The following editorial first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.
When Mike Johanns was a Lancaster County commissioner with hair that curled over his ears and sideburns that crawled down his cheeks, few would have looked at him and predicted a career that would land him in the president’s Cabinet or on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Well, maybe fellow county commissioner Stephanie Armitage did. She and Johanns were married in his last year on the County Board.
It was a simpler time, and in Lincoln political partisanship was at a low setting. Johanns was a Democrat at the time, and he quipped to a reporter that he and Stephanie “had a discussion and decided that we’re going to raise the kids as Democrats.”
Imagine how that quote would have blown up on social media circa 2014.
After a term on the County Board, Johanns stayed out of politics for two years. During that time and before he filed to run for the Lincoln City Council, he became a Republican.
The rest, as they say, is history. Throughout the remainder of his career, Johanns hewed faithfully to the values of limited government and low taxes.
Johanns was at his best in the executive branch, where he demonstrated managerial expertise that is rare in a politician.
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All Republican politicians promise to deliver low taxes and government efficiency. Unfortunately, some make good on the policy but run government so badly that millions are wasted.
As mayor, Johanns inherited a municipal government facing a $1 million shortfall. When he moved on eight years later, City Hall had around $20 million as a cash reserve, and a reduced property tax rate. Arguably, Johanns can be criticized for failing to spend enough on street improvements, but he didn’t starve government. His administration added more than 50 police officers, for example.
As governor, Johanns was faced with prolonged financial crisis. In 2003, revenues declined by $91 million from the year before. His tenure was marked by budgets cuts. Yet the executive branch had a culture of calm and competence, and priorities that included vulnerable Nebraskans. He said one of his proudest achievements was providing a 35 percent increase in funding for mental health and hiring 80 new caseworkers and 40 supervisors for the child welfare system.
Johanns displayed the same executive talents as secretary of agriculture. A Washington correspondent noted that when Johanns was introduced to the staff, he received applause that was “courteous and somewhat cautious.” When he said farewell three years later, “spontaneous applause rocked the roof.”
Given his record of competence, it’s ironic that Johanns is winding up his career in a U.S. Senate that is widely considered to be one of the most dysfunctional in the nation’s history. In his closing remarks on the Senate floor, Johanns said, “I would be dishonest if I denied feeling some frustration over the absence of the will to address issues of paramount importance to our country.”
He added, “Though confidence in our nation’s ability to solve problems may be shaken, I still believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things ... even in Washington.”
Johanns’ legacy stands as an example of competence and a willingness to confront tough issues. Let’s hope the country someday will remember that that kind of public service should be the norm.