Mitchell residents will be among those in attendance today when U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson hosts an event to thank South Dakotans for their support during his convalescence following brain surgery.
Johnson, D-S.D., hasn't made a public appearance since the December operation. Today's gathering, billed "Thank You, South Dakota," is open to the public. It begins at 4 p.m. at the Sioux Falls Convention Center.
Amid much curiosity about Johnson's condition, Mitchell residents who are making the trip to Sioux Falls today say they are more concerned with just seeing the senator and perhaps wishing him well for a return to an active role in the Senate.
One is Betty Widman, a cancer survivor who says she knows what it's like to have the support of friends during what she called a "health crisis."
"I've known him forever ... and (Johnson's wife) Barb and I became friends through the cancer journey," Widman said. "I don't know exactly the first time I met Tim Johnson, but I think a key out of all of this is that in South Dakota, it's so easy to be able to meet and shake hands with our congressional representatives."
Widman said she hopes to speak with Johnson today, but doesn't know if the opportunity will present itself.
"I would like to," she said, adding that "he's been through a long journey."
Among those expected to speak today are U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D.; Republican Gov. Mike Rounds and Sioux Falls Mayor David Munson. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., will provide a taped greeting.
Johnson, who does use a cane and, at times, a wheelchair, is expected to address the crowd.
A press release issued from Johnson's office this week said the event "is open to all South Dakotans as Tim would like to thank them for their patience and support as they welcome him home."
During a telephone news conference with reporters on Dec. 13, Johnson's speech slurred and he struggled to complete a sentence, prompting a capitol physician to suggest he seek further medical attention. Doctors found that Johnson was suffering from arteriovenous malformation, which causes blood vessels in the brain to grow too large and burst, bringing on stroke-like conditions.
The senator was rushed to a Washington, D.C., hospital for surgery later that day.
He hasn't been active in the Senate since. Although his staff has released several photos and press releases to update the media about his condition, Johnson's long recovery time still has spurred debate about his future. Chiefly, questions have revolved around whether he has recovered enough to again represent the state in the Senate and whether he will seek re-election as Democrats cling to their one-seat advantage in the Senate.
But local residents this week aren't talking about Johnson's political future so much as their concern for his well-being.
"It's more or less to just see for myself, I guess," said Clara Determan, a Mitchell woman who has worked on Johnson's past campaigns.
As of Monday morning, Determan wasn't certain she would attend today's homecoming in Sioux Falls, but said she hoped to make the trip.
"I really wish him the very best of luck. All politics aside, he's one heck of a representative (for South Dakota)," she said.
Kathy Frank, of rural Mitchell, has worked on past Johnson campaigns and said her son, Andrew, has logged even more time on behalf of the senator. She and Andrew, a public service and leadership major at Dakota Wesleyan, both will drive to Sioux Falls today in hopes of "seeing (Johnson) as good as he was before."
"I hope he continues to serve our state as a senator," she said, saying Johnson has done much "for the small-town person and South Dakota values."
"I'm anxious," she said. "He's the one political person I have met who actually listens."