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The Rise of Ron Johnson
From successful businessman to tea party favorite to ... cross-party compromiser? The Wisconsin senator has enjoyed an intriguing start to his political career. Where does he go from here?

It doesn’t take long before Ron Johnson goes to his charts.

Speaking to a visitor in his Milwaukee office, Johnson pulls a fistful of charts out of a file folder to explain the nation’s budget deficit. He sketches another chart on a piece of paper to illustrate Washington’s political dynamics. He has posted dozens of charts on his official Senate website.

And on his days off? “I develop an awful lot of the information for my charts and graphs on the weekends,” punching budget data into spreadsheets, Johnson says.

Wisconsin’s senior senator is a numbers guy, a believer in the power of facts and figures. And he doesn’t stray from the message he’s trying to convey with those facts and figures. He’s courteous but spends less time than most politicians on small talk, bringing the conversation back to his view of federal policy as quickly as he can.

Colleagues see it, too. When Johnson dines with fellow Republicans in Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, Fond du Lac U.S. Rep. Tom Petri says, “He’s very pleasant,” but “he’s always kind of goal-oriented,” with “sort of a laser-like focus” on budget issues.

It’s just what you would expect from an accountant who left a career in business on a mission to rein in federal spending.

But what no one expected – and what few people know – is how quickly this novice lawmaker would master the Capitol’s political arithmetic. Not even halfway into the first term of his first elected office, congressional insiders say Johnson has quietly become a key player in behind-the-scenes talks on major fiscal issues.

“Ron is one of the most important people in the Senate right now,” says Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who gave up his Senate seat to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “In a lot of ways, he has a lot more power than the elected leadership.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t respond to DeMint’s characterization but called Johnson “an important member of our team.” And, McConnell adds, “When Ron has something to say, everyone listens.”

McConnell, DeMint and others say Republican lawmakers respect Johnson for his real-world business experience – as former owner and CEO of Oshkosh-based plastics manufacturer PACUR – and his ability to negotiate with different GOP factions in both chambers of Congress to craft joint strategies on fiscal policy.

He played that role in deals to raise the federal borrowing limit in July 2011 and in January 2013. He was back at it this spring and summer, leading behind-the-scenes talks between Senate and House Republicans on how to approach the next debt limit vote, expected in late summer or early fall.

Early on New Year’s Day, Johnson voted for the “fiscal cliff” agreement that moderated tax hikes and delayed spending cuts triggered by the 2011 debt deal. After those spending cuts took effect in March, he was in the first group of 12 Republican senators invited to discuss fiscal issues over dinner with President Barack Obama. Then, Johnson says, he took over “leading the effort to define the problem,” trying to come up with numbers that all sides could agree to use as the basis of a long-term budget deal.

The idea of Johnson forging compromises across ideological lines seems jarringly out of step with his hard-right public image. This is, after all, the Ron Johnson who entered politics by speaking at a Tea Party rally, who owns one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, and who lumped Democrats and liberals with Marxists and Socialists. (He says that was just a joke in his remarks at a Jefferson County Republican event in February). He’s the Ron Johnson who declared in 2010 that believing in man-made climate change was “lunacy” and who helped defeat legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases in April.

And perhaps most memorably, he’s the Ron Johnson whose first hearing on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee back in January turned into a nationally televised clash with outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As Johnson questioned Clinton about conflicting administration statements on whether terrorists planned the assault that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, she exploded: “What difference, at this point, does it make?” Her response became fodder for GOP critics, while Democrats portrayed Johnson as poorly informed. Johnson himself had to backtrack after suggesting Clinton intentionally became emotional to dodge questions.

All of that gives Johnson’s critics ample ammunition to label him a Tea Party ideologue. Yet DeMint says that’s not an accurate picture. Johnson never joined the Senate Tea Party Caucus, though he’s philosophically in tune with it.

“He’s not a partisan in the sense you see here [in Washington],” says DeMint, who was a key Tea Party leader in the Senate. “He’s not some kind of far-right guy. He’s a business guy with a family.”

This article appears in the August 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
To read more like it, subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.


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