democrat in the general election on Nov. 6.

Since resigning as the governor's chief of staff after the 2014 election, Johnson has worked as a vice president at Vantage Point Solutions in Mitchell. And he has not been afraid to involve his family — wife Jacquelyn and their three boys — in his campaign.

"We've had people ask how we're holding up and if we're going to make it, as if this is some sort of grand sacrifice," said Johnson, noting he's had a chance to work in little family vacations along the way. "In reality, if you like people, this is a heck of a lot of fun."

Aside from stuffing envelopes and walking in parades, the Johnson boys — Max, Ben and Owen — have starred in campaign advertising, including one where their father spells out the impact of the national debt on their own generation.

"They've had a lot of fun with it," Johnson said of his kids. "They've gotten a little more attention at school because of it, for sure."