Freedom Is His Flight Plan is the title of one of the early biographies of a man who flew airplanes for his country, had a successful career in private business, and was a leader of consequence in modern American politics. His name was Barry Goldwater.
In so many ways, Rep. Bill Johnson (R.-Ohio) is cut from the same cloth as Goldwater. After 26 years in the U.S. Air Force, Johnson retired as a lieutenant colonel and co-founded Johnson-Schley Management Group, an information technology consulting company whose revenues increased by more than 200% in less than four years. For the past three years, Johnson has been chief information officer of a global manufacturer of highly engineered electrical components. In that capacity, he helped to manage a multimillion-dollar budget.
At an age (55) when many of his contemporaries began thinking of retirement, Johnson decided last year to do something different: run for Congress from Ohio’s sprawling 6th District, which had been in Democratic hands for the past 14 years.
“So, when you consider the sum total of my previous political activity was writing some checks to candidates and to the RNC, you wonder why I did it?” said Johnson, a father of four and grandfather of five. “There are two reasons. First, there’s my faith. I believe we are a land ordained by God. We have a system based on individual freedom, and from that has come a free enterprise system that encourages competition. And when you realize that just about every convenience we have taken for granted over the past 200 years started here, you feel strongly about our country.
“The other reason is that I was worried about the future of our country—a lot. I’m not saying that all the overregulation and out-of-control government spending started with Barack Obama, but it sure has grown exponentially under his administration. That’s why I ran.”
Facing two-term Democratic Rep. Charles Wilson (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 12.67%), Johnson hit hard at what he called the incumbent’s “ultra-liberal record.” Noting that the district has historically strong coal and steel areas, the GOP hopeful said, “It was not surprising that [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi gave my opponent a pass to vote against cap and trade. But when she and Obama needed his vote to spend more of our tax dollars on a health care program that won’t work and on stimulus packages that will increase the deficit, he was there.”
In an age when television and high-tech communication increasingly fuel campaigns, Johnson stressed “people power” in a district that stretched 325 miles along the Ohio River and included suburbs of Youngstown in Mahoning Valley. “People power” means personal contact with voters by volunteers, which, in this part of the Buckeye State, trumps high-tech campaigning all the time.
Did the growing Tea Party movement provide ground troops for the first-time candidate who spoke about lower taxes and government’s living within its means?
“You bet. Tea Parties are big out here,” Johnson replied. “I know because I’ve been to most of them.”
Whether it was the Tea Parties, or the citizens’ revulsion at Wilson’s votes, or responsiveness to the Republicans’ conservative message, Johnson’s campaign worked, and he was elected to Congress By 53% to 47% of the vote.
‘I Do Not Want to Raise the Debt Ceiling, But … ‘
When I spoke to Rep. Johnson, he was back in the 6th District for the Easter recess. Because he was in an out-of-the-way town, his cell phone access was limited, but the congressman got back to me after “some of the folks here were kind enough to let me use their phone.”
Johnson immediately cut to what people were telling him at a series of town meetings. Constituents were skeptical about Congress’ upcoming vote on raising the debt ceiling, he said, with many considering the vote as just a blank check for more government spending.
“I do not want to raise the debt ceiling, but I also realize the debt is just the symptom, and the disease is out-of-control spending,” the congressman said. “There is a difference between raising the debt ceiling the way the Democrats did in 2010—just to continue spending at the federal level—and raising the debt ceiling now to continue our obligations, but with serious, serious cuts.”
Johnson indicated he has not decided how he will vote on raising the debt ceiling, “but we need to take big steps to reverse spending and change the way we do business in Washington.”
When I asked if that would include big cuts in Pentagon spending, the retired Air Force officer replied without hesitation: “Yes, absolutely. I’ve been around the Department of Defense for 27 years, and we have to streamline the way defense spending is applied. Warfare has changed. We now face an asymmetrical threat from terrorists. They’re not massed in one place with their weapons pointed at us. They’re well-organized, well-funded, technologically advanced, and they can strike at remote places, including within this country. So we have to overhaul our defense spending and the way we use it, to give our fighting forces the best technological know-how to deal with the new threat.”
He added that “it isn’t so much the amount we spend on defense, but how we spend it that is so critical.”
As for reform of Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlements, the Ohio lawmaker agreed that it will take a lot of persuasion to win over the public behind the “Path to Prosperity” budget offered by House Republicans that includes such reforms.
But Johnson also believes that the chore will not be as difficult as it seems if Republicans make it clear that their plan for Medicare reform does not begin until 10 years from now, won’t touch the current system, and strengthens rather than eliminates health care for senior citizens.
He noted that “the senior citizens who came to our town meetings were saying to me, ‘Don’t be afraid. We know we’re in debt, and we know if services are going to be provided for other senior citizens in 10 years, Medicare will have to be reformed.’
“They get it. So should we.”
The freshman lawmaker went on to talk about his work on the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee—“From contracting problems to the lack of building improvements in veterans’ hospitals, there’s a lot to be done”—and issues before the Natural Resources Committee, of which he’s a member. Clearly, Bill Johnson has a lot on his plate in Congress. One thing is certain as he continues the latest portion of his journey through an eventful life. Freedom will continue to be his flight plan.