Weather Forecast


LAWRENCE: Politics continues to be a family affair in SD

Brendan Johnson isn't running for anything. Today, anyway.

Not the Senate. Or the House. Or governor, attorney general or anything else. Not yet.

After talking with him recently, I am clear on that. He remains consistent that as South Dakota's U.S. attorney, he enjoys his work, and is not ready to make an announcement that he is entering the political field his father, Sen. Tim Johnson, is leaving.

Will he jump into a race in 2014? Maybe, maybe not. A Draft Brendan committee has been formed, and he is aware of that.

Will he run for an office someday, if not next year, another time? I would bet a lot of money on that. This is a political animal at heart. He is 37 years old, and his dad has been running for or serving in office almost his entire life. He grew up around it.

His wife, Dr. Jana Johnson, is the daughter of Jim Beddow, the former Dakota Wesleyan University president who was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1994. I covered that race and remember Beddow, a sincere-sounding, hard-working candidate who had almost no chance against Bill Janklow, who was making his triumphant return to the Capitol.

It's safe to say politics is a family tradition for Brendan and Jana Johnson. That's very similar to former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who served more than six years in the House. Her grandfather Ralph was one of four Democrats elected governor in South Dakota, winning a term in 1958.

Her grandmother Lorna was South Dakota's secretary of state from 1973 to 1977, winning two terms. Herseth Sandlin once told me of spending time in Pierre with her widowed grandmother, talking about life and politics.

Lars Herseth is Stephanie's dad. He was a longtime Democratic legislator who was the party's candidate for governor in 1986, losing in a fairly close race to George S. Mickelson, who himself was the son of a governor.

Family ties abound in South Dakota politics. Mickelson's middle name was Speaker, since his dad, also named George, was speaker of the House when he was born.

George S. Mickelson was in his second term as governor when he died 20 years ago this spring in a tragic plane crash. His son carries the family name George, but goes by Mark Mickelson, and is a freshman legislator from Sioux Falls.

The Mickelsons, Herseths and Johnsons have played roles in South Dakota politics for decades, and that seems unlikely to end anytime soon.

Brendan Johnson and I mostly talked about baseball -- we share a devotion to the old, successful Kansas City Royals of the 1980s -- as I tried unsuccessfully to weasel a quote out of him about the 2014 race.

But Johnson once more declined to discuss any race, saying as the U.S. attorney he must remain apart from politics. At least for now, in my view. I asked him if I should check daily to see if he has resigned, and he chuckled in response.

He said he wanted to clear the air on reports that he and his father have an icy relationship with Herseth Sandlin. It's been said that she was disappointed when Tim Johnson sought a third term in 2008, two years after his brain hemorrhage, and wanted to run for the Senate then herself.

Since that time, the story goes, the Johnsons and Herseth Sandlin have been at sword-point.

"That is not true at all. I like and admire Stephanie," Brendan said. "I have all the respect in the world for her."

Herseth Sandlin has expressed admiration for Tim Johnson repeatedly, and did so again recently, when South Dakota's senior senator made it official: He won't run in 2014.

Now, this will surely disappoint the GOP and its online troops, who are eager to stir up a battle between the two. And it still may happen if they set their sights on the same race, and wind up in a Democratic primary.

South Dakota's Democrats are trying to create the same fracas between former Gov. Mike Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem. They are hoping those two end up in a squabble and a primary.

Rounds and Noem have also said they like and admire each other. That doesn't mean they won't end up battling for the Senate nomination in 14 months.

Right now, Rounds said he's running for the Senate seat Tim Johnson is vacating. Noem is pondering her options, and Herseth Sandlin hasn't indicated what, if anything, she will run for in 2014. And Brendan Johnson is prohibited from talking politics publicly.

Things could change soon. Names, and elbows, could be thrown. But right now, Brendan Johnson says don't believe the hype.

It's also well worth noting that in March 2009, no one was discussing a state legislator from rural Castlewood as South Dakota's next member of Congress, but Kristi Noem ended up in that seat. A surprise candidate could emerge in either or both parties.

Maybe we should check with people with the last names Janklow, Kneip or Daschle.