When Ron Johnson told his wife that he was thinking of running for U.S. Senate in 2010, she had a ready answer.
“I didn’t say, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Jane Johnson recalled.
Eventually, Johnson won over his wife and family and then the voters of Wisconsin. Over these past six years, a lot has changed for Johnson, 61, a sitting Republican U.S. senator who faces Democrat Russ Feingold in a rematch of their 2010 contest.
Johnson lives five minutes from the Oshkosh plastics manufacturing company he helped build — and grew accustomed to going home for lunch every day. Now, he navigates the high-pressure and the constant travel that comes with legislating in Washington, D.C., and campaigning in Wisconsin.
Johnson has tangled with Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. As the testy exchange reached a climax, Johnson recalled hearing “an explosion of camera clicks.”
He arrived with an accountant’s certitude and determination to deal with the national debt and found his way as chairman of the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee. He has expressed frustration with Washington’s ways and has pledged to only serve two terms.
“So much of politics today is just so beside the point. We’re not addressing the key issues,” he said. “I’m one of those guys, or gals, who is going here because we have enormous problems. And I want to fix them. And I’m willing to take the political heat from any side.”
But there is a quieter, gentler side to Johnson.
It could be seen in June when he spoke at Teen Challenge of Wisconsin, a faith-based alcohol and restoration program. There to help honor 14 people who had completed a phase in the program, Johnson told the audience of his own path, giving the credit to his parents who instilled within him a deep faith in God and the importance of work.
He spoke of his belief that “you turn people around, one person at a time.”
And he challenged the graduates. “Your job is to succeed,” Johnson said. “Not only for yourself but for your family and those who come after you.”
Johnson tries to live up to the example set by his late parents, Jean and Dale, who were thrifty and hard-working. His father worked as a corporate and church treasurer and his mother was a film processor. Ron was one of four children.
“He was a person who wanted to accomplish things,” Jane Johnson said of her husband. They met at Edina High School, have been married 39 years and have three children and two grandchildren.
Even as a youngster, he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinions. A Latin teacher, Miss Winters, gave him a nickname, using the Latin word for “mouth.”
Johnson skipped his senior year in high school, working in the shipping department of an Eden Prairie, Minn., firm that produced student portraits and school yearbooks. He wrote an essay to the University of Minnesota, explaining why he wanted to skip his senior year and took night courses to prove he could cut it in college. He graduated in four years with a degree in business and accounting.
Ron and Jane Johnson came to Oshkosh in June 1979, where Ron joined Jane’s brother Patrick Curler in helping build Pacur, a plastics manufacturer. Johnson was with the company until he joined the Senate. He and his wife still retain a stake in the firm that is now overseen by his younger brother Barry Johnson.
“Ron is a problem-solver. He’s the best strategist I know,” Barry Johnson said.
It’s on the factory floor where Johnson appears most comfortable. At heart, he’s still a manufacturer. Find the problem and then solve it.
“He’s like a player-coach,” said Mark Schmitt, who has been with the firm for 30 years.
Those who know Johnson say that his words match his actions.Tony Blando, Johnson’s chief of staff, has known him since 2003. He said Johnson has been behind many large anonymous gifts in Oshkosh, to groups like the Boys & Girls Club and Catholic schools. Johnson has also quietly written checks to those in need, Blando said. One woman, who didn’t want her name used, told the Journal Sentinel that Johnson helped her pay off a significant tax assessment so that she could keep her home.
“You always want to help people out,” Johnson said. “When I feel there’s a door open, you always walk through it.”
Johnson also helped launch the Joseph Project, which connects inner-city workers to jobs in Sheboygan County. The year-old program is run out of Greater Praise Church of God in Christ in Milwaukee, teaches people soft skills like interviewing and filling out resumes and has helped 90 workers land jobs. Around 63 are still in the workforce.
“It changes lives dramatically,” said Greater Praise Pastor Jerome Smith. “I’m watching people who ordinarily wouldn’t have anything go from the pit to the palace. Even other states are considering duplicating what we do here. A good portion of that is totally based on Senator Johnson.”
The Joseph Project stands as one of Johnson’s proud accomplishments. In many ways the program expresses his vision of a society in which the needs of people are met at the local level.
“It’s a success if we help one person, or 10, or four dozen,” Johnson said. “Successful ideas, they snowball.”
Win or lose the race, Johnson said he’s be committed to seeing the Joseph Project grow.
The campaign has been tough, with negative ads going back and forth. Johnson has trailed every step of the way, viewed for months as among the more vulnerable GOP incumbents in the country. He has fought his way to within 2 points of Feingold, according to the latest Marquette University Law School poll.
“I’m going to tell you the truth,” Johnson said. “I’m going to tell you who I am, what my thoughts are, what I’ve done, what I intend to do. If Wisconsin voters want me, great. If not, I’ll go home. I don’t take it personally. This isn’t about me.”