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Monday, January 28, 2008

Are there enough skeptics about Sen. Johnson's health to keep him from being re-elected?

By Gordon Garnos

AT ISSUE: To turn the heads of South Dakotans away from this session of the Legislature a bit, today's column centers on our senior U. S. senator, Tim Johnson. A big question among voters in the state is whether or not Senator Johnson's health will permit him to carry a full-fledged campaign for re-election to his third term in the U.S. Senate. If it is, will his health allow him to carry on a full schedule if he is re-elected. Or, we can put this another way? Are there enough skeptics about Sen. Johnson's health to keep him from being re-elected?

SENATOR TIM JOHNSON grew up in South Dakota very much like most of us. His dad was a high school teacher and later a professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. I know because his dad, Dr. Van Johnson, was my advisor at the U. But I must warn you here and now that this doesn't put me in one political camp or the other, at least as far as this column goes.

Johnson's political climb in the Democratic Party started with four years in the S.D. House of Representatives and four years in the S.D. Senate. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986 with a 60 percent plurality. That was the first of five two-year terms in the U.S. House. In 1996 he was elected to the U.S. Senate and again in 2002, when he narrowly defeated then U.S. Representative John Thune. Thune then in the 2004 election defeated Sen. Tom Dashle for his seat in the U.S. Senate.

The senator sits on a number of important committees, including Appropriations, Budget, Banking, Energy and Indian Affairs and, as such, his seniority on these committees gains more emphasis.

ALL OF THAT is what South Dakota's senior senator has going for him as he prepares for another race for re-election.

It appears at this time the Republican front runner to oppose the senator is a Canton business man, Joel Dykstra, currently the assistant majority leader in the S.D. House of Representatives, the same place the senator started his climb in the political world. A small side bar here is that Dykstra is from the same town where Johnson was born.

Health issues seem to be Senator Johnson's main enemies at this point and they very well could work against him as he goes into this campaign as well as in the ballot box come November. He is a prostate cancer survivor and his wife, Barbara, is a two-time breast cancer survivor. That's history. But being struck Dec. 13, 2006, with a brain hemorrhage, that's here and now.
The hemorrhage was caused by a cerebral arteriovenous malformation, or in words that us laymen can understand, a malformed blood vessel. Was he ever near death? Yes.

FOLLOWING THE SURGERY to stop the bleeding and weeks of induced coma, Senator Johnson slowly came back to be among the living. Months of therapy has brought him back a long way, but, we can't deny it, will his progress ever bring him back to being the former Senator Johnson? He, his family and his staff continue to assure South Dakotans he will be his former self, but there is still doubt.

Many South Dakotans in the state well remember the last years of Senator Karl Mundt, another very famous senator from South Dakota. In November 1969, half way through his third six-year term as a senator, Senator Mundt suffered a major stoke and was incapacitated the rest of his life. Although he, too, had extensive therapy he never returned to Congress. In 1972 Senator Mundt was stripped of his committee assignments, but he remained in office to the end of his term in January 1973. He died the following year and was buried in Madison, the home of his beloved Dakota State College, where he taught before going into politics.

Now, there are going to be some in South Dakota who will be miffed at me for commenting on Senator Johnson's health and indicating there may be some who will hold that against him when they go to the ballot box. Others won't like the comparison of his stroke and the stroke of Senator Mundt. There are still others who don't like being reminded of his health issues as they are usually not good bedfellows when it comes to an election. Be this as it may, we can't forget those who may give the senator their sympathy votes for the struggle he has had.

In either case, Senator Johnson's health issues are on the minds of many and the above comments thus had to be made. In the meantime, South Dakotans are generally a compassionate bunch and his illness may not hinder him from campaigning, nor hurt him in the General Election. We will see....


Gordon Garnos was long-time editor of the Watertown Public Opinion and recently retired after 39 years with that newspaper. Garnos, a lifelong resident of South Dakota except for his military service in the U.S. Air Force, was born and raised in Presho.


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