In 1986, Top Gun ruled the box office, "Cheers" was on TV and Van Halen was on the radio. And, the Johnson family of Vermillion was moving to the nation's capital so their dad could represent South Dakota in Congress.

The children -- now grown -- remember a really long ride in a Dodge Caravan across the country after Tim Johnson had won South Dakota's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"We had our cat with us, and we could not get that cat out of the car," recalled Brendan Johnson, then 11. "When we arrived in Washington, D.C., that whole Beltway thing, I remember we missed our exit, and we didn't know it was just this big, long circle that would take hours. We drove around for a couple of hours trying to find our new home."

Tim Johnson is now on the verge of retiring from his three terms in the U.S. Senate. Johnson's retirement brings to a close the career of the longest-serving Democrat from South Dakota in Congress.

The adventure began for Johnson and his family 28 years ago.

Kelsey Johnson, then 5, also remembers the long car ride.

"I was just 5, so (I remember) very little except a very long ride packed together in our minivan," said Kelsey, who now lives in Sioux Falls. "Our folks worked hard to make our lives normal. We ate dinner together most every night, and Dad worked his travel schedule around soccer games and birthday parties."

Their mother, Barb Johnson, agreed that family was a priority for her husband, saying that the schedulers on his staff knew not to sign him up for events that conflicted with family events.

"Any scheduler will tell you that as soon as the sports schedule came out, they got that and everything went around that," Barb said.

At least once, that family commitment had some political fallout.

"I was wrestling in the state tournament, semifinals," said Brendan, now the U.S. Attorney for South Dakota. "I remember Bill or Hillary or some important political figure was going to be in South Dakota. My father said, 'No, I've got to stay here and watch my son wrestle.' He got some political grief, and people said didn't want to be back in South Dakota with someone who is not politically popular."

For Brendan, the grief was worth it.

"He always made sure he was there for big events. I think my senior year, he only missed one football game and very few wrestling matches. That meant a lot to me."

The oldest of the three Johnson siblings, Brooks, who lives in the Boston area, did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Republic.

Both Brendan and Kelsey said their friends were generally unaware that their father served in Congress, and family members said that would have been a bigger factor had they stayed in South Dakota.

"Living outside of South Dakota, I didn't see him in the news or on TV or in campaign ads, so he was just my dad. I was pretty oblivious to anything else," said Kelsey.

Brendan said: "I don't remember it being a big deal at all to people in our neighborhood or where we went to school. It would have been a bigger deal had we stayed in South Dakota. In the fifth, sixth and seventh grade, I'm not sure many of my friends really knew what my father did."

The early years

Barb remembers the children fearing they would be living in downtown Washington, D.C.

"When we brought them out here when Tim was sworn in, we had a hotel that weekend. They thought we were going to live down there," Barb said. "When we got out here and they saw they had a neighborhood where they could walk over and fish, walk to their schools, they relaxed."

For Tim, a lawyer and state legislator, moving to Washington was a momentous career change.

"It was a thrilling experience. I was very excited," Johnson remembers.

Former Sen. Tom Daschle, whom Johnson replaced in the U.S. House, remembers those early days, with the two Democrats planning which committees would be best for Johnson.

Daschle, who had won election to Congress in 1978, was a mentor, but he also was welcoming someone who had supported him early in his career.

"I recall vividly that I was excited about the chance to be in the Senate and work with somebody in the House I felt personally very close to. I knew we would be a good team right out of the box," Daschle said. "Tim and Barb and I had been close for years. They held one of the very first fundraisers for me in 1977."

Johnson is often noted for his low-key style in a high-octane profession, something Daschle said public policy could use more of.

"He defies the conventional wisdom, that you've always got to make news and make a splash and instill in some ways that you're bigger than life," Daschle said. "He defies all of those generic stereotypes about politicians. It's to his credit. As people are looking for different role models in politics, there's a lot to be said about the Johnson role model."

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., agrees.

"Tim is smart and quiet. He always did his homework and knew the issues. He wasn't out seeking publicity, he was seeking solutions," Dorgan said. "We always had a great partnership, Kent Conrad and myself, Tom and Tim. We worked very closely together."

NSU's Schaff said Johnson might owe his long career to his humility.

"Sen. Johnson clearly chose a career path focused on legislation and constituency service rather than prominence nationally," Schaff said. "I think that served him in good stead as it kept him out of national controversies that, as a Democrat in a Republican state, could have only hurt him. He didn't really get tied to the national party in a way that Daschle and (Stephanie) Herseth-Sandlin eventually did."

Johnson's longevity is noteworthy both for himself -- "I've never been defeated," he says -- and also as a signpost on a changing political landscape.

Daschle, who served 26 years in Congress to Johnson's 28 years, said that senators with decades-long careers are no longer the norm.

"It's less and less typical. In the older days, people stayed for awhile -- Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, so many of the historic figures," Daschle said. "That's less and less the case these days. There's a lot more turnover."

Then Daschle adds: "Tim might have some kind of record for a Democrat surviving in a red state."

Fresh water for everyone

After he moved to the Senate in 1997, Johnson and Daschle teamed up, with Daschle climbing the leadership ladder and Johnson nabbing a seat on the coveted Appropriations Committee.

His seat on that committee played a significant role in what several people noted as one of his major career achievements -- funding for water development.

From the ongoing Lewis & Clark project to the mammoth Mni Wiconi pipeline project in western South Dakota, which serves 50,000 people, to the WEB water project in northeastern South Dakota, to other projects, many South Dakotans owe their fresh water supply to Johnson.

"Were it not for the fact he was on Appropriations and for the fact he was on the right committees and spent so much time working on it, I don't think we'd be anywhere near where we are today on water distribution and development," Daschle said. "That is an enormous legacy for him."

Political science professor Jon Schaff, at Northern State University, listed water development and other rural initiatives as Johnson's top achievement.

"Sen. Johnson did a lot for rural South Dakota. He helped procure money for a number of water projects and helped get country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for U.S. meat producers. He could be said to be a strong friend to the family farm."

Both Johnson and his wife list water development as his legislative accomplishment they are most proud of.

"Legislatively, I was most proud of overall of getting clean water, especially out in western South Dakota, where mineral content and arsenic content were over the top," Barb said.

Of the several water projects he helped get funding for, Johnson sites $500 million Mni Wiconi -- started in 1988 and finished in 2013 -- as "the most satisfying."

"The Indians don't get water unless the cowboys get water, and the cowboys don't get water unless the Indians get water," Johnson said. "We had a few bumps in the road, but it was very satisfying."

Johnson built a national profile in his final years as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, from 2011 to present, in the wake of the 2008 recession. He oversaw the implementation of federal reforms known as Dodd-Frank, which remain a sore point with many in the financial world.

"Dodd-Frank was very important," North Dakota's Dorgan said. "It was clear some of the biggest financial institutions in the country were running wild, and they nearly steered this country's economy into complete collapse. The Wall Street Journal just reported that Citi and JPMorgan are paying $1 billion in fines for attempting to rig foreign currency markets. Bank of America paid a $17 billion in fines for mortgage fraud.

"There was a lot of bad stuff going on, and Tim was among the people who put together new regulations. The big financial institutions don't like them, but we didn't have any choice. I thought Tim did a great job. I was really proud of him."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who will replace Johnson as Banking Committee chairman, said he plans to hold hearings aimed at dismantling Dodd-Frank. Johnson said he doesn't believe Shelby will be successful.

"There are things that could be improved, heaven knows. But I think odds are against dismantling it," Johnson said. "At least as long as Democrats hold the presidency."


Johnson has had his share of squeakers, from unexpectedly winning his first congressional primary to eeking past Sen. Larry Pressler to win election to the Senate in 1996 to achieving the narrowest of wins -- about 500 votes -- when challenged by John Thune in 2002.

The Democrats famously suffered losses in the 2014 election nationally, but even moreso in South Dakota. And while Johnson notes there is a Democrat in the White House for at least two more years, he also described the state of the South Dakota Democratic Party as the lowest level of his career.

When he leaves office, the party will no longer hold any of South Dakota's statewide elected positions. They also have diminished numbers in the Legislature.

He believes that the political pendulum swings back and forth, and he said moderation is valuable to the process.

"I'm a moderate. I've been in the majority and the minority, both," Johnson said. "We'll come back."

NSU's Schaff said that South Dakota Democrats will suffer for not having a national officeholder.

"Johnson leaving office is a blow to South Dakota Democrats in two ways. First, psychologically, as Johnson is the last statewide elected Democrat, it is a blow to the party to lose that last remaining bragging right," Schaff said. "More importantly, Sen. Johnson was a good fundraiser for the state party and an advocate with the national party. The state party will struggle to maintain its ties to national money and organization with Sen. Johnson out of the picture."

The Johnsons plan to retire to Sioux Falls, probably spending winter months in warmer climates, Barb said. The move will allow Sen. Johnson to be close to his two children and four grandchildren who live in Sioux Falls, and to take a slower pace as he continues to recover from a brain injury, known as an AVM, that he suffered Dec. 13, 2006.

For all of his legislative achievements, those closest to him say they are most proud about the way he battled back from the near-death event.

"I loved the day he stood and spoke on the Senate floor after the AVM and received a standing ovation from the full chamber," said his daughter, Kelsey, of the events of Sept. 5, 2007. "He fought so hard for so many months to be there, and he proved he wasn't giving up."

"His comeback from his near-death experience and the courage and determination he shows every day, his strength of spirit," said Barb. "To have to put up with everything he has to put up with and continue to go forward without complaining."

Perhaps the best measure of Johnson's impact is the crowd that gathered Thursday on Capitol Hill to celebrate his career. Democratic senators including Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, and Dick Durbin, of Illinois, plus Republicans Mike Crapo, of Idaho, and South Dakota's Mike Rounds attended, in addition to former staffers and friends.

"The room was full, and I appreciated that very much," Johnson said.