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Former U.S. Rep Tim Johnson passes away


Former central Illinois Congressman Tim Johnson has died at the age of 75. He was known as a quirky, sometimes caustic, and always energetic public servant.

Johnson never lost an election. He represented Bloomington-Normal in Congress for 12 years in an older version of the 13th District before deciding not to run again in 2012. He was a state representative for 24 years and an Urbana City Council member before that, his time in public office dating back to 1971.

Johnson's father was once head of the Champaign County Republican Party and Johnson told reporters when he announced his retirement that his was a political family.

“I don't ever remember a dinner time with my grandparents, or my dad, mom, when politics and government and so forth wasn't discussed. It was an active part of our everyday life,” said Johnson.

Johnson could be pithy and critical of government as he was in this comment about a federal stimulus package in 2010.

“If you take an infinite number of dollars, and let it loose over the Atlantic Ocean, you're going to find some that lands on an island that's useful to the natives. Most of it is going to go on the water and have nothing to do with creating,” he said..

Johnson was known as a retail politician, a quality honed in Urbana and in Springfield, but rather rarer in Congress where large districts and numbers of constituents militate against that hands-on practice. Johnson never changed his approach.

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, said he met Johnson during Brady's first campaign for the Statehouse and Johnson's first congressional run. Johnson was all about personal contact,

“He did it non-stop. And with Tim, it didn't matter if it was morning, noon, or night, weekend, holiday, he was accessible. He was responsive. And if he didn’t have the answer right, then he’d get it for you. And I can always remember, he would, he would tell people, 'I can't guarantee the outcome, but I'll guarantee a phone call.' And that's what he would do. He was a true, true people person,” said Brady.

Brady also is known as a retail politician beyond compare, and said he learned a lot from Johnson, including the peripatetic way Brady now works a room.

“One of the first times I met him, we were at an event. And I might have been talking to somebody. He said, ‘Well, if we're going to stay and talk to one person, we're not ‘going to meet all these people here. Let's get moving.’ And away he went around the room. It was not so much that he just talked. You know, he’d listen. He wrote things down. He taught me about the pocket notepad he would carry,” said Brady.

Johnson occasionally took stands that might not be easy for Republicans. In discussing ways to address a huge federal budget deficit. Johnson talked with Willis Kern in 2010 about the "t-word" — tax increases.

Kern: “Johnson admits the debt situation is a crisis, and says any solution has to include a combination of revenue enhancements, as well as spending cuts.”

Johnson: "Everybody agrees strictly from a mathematical standpoint, a big portion of the solution is spending cuts. However, I don't think it's realistic to be an ostrich and not recognize the fact that revenue has to be a significant part of the formula.”

Kern: “How do you accomplish revenue enhancements without tax increases?”

Johnson: “Well, it may be necessary to increase taxes. I'm not indicating that I do or don't support a particular kind of tax. There are certainly alternatives, not the least of which is closing some of the loopholes, capping deductions, and a variety of other solutions. None of them are going to be pleasant. The cuts aren't going to be pleasant. Neither are the revenue increases going to be pleasant. Neither is capping deductions going to be pleasant. But we are faced with a crisis in America of unprecedented magnitude. And if we don't recognize the issue now, it's going to swallow us down the line.”

During Johnson's time in Congress, partisan toxicity increased. Johnson tried to reduce it with a group called the Center Aisle Coalition, which picked issues on which both parties could find common ground.

“There was a chip, if you will, to Tim's DNA that made him approachable from both sides of the aisle. He did not wear his politics on a shirt sleeve to the point where he wouldn't consider things. He would keep an open mind,” said Brady.

Yet, Johnson could be politically caustic, as he was in 2011 in discussing the outsized influence the city of Chicago has in the state.

“Chicago is an impediment to downstate Illinois in very many ways. It seems as though they get a lot of benefits and don't pay the piper. And I view Chicago in many ways as an adversary to the interests of the overall state of Illinois,” he said.

Johnson was as active in his personal habits as he was in making connections with others. He was known for exercising in the capitol building, and elsewhere.

State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said Johnson once asked him to walk at West Side Park in Champaign on a warm muggy afternoon.

“I was dressed in khakis and dress shoes, and ill-prepared for what was to come. Probably two hours later, I headed home for a shower and damage control on my feet. Our initial conversation was the beginning of a long and valued friendship,” said Barickman.

Johnson often displayed a keen appreciation for the moment and Barickman said gaming out political scenarios related to current events was a feature of their walks.

“To this day, I've never met someone who had such an incredible ability to analyze a political situation from every direction. Tim taught me to think strategically about political decisions in a way that could never be taught in a classroom,” said Barickman.

He also was rumored to get almost no sleep, as evidenced by calls to other public officials at at all hours of the day, or night.

“People worry about elected officials becoming too enamored with public life and disconnecting from their district and constituents. Such a notion was laughable with Tim, who's number one political priority was being accessible and serving his constituents,” said Barickman.

After a fierce six-way battle when he announced he would not run again, Johnson was succeeded in a newly-drawn district by GOP Congressman Rodney Davis, who still holds the seat. Johnson also was holding elected office at the time of his death — as trustee for Parkland College in Champaign.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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