Where Are They Now: Bruce Johnson
By Cyndy Rees
Bruce Johnson was on the fast track in Ohio politics. From a talented campaign manager for Columbus’ last Republican Mayor Greg Lashutka in 1991, to a seat in The Ohio Senate in 1994, a prolific Senator and President Pro Tempore, term limits brought his legislative service to an end and in 2001, he was appointed Director of the Ohio Department of Development under Governor Bob Taft. In 2004, Johnson was appointed Ohio’s 63rd Lt. Governor.
That is a stellar career in a very short period of time. Johnson proved an aggressive legislator, a cabinet director with a record of achievement, and a Lt. Governor who helped pilot the ship of state during difficult times for Governor Taft at the end of his term.
Before we answer the question, let’s examine the career of a man who arrived on the scene with high praise for his work, and left with his reputation enhanced for having accomplished much of what he set out to achieve politically.
Jon Allison, former chief of staff for Governor Bob Taft, has known Johnson since he was a State Senator representing his central Ohio district in Franklin County.
“He was a leader in his caucus, somebody that leadership relied on to carry the load on the particularly complex and difficult issues. That was his standing when he was in the legislature,” Allison recalled.
Bruce Johnson was born as the post-World War II Baby Boom was winding down on May 25, 1960. He attended college and graduated from Bowling Green State University in 1982, and then pursued legal studies at Capital University, earning a Juris Doctorate in 1985. A proud Delta Tau Delta from BG, Johnson was admitted to the practice of law in Ohio in 1985.
The law brought Johnson to the City of Columbus, where he would start his career. As an assistant city prosecutor, he received a legal and political break and became an associate with the politically connect law firm of Chester, Wilcox, and Saxbe in Columbus. The firm was and remains very influential in politics in Central Ohio. Attorney Jack Chester was well known as a “go to” man in local and state politics, particularly on the Republican side, as is Rocky Saxbe, who served in government and remains highly regarded from the Courthouse to the Statehouse.
Johnson’s career choice was beneficial. His talents, legal and political, came to the attention of Mayor Greg Lashutka of Columbus. In 1991, the31 year old attorney successfully managed the Mayor’s campaign for re-election in an increasingly Democratic stronghold. After the campaign, Lashutka tapped Johnson to be his Chief of Staff at City Hall.
As Chief of Staff, Johnson aggressively implemented the will of the strong Mayor in city government. He oversaw many Cabinet agencies, helped transfer authority of the city’s failed trash burning power plant (or “cash” burning power plant as the old axiom went) to the Southwest Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO). Johnson helped reorganize city government and became quite the power broker in the state’s largest city.
Ten years before he was born, Theodore “Ted” Gray was elected to The Ohio Senate from Piqua, Ohio. Gray and the 3rd Ohio Senate District kept gravitating north and east until Gray settled in Upper Arlington and became a Central Ohio legislator. A fixture at the Statehouse, and former member of the GOP leadership, Gray was safely re-elected serving for five decades, having the distinction as Ohio’s longest serving legislator. The prospect of term limits finally caught up with Gray, and the Legislature’s elder statesman left The Ohio Senate in 1994 in advance of the wave of retirements, voluntary and involuntary, that would follow over the next decade. Gray got out on his own terms, and opened a coveted Senate seat.
Stepping in to fill the void of the Legend, was Mayor Lashutka’s main man, Bruce Johnson. Johnson won a contested appointment battle, and was installed as the first new Senator to represent District 3 since the Truman Administration. He hit the ground running.
Allison said Johnson is very knowledgeable about business issues. “When Bruce worked for the Mayor of Columbus as chief of staff, he had direct involvement in business retention strategy. He had the right background to run the Development Department.”
Former Ohio Speaker of the House JoAnn Davidson (R-Reynoldsburg) has known Johnson for a long time. “When he came into the Ohio Senate, he was my State Senator when I was a State Representative,” Davidson said. “I worked with him closely through the years when we were in the legislature.” “He’s very bright, a very hard worker. I like his flexibility, but Bruce can be very tough when he needs to be,” Davidson adds. “I also love his sense of humor and yet he’s a very serious guy. He has a unique personality that can roll with the punches making it easy to work with Bruce.”
Johnson first tackled tax and incentive reform. As a city official, he saw how the state’s incentive programs, overseen by the very Department of Development that he would eventually pilot years later, would pit business vs. business. He argued that parameters should be put into place to assure that new businesses were not treated much better than existing businesses who received subsidies and incentives. It is an argument that resonates to this day in municipal and the world of Jobs Ohio created economic development.
Focusing on his next municipal related interest, was a reform package of zoning and building code violations, providing more tools to municipalities to maintain control of those functions. Johnson sought and was elected to his first term after appointment later in 1994.
Johnson hit the statewide big leagues by authoring a reform to Ohio’s death penalty statutes that sped up the appeals process of a death row inmate with the blessing of Governor George V. Voinovich (R-OH) that made the 1994 ballot and was approved by voters.
Into his first elected term, Johnson tackled tax reform, an item of interest that remains a hot topic to this very day. He became Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and helped shepherd through much of the Voinovich Administration’s agenda to get tough on time and institutionalize law breakers for longer periods of time to protect society from career criminals.
Johnson’s Statehouse success caught the attention of the Franklin County Republican Party. They recruited the legislator to run for Columbus City Attorney in 1997, an office vacated by newly elected Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien. Johnson ran a spirited campaign, but was soundly defeated by 20 points by appointed incumbent the former Judge Janet Jackson. A humbling lesson, Johnson returned to the Statehouse to end up the Voinovich Administration, and usher in the new era of Hamilton County’s Bob Taft, an Administration that would change the trajectory of his career.
Re-Elected in 1998 in a competitive district, Johnson again became a prolific champion of legislation and was considered an ideal sponsor for complicated legislative initiatives due to his own smarts, savvy, and ability to leverage relationships inside the General Assembly, constituency groups, and the Administration.
At the dawn of the Taft Administration came a major challenge that Johnson sought. Electronic Utility De-Regulation was sought by Ohio’s manufacturers and industrial utility users to lower costs and compete more robustly with foreign competition. Pushed nationally by Houston’s Enron Corporation, Johnson, a pro-business reformer, was compelled to introduce S.B. 2 in 1999.
Eventually, a compromise bill was ensconced into law and Ohio joined the ranks of a burgeoning marketplace that continues to reap consequences for Ohio policymakers and consumers.
Johnson’s skillful legislative talent and relationship with Speaker Davidson (R-Reynoldsburg) and Governor Taft helped make Ohio one of the first states to begin the deregulation process. “We worked on a lot of issues together including electrical deregulation,” Davidson said.
With the retirement of Mayor Lashutka, Johnson briefly toyed with the idea of running for Mayor of Columbus, but did not pull the proverbial trigger. His Senate work and status were more important to him, and with demographic changes within the city, he did not like his chances as a Republican. No Republican has been elected to citywide office in Columbus since Lashutka’s last election as Mayor in 1995.
Johnson thrived at the Statehouse during the Taft years. From legislation that would benefit young people to business issues, he continued to be a highly sought after sponsor for major legislation. His prolific work caught the attention of Taft, his Chief of Staff Brian Hicks, and Legislative Affairs Director Jon Allison. This combination of relationships, and a bit of political maneuvering, thrust Johnson into the state’s No. 2 position.
Facing term limitations himself, Johnson left the Senate and was appointed Director of Development, a Cabinet level position that was Ohio’s jobs engine until Jobs Ohio rendered the agency’s economic development arm mostly moot. In 2001, Johnson said farewell to his colleagues as the Senate’s No. 2 person, and went across the street from the Statehouse to begin work in the Administration.
In 2002, with Lt. Governor Maureen O’Connor running for the Ohio Supreme Court, Taft tapped Columbus City Councilwoman Jeanette Bradley to be his running mate against Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan.
Johnson was diligent about economic growth and development helping to guide the state to low unemployment and implement the Taft Agenda. In 2004, political winds blew differently and ushered in a new era in Ohio and Johnson’s life. State Treasurer Joe Deters replaced his successor, Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen on the ballot when Allen became embroiled in a scandal that cost him his elected career. Deters was elected County Prosecutor, and resigned from office to take the position. Deters himself was the subject of a state ethics investigation into his and his subordinates handling of the State Treasurers’ Office.
The dominos began to fall into place. Lt. Governor Bradley was appointed to the State Treasurer’s position and in quick succession, Taft needed a Lt. Governor. After consideration from inside and outside of the Administration, Johnson was tapped as the state’s second banana in December of 2004.
Johnson immediately went to work, and Taft ended up fighting off ethical charges of his own as it related the report of golfing with lobbyists and other interests went unreported, a violation of state ethics policy. While mostly a filing error, Taft accepted responsibility for the actions and plead to misdemeanor charges. All the while, Johnson was a steady hand on the ship of state, working with the Legislature and political and government officials to assure that Taft’s last two years in office would be substantive despite the enveloping distractions and minor scandals.
Johnson immersed himself into meaningful and hands on issues, as he had as a Senator. Tax reform, championed by House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sally Conway Kilbane (R-Rocky River) on behalf of Speake Jon Husted (R-Kettering) was negotiated as a wholesale change in taxing philosophy. Abolishing the layers of taxes that Ohio’s business community claimed stood in the way of growth. Tax reform was accomplished, with Johnson playing an important final role in approval thereof.
Allison said Johnson played a critical role in the business tax reforms that were passed in 2005. “It is one of the biggest tax reform packages to pass in Ohio,” Allison said. “It included a complete overhaul of the business tax system, including a 21 percent income tax cut. Bruce could speak with authority at the time from his position as Development Director and the relationships he built in the State Senate. He that trust and rapport which was critical to the tax passage that Governor Taft proposed.”
Johnson’s work helped steady the ship and reassured legislative leaders at the time. When 2006 rolled in, Johnson’s name was frequently mentioned as a candidate for statewide office, but he rode out the rest of the Taft Administration as Ohio’s No. 2 and left elected office on a cold day in January, 2007 when he relinquished the office to Lee Fisher.
So, where is he now? Bruce Johnson has been working with the Inter-University Council in Columbus since he left office. The Council is a formal advocacy group for Ohio’s public colleges and universities. . He is still active in politics, but not promoting himself but others as higher education’s chief advocate.
Allison points to his efforts in leading Ohio’s university system. “The universities are very well served having Bruce. He’s politically smart, knows state government well and has always had a cool head and clear eyes when it comes to strategy,” he noted. “As far as I am concerned they are reaping the benefits of his knowledge and skills in his efforts leading higher education in Ohio.”
Bruce Johnson’s career at Broad and High continues, but in a different capacity. By all accounts, he has spent his time well out of office, and is still a hardworking and respected voice for Ohio’s students’ interests.