The first five years: U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson hopes to be a representative for all South Dakotans

·14 min read

Nov. 20—Dusty Johnson has been on the move since he was elected to represent South Dakota in Congress in 2019.

Whether it's by traversing across the state, working in Washington D.C. during session or spending time with his wife Jacquelyn and their three boys: Max, 16; Ben, 13; and Owen, 9, Johnson is always on the move.

Since he was sworn in as the state's lone Congressional representative, Johnson managed to get into the committees handling the topics of most interest to South Dakotans. Allowing him to affect change nationally that would impact the lives and businesses of those who elected him.

One of those committees was the House Agriculture Committee, which had three openings and two dozen representatives eager to join. Similarly, he was one of seven from a list of 40 to get onto the House Infrastructure Committee.

What has most surprised me in Congress? How many of the members are truly decent people. Yesterday one of those great members (@RepHartzler) took time to snap and share a photo of me in my first Ag committee. Thanks, Vicky! pic.twitter.com/9XFfk2vUDT

— Rep. Dusty Johnson (@RepDustyJohnson) February 8, 2019

"The reason we wanted to get on those committees is they were such a good fit with the things that I had told South Dakota I wanted to be involved in," Johnson said.

As a congressman, Johnson likes to say he has 800,000 bosses and insists he does his best to sufficiently work for each one. The sophomore Congressional leader has traveled across his home state, attempting to connect with as many of his constituents as possible. In the past five years, he's been to all nine tribal reservations across the state, as well as all 66 counties, in an effort to hear from as many of his "bosses" as possible.

"I think it's my job to be the congressman for all South Dakotans, and some of those tribal areas I will lose (by a 90/10 margin). I've lost 90/10 in the past, and I'll probably lose them 90/10 in the future. But I don't view my travel in this job as an extension of my electoral prospects," Johnson said. "I view it as something that a good member of Congress does whether people voted for me or not."

In his short time in office, Johnson has had his hand in 12 pieces of legislation that have passed, including bills that related to tribal schools, COVID-19 telehealth and relief packages, agriculture, military service and senior citizens.

Johnson has made recognizing South Dakotans one of his goals. One such program honored Vietnam veterans with commemorative pins thanking them for their service. Johnson said he wanted to be a part of the National Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin program largely because of his friend and former state senator, the late Lance Carson, of Mitchell, who was a Vietnam veteran.

"His story about how he was treated in the airport, coming home from Vietnam is terrible. Really, really terrible," Johnson said. "So that has made me more attuned and more sensitive to how terrible the welcome home these guys and gals got was, and that's frankly why the national program was established. Vietnam era veterans had a uniquely poor welcoming home."

Johnson also created the Strength of South Dakota award this spring, which is intended "to celebrate and honor South Dakotans that display unusual perseverance, compassion and innovation, and are beloved by their community."

So far three South Dakotans have received the award as Johnson and his team hope to recognize more South Dakotans on a more regular basis.

During Johnson's time in the House, he's also tried stepping into the roles of other professionals, advocating for them and their work. This included a one-day stint as a substitute teacher at Mitchell Middle School and a day as a volunteer for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

Currently, Johnson's big push is moving his Cattle Contract Library Act, a bipartisan act that would "establish and maintain a library or catalog of each type of contract offered by packers to producers" for the purchase of the producers' production of fed cattle. The act is aimed at providing cattle producers a more transparent market at the producer-to-packer level.

While Johnson is working to move his cattle contract legislation through, the U.S. House passed its $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which Johnson opposed.

Johnson said he voted against the legislation not only because of the cost, but because, he said, bad policies were hidden inside them.

Johnson said the government's spending habits — especially after spending trillions of dollars on COVID relief — have him concerned about the future, and additional rescue packages could incentivize people to stay out of the workforce, a scenario that he predicts will continue to drive up inflation.

Johnson said he would like to see the government focus on its debt rather than spend even more money on such approaches to healing the fiscal effects of the pandemic on families.

The CEO

With his congressional duties requiring him to spend about half the year in Washington, D.C., that leaves Jacquelyn in Mitchell to manage the family's affairs on the home front. It's a feat Johnson said she handles with the charisma of a seasoned leader.

Jacquelyn Johnson said she often employs the skills she's perfected as CEO of her family's business, Dice Financial, a position she's held since 2012, when tending to family matters. And Johnson is only half-joking, he said, when he refers to Jacquelyn as "CEO of the family."

"A lot of people could make (each of) those into full-time jobs pretty easily," he said. "I really am in awe of how she manages to grow (Dice Financial), and how she has kept our family moving in the right direction and then continued to be such an involved leader for this community. ... She doesn't say no, even though it'd be comfortable for her to say no. She believes in this community. She believes in this business, and she believes in my service. I do not know how she has enough hours in the day to do it all."

In addition to her family and business duties, Jacquelyn has served in a variety of roles and a part of several boards within the Mitchell community, including the Abbott House Foundation, YWCA, LifeQuest, Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce, Junior Achievement at the local and state level, Government Affairs Committee, Avera Queen of Peace Board and Dakota Wesleyan University Board of Directors, among others.

Jacquelyn is quick to credit others for helping out.

"My mother (Charlys Dice) ... gets a lot of credit for helping out," Jacquelyn said. "We're raising kids that are independent and confident and responsible, and they have to do a lot of the help themselves as well."

With three boys, extracurriculars are plentiful for the Johnson household. Among other interests, the Johnson boys currently are involved in Mitchell's show choir, marching band, student council, book club, International Club, Future Business Leaders of America, baseball, trapshooting, flag football, piano lessons and basketball.

"They have a high level of independence. I mean, Max worked full-time at the Corn Palace this summer. And that's something that fewer and fewer young people are doing," Jacquelyn said. "Owen and Ben, between the two of them, probably played 100 baseball games this summer."

While Congress and traveling the state keeps Johnson busy, he makes time with his wife and kids priority, sometimes getting creative to be involved in their activities — or include them in his.

"I try to do a lot of what they like to do. And so I've never been turkey hunting before. But I spent a lot of time in a turkey blind with my middle son during (last) season," Johnson said. "They spend a lot of time with me. Ben and Owen came to the Lower Brule Pow Wow. They came to the Turner County Fair, they came to the State Fair. We make it a priority to spend time together. Sometimes that's doing my stuff. Sometimes that's doing their stuff."

Jacquelyn said the largest difference between her husband's time in Pierre and D.C. is that there is more spontaneity in his new role, meaning that he could have to drop everything at a moment's notice to attend to national matters, making long-term planning a challenge.

While she is the spouse of a U.S. Congressman, Jacquelyn said she doesn't feel like she's identified as one. She's only dealt with secondhand hostility for her husband's politics on a couple of occasions, she said, adding that those confrontations have happened at events specifically for him and once at a parade she'd participated in with him.

The run

In 2014, Dusty Johnson stepped out of the political arena.

The Mitchell resident served the state of South Dakota for nearly eight years, first as public utilities commissioner, then as former South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard's chief of staff before going to work at Vantage Point Solutions in Mitchell.

At the time, Johnson thought that might be the end of his political career. His wife on the other hand — didn't.

"It's who he is. He has a passion for making a difference, and I think he has that ability — being involved with politics," she said. "I didn't think he was done."

On Nov. 14, 2016, then-Congresswoman Kristi Noem announced her plans to forgo a fifth term as South Dakota's lone member of the House of Representative and her intent to run for the governor's office.

Two days later, Johnson announced that he would seek to fill the position Noem would vacate.

"There was just so much toxicity and so much meanness (in Washington), and I started to feel almost guilty that I was on the sidelines," Johnson recalled. "There were lots of reasons not to run for Congress, but they all seemed a little selfish.

"I was making more money at Vantage Point than I make in Congress. I was seeing my family more often than I knew I would in Congress. And people liked me a lot better when I was in the private sector, as opposed to being a politician. But, ultimately, I know we have to have good people run, and we have to have good people serve."

Johnson spent about six months rebuilding his name recognition, campaigning and fundraising while still holding down his full-time job as a vice president of Vantage Point.

Then in May, just a little more than a year away from the 2018 primary election, Johnson's campaign officially kicked off with a string of launch parties sprinkled throughout the state.

At the time of his launch, Johnson knew he would be squaring off against Shantel Krebs, who held South Dakota's secretary of state position at the time. A few months later, state Sen. Neil Tapio added his name to the ballot. With his last election nearly eight years behind him, Johnson started the election cycle with a disadvantage.

"There had been some polling data that we've gotten to look at that indicated I was down by 20 points. It wasn't that the people didn't like me — they just didn't remember me. We knew that it was going to take a tremendous amount of work to really share my vision ... and the more we built a coalition, the more I began to realize that this was doable. Very quickly, the numbers started to turn at about December of that year, and I really never looked back. No TV ads had been run, no postcards had been mailed. I was really making up that ground in 2017 with hard work and elbow grease."

Eventually, though, the TV ads and postcards started to circulate. Utilizing one of his best assets, Johnson's family became a part of the campaign.

At the time, Johnson said his three sons — Max, Ben and Owen — especially enjoyed the spotlight. They were almost celebrities, according to Dusty.

Now, they seem to be OK outside the spotlight. While Johnson still takes them along to events and activities, the growing boys are not nearly as visible as that first campaign, during which he ran his last TV ad.

"Our high school son (Max) is in civics (class). Weeks into the semester, I asked if his teacher knew that his dad was in Congress, and he says, 'I don't think she does and that's OK,'" Jacquelyn said. "I thought that was kind of interesting, because obviously everything he's learning in civics has a lot to do with this dad's job, and ... he thinks at some point the teacher (made the connection), but when you're (last name is as generic as) Johnson you can just blend in."

On June 5, 2018, Johnson dominated the primary election, earning 46.8 percent of the vote, compared to Krebs's 29.3 and Tapio's 23.9.

In the general election, Johnson faced Ron Wieczorek, an independent from Mount Vernon, and Libertarian George Hendrickson of Sioux Falls. But his biggest challenge came from Democratic challenger Tim Bjorkman of Canistota.

While they agreed on some issues, such as congressional reform, the candidates offered different positions on key issues to South Dakota voters — like agriculture. In the end, Johnson won with 60 percent of the vote.

Despite their different views, Bjorkman said he and Johnson kept their race civil.

"Dusty and I get along fine. I think we enjoy talking to each other," Bjorkman said during a congressional forum during the 2018 DakotaFest. "Dusty isn't my opponent. My opponent is the big party bosses in Washington who want to control people like that. I will stand against them at every turn."

After election night, Johnson said he was ready to get to work in D.C., which included a big push to help get the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement that was started with President Donald Trump finalized by members of congress.

"This agreement opens up new access to Canadian markets for wheat, wine, egg, poultry and dairy," Johnson said on the House floor in 2019. "It increases agricultural exports by nearly $200 billion per year and that is why 1,000 ag groups across the country have endorsed USMCA."

Going forward

Now six months out from his second re-election primary, Johnson faces three-term state legislator Taffy Howard from Rapid City.

While he is hoping to win his third bid as the South Dakota Republican for the House seat, Johnson said he welcomes challengers who offer solutions to problems and hopes his record speaks to his agenda as a congressman.

"I feel like if I keep my head down, work hard and deliver real results for South Dakota, they're going to rehire me for another two-year period," he said. "And again, the numbers indicate the South Dakotans are, in general, happy — satisfied with the job we do."

Daugaard believes Johnson has served the state well.

"I think he's especially good at communicating with the voters — better, really, than I've seen many. He's very accessible," said Daugaard, who endorsed Johnson when he first announced his candidacy. "In spite of (the endorsement) weighing him down, he was able to get elected. I think he's doing a wonderful job."

In South Dakota, Johnson said that the relationships among state's leaders — Gov. Kristi Noem, Sen. John Thune, Sen. Mike Rounds and himself — are unique from those of top leaders in other states.

"We work really closely together. And that is a partnership that, to my knowledge, none of my other colleagues are able to enjoy. If anything, they feel like they're mired in infighting with their state delegation," Johnson said. "We don't agree on everything, but John Thune, Mike Rounds, Kristi Noem and Dusty Johnson work together a lot because I think we understand that this is a team effort."

As for challenging any of them for their position? Johnson said he has no intentions of running against Noem, who announced last week her plans to seek re-election, but he is open to the idea of running for the state's highest office following her tenure.