Campaigning a family affair for Johnsons

Toby Uecker

Toby Uecker

Campaign staffs for countless political hopefuls can be expected to descend on South Dakota towns as the Nov. 5 election looms near, but two campaign workers in Brookings for the Thumpin’ Thursday rally last week were not your normal staffers.

Brendan and Kelsey Johnson have a more personal stake in the 2002 election cycle, hoping to help their father, Sen. Tim Johnson, retain his seat in the national legislature.

“This is one of those really tight elections where we feel like we at least want to show how much we support our father and be there for him like he was for us,” Brendan said.

The siblings have shown that support through statewide travel, both on their own and with their parents, meeting people and discussing their father’s programs and experience.

Brendan said that he and his sister sometimes eat every meal in a different senior center or small town diner making contact with the voters.

He discounted the importance of TV ads to sway South Dakotans, saying that what really makes a difference in people’s minds is the ability to talk one on one with the candidate or, in this case, the candidate’s family.

“We’re very lucky to be doing this in South Dakota, where even the people that disagree with you are generally very nice to you,” Brendan said.

But not everything the Johnsons have dealt with in the political arena has been nice.

Brendan said he still has trouble seeing negative advertising aimed at his father.

“You have to try to grow thick skin to deal with it because it’s always there,” he said. “It’s still as hard as it ever was.”

Tim and his wife, Barb, have tried to keep the two kids sheltered from the worst of politics, according to their daughter.

“Both of our parents are pretty normal people,” Kelsey said, “and they try to keep our life as grounded as possible.”

Even with attempts to be grounded, though, the campaign is not a job that can be left at the office. By virtue of being the candidate’s children, Kelsey and Brendan have reminders of the race, even at home.

“It’s a 24-hour job,” Kelsey said.

During their official office hours, the siblings spend a lot of time trying to appeal to voters their own age by mentioning things like student loans and public education.

“What we try to do is really focus on those issues,” he said.

He added that it is often helpful for students to see people their own age discussing pressing political issues. Getting students interested is a constant struggle in the face of perceived apathy.

“Kids feel neglected on politics,” Kelsey said. “It’s important for (us) to come and show them that there are issues that affect them.”

Representing her father, though, Kelsey said there is often a perception that she knows more than she does about the issues and the workings of campaigns.

“Everyone expects me to be old hat at this. It’s overwhelming,” she said.

Both Johnson siblings say, though, that the chance to campaign for their father is worth the occasional feeling of being overwhelmed.

“You can’t beat an experience like this,” Kelsey said.