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The commissioner

BISMARCK, N.D. - Roger Johnson is the lone Democrat in a state dominated by Republican statewide officeholders. About two-thirds of each house in the Legislature also is Republican. In early October, a typical day will start with meetings on the ...

BISMARCK, N.D. - Roger

Johnson is the lone Democrat in a state dominated by Republican statewide officeholders. About two-thirds of each house in the Legislature also is Republican.

In early October, a typical day will start with meetings on the sixth floor in the state Capitol and campaigning in the afternoon.

With five weeks of campaigning left, Johnson greets his staff in the Brynhild Haugland Room in the state Capitol. The meeting involves about 30 of the department's 60 employees. The department has another 15 to 20 seasonal or part-time workers.

The three-term ag commissioner, flanked by his top aides - deputy Jeff Weispfenning, loyal long-time assistant Joanne Beckman and program director Jeff Knudson, among them - hear from numerous department heads within four working program areas. There are notes and conference reports on everything from beekeeping to meat inspection, crop disease surveys to veterinary. Later, in the morning, Johnson meets with a special livestock advisory group. Chuck Fleming, a former chief of staff to a Democratic governor, reports about his efforts to get a hog production project that will link to a youth program in a small town. Nothing yet, but promise. Wayne Carlson, program manager for dairy, has to report that the state has lost another handful of dairies in the past several months. Johnson shakes his head and asks whether there is any way to tell how large those dairies are. A report from Bobbi Talmadge, a livestock development coordinator, indicates problems with townships levying fees to a large dairy that may exceed their taxing authority.

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In the afternoon, Johnson, 53, must be on the stump.

"One thing I can do is be a voice for the people," Johnson says, hurtling along a rural highway, heading for a fund-raiser in rural Ray, N.D., and then a candidate's forum with opponent Doug Goehring in Williston, N.D., in early October.

Just like his opponent, Johnson has his own North Dakota fable. He was active in FFA and graduated from high school in 1971. He went on to North Dakota State University in Fargo, where he was student body vice president and earned an agricultural economics degree in 1975.

In 1972, when he was home from his freshman year in college, Johnson read an article in the Union Farmer magazine about how farmers were being misled into selling land for less than it was worth to make room for the McClusky Canal in the huge Garrison Diversion Project.

None of his family's land was directly involved (contrary to Republican whispers), but Johnson says he was "delighted and honored" when neighbors he'd known all his life asked him to lead "The Committee to Save North Dakota" landowners group. He says people who the committee worked with got three times the government's final offer.

Johnson scoffs at suggestions that he played a significant role in stopping the multibillion-dollar project from bringing water to eastern North Dakota. He wasn't against the project itself - just how it compensated farmers.

Johnson stopped just short of a master's degree in 1977 and returned to Turtle Lake to farm as the boom years were coming to an end. He married his wife, Anita, in 1978. They had three children in the 1980s.

As he emphasizes in his advertisements, Johnson grew up with five sisters and five brothers in a recombinant family. His parents leaned Democratic. His mother had been married before and favored the party's politics for a fairer deal for women, he says. When his father retired, Johnson emphasizes he bought the farm at its full appraised value on a contract for deed, but still at the higher values.

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In 1984, Johnson needed off-farm income so he went to work as a credit counselor for a Republican - Kent Jones, agriculture commissioner. Jones started a state mediation service as a farm crisis because of land deflation set in. In the 1985 Legislature, then-Gov. George Sinner was able to pass a Credit Review Board, which offered Johnson a similar mission but with better pay.

Through the years, Johnson had become active in county and state Farmers Union affairs. He eventually returned to the Department of Agriculture and headed the credit-counseling program when Sarah Vogel was elected in 1988. The two state credit programs were combined in 1989.

In fall 1995, Johnson was approached at the state Farmers Union convention to run for ag commissioner as Vogel pondered a gubernatorial run. He did, winning in 1996, 2000 and 2004, and, because election cycles are being shifted away from presidential cycles, he's running again in 2006.

Leading the fight

Johnson at times hints he faces an uphill climb to get things done in a government filled with Republicans but maintains he isn't always stymied.

He says that he, with like-minded thinkers in the North Dakota Farmers Union, have led the fight to kill changes to the anti-corporate farming law.

He is quite famous for having promoted the Commission on the Future of Agriculture in his first term. The discussion ended with 54 recommendations that were trounced in the Legislature when Johnson hinted he wanted to take political credit for a so-called bipartisan effort.

"All but a handful have since been put into law," Johnson says with satisfaction.

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The state agriculture commissioner role is primarily regulatory and primarily state-based, but Johnson often shoves his national credentials to the forefront.

He recently was elected president-elect of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, a body that includes his counterparts from across the country. It's a mixed group, politically, with some of the officeholders appointed rather than elected. Some people think the North Dakota commissioner should be appointed. That would require a change in culture and constitution, which places the ag commissioner on numerous boards, including the Industrial Commission, which serves as the board of directors for the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill.

In September, Johnson returned home from a national NASDA and declared he was bringing home a farm policy statement that NASDA had hammered out. He'd play a "key role" in pushing these ideas forward in Congress and said NASDA would play a "key role in crafting the new farm bill." Johnson will have a "seat at the head table." He later acknowledged, however, that NASDA historically isn't seen as one of the strongest voices on farm bill policy.

Johnson has two political appointees in the department - Beckman, a former New Salem, N.D., English teacher, and veteran deputy commissioner Jeff Weispfenning, who has served in departments of agriculture since the Myron Just era. That's all. Many of the rest have been appointed under Democratic commissioners, but their jobs are protected as nonpolitical.

Since taking the helm, Johnson has reorganized the department into three working program areas that formerly were called "divisions." In his time, the department has added a State Meat Inspection staff. The Board of Animal Health was integrated into the department, and it has grown. At the same time, the Agricultural Products Utilization Commission was moved out of the department and into what now is the Economic Development and Finance Division in the Department of Commerce.

All of that is fine, but in the political season, Johnson must emphasize his farming credentials.

He share-rents 960 acres to Eric, a brother who is 10 years younger. He helps with some of the work on the farm. According to the Farm Service Administration, he's still a farmer.

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