Elected: 1996, term expires 2014, 3rd term.
Born: December 28, 1946, Canton
Education: U. of SD, B.A. 1969, M.A. 1970, J.D. 1975, MI St. U., 1970-71
Professional Career: Budget analyst, MI Senate, 1971–72; Practicing atty., 1975–85; Clay Cnty. dpty. atty., 1985.
Family: married (Barbara) , 3 children
Democrat Tim Johnson, South Dakota’s senior senator, was first elected in 1996 and is serving his last term after announcing in March 2013 that he would not seek reelection in 2014. Most of the attention he has drawn has been for his health—he suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage in 2006 that led to a months-long recovery.
Johnson grew up in Canton, Flandreau, and Vermillion in southeast South Dakota and went to the University of South Dakota, where he ultimately earned a law degree. He served briefly in the Army, but was discharged because of a hearing problem. He opened a law practice in Vermillion, and then got increasingly involved in politics. He was elected to the state House in 1978, at age 31, and served four years. In 1982, he was elected to the state Senate for another four years. When Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Daschle ran for the Senate in 1986, Johnson ran for the state’s at-large House seat and won the general election 59%-41%. He was reelected easily every two years. In the House, Johnson compiled a generally liberal voting record, though he sometimes voted for conservative fiscal proposals, such as a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
In 1996, Johnson challenged Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, then chairman of the influential Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. This was a high-spending, high-stakes race. Pressler spent $5.1 million, and Johnson spent almost $3 million. The contest was neck-and-neck for 15 months. Since South Dakota television is relatively inexpensive, that meant one barrage of ads after another, plus seven debates. Pressler attacked Johnson as too liberal, going back to a 1981 vote in the legislature against workfare, the practice of requiring welfare recipients to work. Johnson attacked Pressler as a clone of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a Medicare-cutter. Pressler spent much time in 1995 and 1996 on the telecommunications bill, a heavily lobbied and complex bill. He succeeded in passing the legislation, a significant accomplishment. But back home, Johnson charged that phone and cable rates were going up because of Pressler’s work. The final result was a 51%-49% Johnson victory.
His voting record initially was toward the center of the Senate, though since Barack Obama became president, he has become much more inclined to side with his party. After announcing his retirement, he came out in support of same-sex marriage and joined a majority of Democrats in backing a failed bipartisan amendment to expand gun background checks. He has drawn headlines on occasion for sharply rebuking House Republicans. He said in April 2011 that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plans dealing with the financial industry involved “gutting consumer and investor protections and letting Wall Street run wild all over again.” A year later, he complained that the House GOP’s surface transportation reauthorization bill was “highly partisan” in contrast with the Senate’s.
Johnson chairs the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, overseeing the financial industry in the aftermath of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and Dodd-Frank industry overhaul law. He prefers to work behind the scenes. “There are enough show horses in Washington to go around,” he likes to say. His quiet style stands in sharp contrast to Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd, his voluble predecessor as Banking chairman.
The combination of a Republican House and a gridlocked Senate limited what Johnson could accomplish in the 112th Congress (2011-12), but he did help get into law a bipartisan reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which provides loans and credit guarantees to foreign buyers of U.S. products. He also held a series of high-profile committee hearings, most notably one with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon about bad trades that cost the company upwards of $2 billion. “This trading loss has been a wake-up call for many opponents of Wall Street reform,” Johnson said at a May 2012 hearing.
When Democrats gained a Senate majority in 2006, Johnson got the gavels of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and the Banking Subcommittee on Financial Institutions. Then, on December 13, 2006, Johnson suffered a brain hemorrhage while working at the Capitol. Within hours, he had extensive brain surgery. With prospects of his survival unclear and the assumption that then Republican Gov. Mike Rounds would appoint a Republican successor, speculation grew that Johnson’s departure from the Senate could reverse the Democrats’ expected majority control. Although Johnson survived the immediate crisis, his recovery lasted several months. Amid the uncertainty and also out of respect for Johnson, Democratic senators assisted him in fundraising for his 2008 reelection and potential Republican rivals such as Rounds delayed their decisions. On September 5, 2007, Johnson returned to the Senate and made his first floor speech of the year. “My speech is not 100 percent,” he said. “But my thoughts are clear and my mind is sharp.”
Johnson has continued to suffer lingering health effects such as slurred speech and partial paralysis on his right side, but they have not impaired his ability to work. He helped get more than $150 million in earmarks for South Dakota into an omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2011, ranging from $100,000 for a dialysis unit for the Yankton Sioux tribe to $28 million for a rural water system in southwest South Dakota. He led a Senate effort in 2012 to prod the Federal Communications Commission to address the problem of dropped, incomplete, and poor quality long-distance phone calls to rural areas; the FCC in February 2013 announced steps to strengthen its oversight of long-distance providers.
On a personal level, he watched as the Senate confirmed his son, Brendan, in October 2009 as U.S. attorney for South Dakota. The senator stayed out of the nominating process for his son, a former Minnehaha County prosecutor.
His earlier legislative accomplishments include passage in 2008 of a provision in the farm bill requiring meat products to carry country-of-origin labeling, which he had worked on for several years. In 2006, he supported funding for improved access to affordable health care in rural communities, and in the 2005 energy bill, he worked on increases for ethanol and other renewable fuels. South Dakota devotes more of its corn to ethanol than any other state. It also gets much of its energy from coal, and Johnson voted in favor of a failed proposal in April 2011 to block Environmental Protection Agency regulation of carbon emissions linked to climate change.
His support for the EPA ban illustrates the fine line Johnson has had to walk as a Democrat in a state where Republicans are now dominant. By early 2001, it was apparent that he would face a tough challenge in 2002. President George W. Bush talked popular Republican Rep. John Thune into running for the Senate. Daschle, by then the Senate majority leader, immediately made saving his friend and fellow home-state Democrat “the most important political effort for me” in 2002. The two candidates spent record amounts for a South Dakota race—about $6 million each—and the national parties and independent expenditure groups on both sides spent much more.
Thune was the more outgoing of the two, attacking Johnson for voting against making the Bush tax cuts permanent. Johnson replied that he supported eliminating the estate tax for family farmers and ranchers and family-owned businesses. The biggest local issue was the drought that hit western South Dakota in 2002. Ranchers were selling off their herds for low prices, and business losses were estimated at $1.8 billion. Daschle and Johnson responded by sponsoring $5 billion in disaster aid for farmers and ranchers, arguing that if floods and tornadoes triggered disaster relief, then droughts should too. In mid-September, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced $750 million in aid for 30 states.
The election turned out to be the closest in the nation that year. During most of election night, Thune was in the lead, but the last two precincts to be counted came in from Shannon County, which includes most of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. They put Johnson over the top by a margin of 524 votes. Many Republicans urged Thune to contest the election, but he declined. Thune got his revenge two years later, however, when he fulfilled his party’s long-held goal of toppling Daschle.
Johnson sought a third term in 2008, and was challenged by Republican State Rep. Joel Dykstra. He suggested that Johnson was not physically up to the rigors of service in the Senate and criticized his vote against a 2005 bill that would have increased oversight of mortgage lending practices, an issue with potential resonance during the housing foreclosure crisis. But neither line of attack struck a chord with voters, and Johnson trounced Dykstra 62%-38%.