Ask any observer of South Dakota politics to look into the future, beyond the next election cycle, for an emerging star and it won’t take long before you hear the name Brendan Johnson.
The youngest son of U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., took to the podium on election night like an old pro. The 33-year-old Johnson looked more than comfortable delivering what amounted to a victory speech for his father, who is recovering from a brain injury and is still working to restore his speech.
“Senator Tim Johnson, he’s got an awful lot of fight left in him. Six more years of fighting.” That’s how the younger Johnson wound up his rousing speech, over the cheers of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that he wound up before his much more low-key dad — brain injury or not — took the stage. Brendan Johnson demonstrated the political talent that Johnson insiders have espoused for years.
Democratic operatives no doubt salivate over possibilities for the young lawyer, now a partner in the Sioux Falls law firm of Johnson, Heidepriem, Miner, Marlow and Janklow. Those operatives are probably going to have to wait. Brendan Johnson is currently eyeing another career opportunity. With the election of a Democratic president, he is likely to seek the job of U.S. attorney for South Dakota. Officially, he hasn’t decided whether he will apply. Unofficially, he’s already solved the tricky ethical problem of keeping his senator father out of the loop. He declines to discuss any potential future runs for political office, calling such talk “inappropriate” for someone seeking a U.S. attorney post.
“The U.S. attorney position is separate from any political ambitions. You need to keep politics out of that position. You don’t want to be in the position of eyeing political office while working in that capacity,” Johnson said. “Politics is perhaps something I’d look at eventually. Right now, one Johnson in our congressional delegation is plenty.”
While Johnson is too prudent to say so, he’s often named as the next Democrat likely to run for South Dakota’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. There would be other possibilities, of course, but the House has been the most mentioned path to a career in politics. A stint as South Dakota’s top federal prosecutor would delay that.
For the younger Johnson, the elder’s seat in the U.S. Senate complicates matters rather than paves the way. Senate ethics rules against nepotism prevent Sen. Johnson from nominating his own son for a political appointment. It is the normal protocol for the senior senator from the party of the president to nominate candidates for jobs such as U.S. attorney, but the Johnsons have decided that protocol wouldn’t be followed should Brendan Johnson decide he wants the job. He lays out a few alternatives.
“If I do apply, my father’s not going to have any role in the nomination process. He would not nominate, endorse or lobby on my behalf whatsoever,” Johnson said.
Instead, perhaps the decision would be left completely in the hands of a new Obama administration. Or a bipartisan committee of respected members of the ranks of South Dakota’s legal profession might be appointed to a committee, and that committee would forward a nomination to the White House.
In either case, Johnson said: “I’ll stand on my record and not on my last name.”
He’s built that record in less than a decade, but it’s impressive. Before graduating with degrees in history and political science from the University of South Dakota in 1998, he served as student body president and was chosen as a Truman Scholar. He then earned his law degree from the University of Virginia in 2001.
Johnson returned to South Dakota and spent a year clerking for federal judge Karen Schreier in Rapid City. After that, he spent two years as a Minnehaha County deputy state’s attorney, where he prosecuted criminal cases. He calls criminal prosecution “a passion.”
After his time in the state’s attorney’s office, he went to work for Johnson, Heidepriem, Miner, Marlow and Janklow — now Johnson, Heidepriem, Abdallah & Johnson — where he has worked on civil litigation and was made partner in 2006. Scott Heidepriem, a state senator, is a partner and is considered a frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2010.
Russ Janklow, son of the legendary former governor, was also a partner until he left to work with his father. I wonder if the younger Johnson and Janklow ever swapped “Dad” stories?
Johnson notes that the U.S. attorney’s job includes its share of civil cases, and his work at the private firm has dealt with building cases for trial and has not strayed into the areas of working out business deals or family law.
“I’ve done age discrimination cases, race discrimination cases, helped former military veterans who’ve had employment issues after their return from war in Iraq. I don’t do, for example, wills and estates. It’s all trial-related,” Johnson said.
Denise Ross of Rapid City publishes Hoghouseblog.com. and can be heard weekly on South Dakota Public Radio’s Dakota Mid-day show as a political junkie guest. Her column appears weekly. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.