After reading the Tribune’s blast at 15th District Congressman Tim Johnson in Monday’s editorial, “I really must be going,” I called the quirky 65-year-old Urbana Republican for a response. I first interviewed Johnson a couple of years ago when The Hill named him one of the hardest workers in Congress. The legislator, whose best friend in the House is Ron Paul, announced earlier this month (after winning the Republican primary against two opponents and on his way to a seventh term) that he was leaving Congress to spend more time with his family. The physical fitness buff talked with me via telephone as he walked through a local mall in his district, accompanied by his press secretary, Phil Bloomer. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
CF: The Tribune really let loose on you for announcing your retirement after the primary instead of before—so your replacement in the general election will now be selected by 14 Republican county chairmen.
TJ: I didn’t see it. Was there an editorial in the Tribune today, Phil? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Remember, I don’t live in Chicago, so it’s not like Chicago media is part of my everyday existence. [Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican party, who had read the editorial, told me that it’s “spot on.” Johnson “put us in a bad place,” Brady explained, leaving Republicans open to insinuations of “back room dealing.” The “weighted vote”—weighted according to Republicans who voted in the primary on March 20—will take place, Brady says, in the next three or four weeks. Candidates include Pat Brady’s cousin, State Rep. Dan Brady; Rodney Davis, a staffer for Congressman John Shimkus; and Jerry Clarke, Johnson’s former chief of staff, now in the same position for Rep. Randy Hultgren.]
CF: So why are you leaving, and why didn’t you announce it before the primary?
TJ: It’s 100 percent a family decision—lack of ability to do things with my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren [he has 9 children, 11 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren; he is single after three divorces], and specifically a couple of family critical matters. [Those] are of far more recent vintage, those were the tipping points. The Tribune is absolutely wrong. I haven’t seen it, but they are wrong.
CF: Do your children live in your District?
TJ: They live all over the country, one’s moving to Oregon, one just moved to Chicago, one’s in D.C.
CF: Redistricting made your district more blue. Were you worried about losing?
TJ: No, I was running against [Bloomington Democrat] David Gill, this would have been the fourth time. He’s not going to win. Whoever is the Republican nominee will win the seat. I would have had to serve my existing 15th District, and I would have had to campaign in a district that’s two-thirds new and stretches all the way to St. Louis.
CF: If the Democrats had nominated a fresh candidate, would they have a shot at winning this time?
TJ: I think they would not win it, but they could have made it a contest, unlike the current district where a Democrat just can’t win.
CF: Do you have a favorite among the Republicans vying to replace you?
TJ: No, I haven’t endorsed anybody. I know them all, I respect them all, and how that all plays out in terms of the selection is up to the county chairmen.
CF: I read that state Sen. Bill Brady, who ran against you in 2000 and lost, might run for the seat.
TJ: Bill’s not interested. He may run for governor again, but I’m sure he’s not going to run for Congress. [Pat Brady confirmed that Bill, no relation, who lost to Pat Quinn in the 2010 gubernatorial race, is not running. A call to Bill Brady’s office for confirmation was not returned by post time.]
CF: You’re known as a workout fanatic. I’ve read that the stroke of Sen. Mark Kirk shocked you and was a consideration in your stepping down.
TJ: I don’t know where anybody got that idea. I consider Mark a friend and a confidante, …but I have not talked to him since his stroke, and his illness had nothing to do with my decision.
CF: You’re famous for spending three to 12 hours a day calling your constituents, making 50-250 calls a day. Come January 3, 2013, when you’re out of Congress, how are you going to fill that time?
TJ: I’m certainly not going to stay home and watch As the World Turns. I [will] spend a whole lot more time with my family. I will have a little bit of a law practice. I plan to do some teaching. I’ve not ruled out the possibility of either elective or appointed office. I’m not going to lobby, that is unequivocal. No way. I’m not going to lobby in any form, unless lobbying means calling public officials and telling them I’m for or against a particular bill. I’m not going to lose sight of the fact that I made this decision for family reasons. Just in the last week I went to one of my grandson’s baseball games, the first in four years, in Philo, a little town near Urbana. I’m going to meet a son of mine who’s from Sidney [Illinois] in Ogden [Illinois] tonight for dinner, which is a very, very unusual venture on my part.I’m going to go out and see my daughter who’s a doctor and lives in Bolingbrook. I haven’t ever been to her home.
CF: You mentioned before that you won’t say “never” to another run for elective office. Would you run for a U.S. Senate seat?
TJ: Oh, no, no, no. I don’t want to go from the frying pan to the fire. I’m doing this to free up my time for prioritization, and going to the Senate would be counterintuitive. [Maybe] the City Council or some board or commission that met once a month.
CF: You endorsed Ron Paul for the Republican nomination. Will you support Mitt Romney in his run against President Obama?
TJ: Yes I’ll support Romney…. But I have an incredible amount of respect for Ron Paul. He’s leaving Congress, too, and I’m confident that he’s going to continue on the freedom train. I just talked to his chief of staff and told him that, come January, I want to continue to be active with him in dealing with issues like war and currency and government reform, to be his boots on the ground in downstate Illinois.
CF: Your anti-war views haven’t changed since I talked to you last in August?
TJ: Same deal. There’s always a justification—some alleged crisis, some reason why the Congress needs to authorize the President to go forward—and then we’re trapped in another war, and it’s just a never-ending cycle. It’s like Groundhog Day. We’re already beyond broke, losing thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of other citizens due to a war that can’t be won.
CF: You introduced Ron Paul at a rally at the U of I last month. Tell me about it. It didn’t get much coverage.
TJ: That’s the very point, Ron Paul has been a victim of the media deciding he’s not going to win. This guy drew 5,000 people in a small community like Champaign-Urbana. The next day, Newt Gingrich was in Rosemont in a metropolitan area of 6 million people and drew less than a hundred, and yet more people knew about Newt Gingrich than Ron Paul. He’s rock star here.
CF: Do you have an opinion on the contribution that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made to a PAC that worked against incumbents, including Rep. Don Manzullo, in Manzullo’s race against freshman Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger?
TJ: Yes I do, I think Cantor’s role was entirely inappropriate. He’s the Majority Leader of the U.S. House…and I think to impose himself, and then to contribute, in a race between two highly regarded colleagues and to actually spend money to effectively negatively attack one of those individuals is unacceptable, and I condemn him for doing that. The Majority Leader of the House from Virginia chooses to not only get involved in an Illinois race, but to directly and indirectly fund attacks on Don Manzullo, who’s been a good solider… and is a highly regarded individual.