When you write a column, you expect people to disagree with you. And when you’re a politician, you expect people to criticize you. And in both cases, you understand those kinds of opposition are healthy.
And that’s how I ended up talking for about half an hour with Rep. Dusty Johnson recently.
In my last column, I addressed the amount of time Johnson and Sen. Mike Rounds took to get to the point during a recent ag policy forum. As I wrote in that piece, I felt like there was too much time spent complaining about dysfunction in Washington and not enough time spent talking about actual policy issues and how the two South Dakota politicians were getting things done.
Johnson has been in politics for quite a while, and he told me he wasn’t sure why my piece got under his skin. He went so far as to reread his Twitter feed, finding that the number of times he talks about working with Democrats greatly exceeds the number of times he writes tweets he would characterize as “partisan.” He prides himself on working with whomever he needs to in order to represent rural South Dakota — and really, rural America — and he didn’t want anyone to think that he was spending his time bashing Democrats instead of working.
To his credit, Johnson was one of the most polite critics I’ve ever had, and we had a great chat. He pointed out his work on the Problems Solvers Caucus, a half-Republican and half-Democrat caucus of representatives looking for common ground and pledging to stay away from hyper-partisan campaigning. He prides himself on working with “farm-state Democrats” on things like telehealth, dates for harvesting cover crops on prevented planting acreage, broadband expansion, beef markets and more.
I applaud Johnson’s work; it’s real stuff he and others are getting done. It doesn’t change the fact that I wish he had spoken up more about those things in the forum I covered, but he agreed it’s important to highlight the work getting done. Part of the problem, he said, is that it’s “sexier” to talk about problems.
“I think, in part, elected officials do need to highlight the things that are getting done,” he told me. “We’re supposed to be in the solution business.”
And, he said, contrary to some of the talk on that forum, he believes things are getting done.
“The reality is far more mundane and frankly somewhat more functional” than politicians often talk about, he said.
He even believes something will happen on another coronavirus aid package before the election, and he's one of the handful of bipartisan representatives working on compromises. He also talked about some of his other priorities, all of which feature across-the-aisle partners.
Johnson said his stance on decency and foregoing partisan battles does not, in fact, make him a moderate. He boasts a conservative voting record. That’s the furthest thing from a concern for me; I wish more politicians would forego those types of labels and just focus on problem solving. But my conversation with Johnson showed me that there are politicians who can label themselves but not worry about scoring political points.
And, more importantly, Johnson showed me that it does matter what voters say and think, and they are paying attention. If I hadn’t written that column, I wouldn’t have gotten Johnson’s insight. I would encourage everyone to reach out to their representatives, at all levels, and find out what their plans are for getting things done. In rural America, we need more people in the solutions business.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's content manager. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at email@example.com or 701-595-0425.