She drives a big black Ford Taurus to work, not a bike. She doesn’t have a Twitter account. Her idea of a good day on the Minneapolis City Council is helping a constituent solve a problem with a garage, something she did recently.
Sitting at a coffee shop in a northeast neighborhood the other day, Barb Johnson, the reigning City Council president, touched the exposed brick wall and mentioned that it adjoined the former Rainville Brothers Mortuary, owned by her father decades ago. It is now a bar and restaurant.
The legacy of her family, in business and in politics, goes back to a time when they literally knew where all the bodies were.
“About where the bar is now,” Johnson said dryly.
It was a few days before the election, and Johnson was optimistic of retaining her family’s four-decade grip on her north Minneapolis council seat. Asked if she had a plan B in the event she lost, Johnson shrugged.
“I’m 68,” she said. “I’d spend more time with my grandkids. No big deal.”
Plan B became a reality just after 3 p.m. Wednesday, when city officials announced that challenger Phillipe Cunningham had won the North Side seat. Johnson was out.
For 20 years, 11 as council president, Johnson has been one of the more powerful people in the city. It’s a big deal.
For years, she has been the adult in the room at the council, a quiet but firm Minnesota grandmother who understands policy and builds support. During the campaign, she was treated like a Neanderthal or worse on social media and called a racist in public meetings. To those who know her, the criticism was unfair. But she never got ruffled.
On election night, family and friends gathered in a room in the tattered Camden Center in a tucked away corner of the city. The “M” on the strip mall’s sign was burned out. Pasta in red sauce simmered alongside a big pile of garlic bread and some boxed wine.
The room quieted noticeably when one of Johnson’s three daughters entered with results from the first precinct and showed them to her mother. Johnson put her hand to her chest and gasped.
Johnson’s challenger, 30-year-old Cunningham, who is black and transgender, was ahead in first-place votes 220-203. The insurgency had begun. A four-decade family legacy was ending.
“Are you winning, grandma?” Johnson’s oldest grandson, Louie, asked.
Johnson just leaned over and gave him a big hug.
Across the city and the country, young progressives, many motivated by Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, were winning races against both Republicans and old guard Democrats. Johnson has repeatedly won on issues such as public safety and neighborhood livability. But angered by Donald Trump’s victory, police shootings of black men and general malaise in the Democratic Party, new progressives “got woke,” as they like to say.
Johnson is a soft-spoken but often blunt politician who speaks her mind regardless of whether her opinion is popular. She has routinely supported liberal policies, but had the audacity to ask whether they were working and how much they cost. North Side homeowners rewarded her for it. Until they didn’t.
“You know, you sort of always have a group of people who don’t like you, whether you come in first or last, that’s the same,” Johnson said. “What’s different is that this era of social media has made it more coarse.”
Johnson could only speculate, but she wonders whether all the new, younger families that moved into her ward to occupy previously foreclosed homes — something she championed — showed up to vote against her.
She said criticism of her family’s dominance in politics over the past 40 years “bugs me a little bit,” but she added that “I’m really proud of my family’s community service. Politics was in our orange juice when I was a kid.”
As the rest of the first-place votes were tallied on a white board Tuesday night, Johnson held the lead, but just barely. It was not a good sign, because the other challengers were to the progressive side of her, meaning their second- and third-place votes would likely go to Cunningham.
At one point, the Johnsons gathered at the front of the room for a family photo, trying to look cheerful. One of the grandkids had worn a princess dress for the occasion. Husband Duane had recently been hit by a car while riding his bicycle and said he was “just happy to be standing.”
Johnson’s daughter, Emily Piper, is also commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. She remembers loading campaign signs for her mother into the family car as a little girl. Piper recalled when her mom lost her first election, for the Park Board.
“I was hysterical,” said Piper. “They had to take me home.”
Asked about the push to unseat her from the left flank, Johnson was wary. “I think it’s a generational thing,” she said. “It’s a different time in politics.”
Johnson said she was satisfied with her campaign, and her tenure on the council, no matter how the election ended. But she’s concerned a more rigid council “will push Minneapolis into this isolationist place. It’s dangerous.
“One thing you find out after actually getting elected into office is you understand just how complicated and complex running a city is,” she said. “You also find out you are not the center of the universe.”
It’s the kind of advice Johnson might now pass on to her six grandchildren, who sat around the kids’ table past bedtime on election night, just waiting for the evening to end.