See more of the story

From his downtown Minneapolis office, Randy Johnson once could see as far as Lake Minnetonka on a clear day.

Since he took office in the late 1970s, however, the skyline filled in with skyscrapers, evolving like the rest of Hennepin County over Johnson's 38 years on the County Board.

From a countywide ban on smoking to the start of light rail transit, from the building of Target Field to the consolidation of the county's library system, he was a part of it all.

Now, at age 70, the Bloomington Republican is retiring as the county's longest-serving commissioner. As he recently prepared to leave his cluttered rosewood-paneled office atop the Government Center, he said he never thought he'd be in the job for nearly 40 years.

"What we do affects every single person in the county almost every day," he said.

Over time, Johnson has helped propel Hennepin County's work and reputation nationally. He testified before Congress more often than any elected county official in history and was the first Minnesota official to lead a national county association.

He's helped lead local welfare reform, increase recycling efforts, restructure the Hennepin County Medical Center's board and consolidate the county's and Minneapolis' library systems.

"As a state and local and national leader, you're leaving some really big shoes to fill," Commissioner Linda Higgins said at Johnson's last board meeting this month.

Johnson said he didn't set out to make public office, much less the county, his career. But each time a term ended, he said there was too much he still had to do. Now he's ready to retire.

The political first-grader

Many residents of Minneapolis and its suburbs may not know much about the County Board, but they've likely been affected by decisions Johnson and his colleagues have made. The state's most populous county has more than 1 million residents and a budget, at $1.9 billion, second only to the state's. Commissioners typically get less scrutiny than city or state policymakers and receive more than $100,000 a year for the full-time job.

"Almost every legislator in Hennepin County would rather be a county commissioner," Johnson said. "We actually get things done."

It was back in the first grade that Johnson became interested in government, campaigning door-to-door for Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election. His civics teacher at South High School encouraged him to attend a County Board meeting where he found himself the lone teenager. He was nevertheless enthralled. "It was just a fascinating level of government," he said.

After graduating from Macalester College and the University of Minnesota Law School, Johnson was working for the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C. in 1978 when he heard there was an open seat on the County Board. He flew back to the Twin Cities and won the race. Since then he's won 10 more elections, four of them unopposed, in the Fifth District that includes Bloomington, Richfield, Eden Prairie and Chanhassen.

Meetings today are available for viewing on the internet, but rarely contentious or covered on TV. But when Johnson joined the board, meetings were broadcast on the radio, and TV stations routinely covered the divided board's shouting matches. "We were item No. 1 and No. 2 on the evening news every night," he said.

Johnson's career hasn't lacked controversy, including scrutiny over his trips and travel expenses. The smoking ban he first proposed in 1987 for the Government Center divided the board and drew public outcry. The board split over approving a countywide sales tax to build Target Field, which Johnson supported.

"You never want to argue with him; you're never going to win," said his wife, Polly, a retired teacher. "He's rarely wrong, I hate to admit."

Johnson, who chaired two GOP state conventions, supported labor unions and light rail even when it wasn't popular in his district. Supporters pushed him to run for Congress or state office, but he said the timing was never right and that he preferred the range of county tasks. "Local government affects people's lives more than state government or the feds," he said.

Consolidating 38 years

In nearly 40 years in office, Johnson has worked with more than 20 commissioners, three county attorneys and three sheriffs.

"He was a champion of all of Hennepin County," said former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who served with him on the HCMC board. "Randy wasn't just a leader here in his community."

County Attorney Mike Freeman, a DFLer who met Johnson 42 years ago in law school, said the commissioner was a thoughtful legal strategist who always asked probing questions. "We jostled a little about [political] things, but we found more common ground," Freeman said.

His colleagues on the board described him as a kind but passionate leader known for Ole and Lena jokes and history lessons. Over the years, the aggressive younger Johnson mellowed, former Commissioner Jeff Spartz said, and although they clashed on the board he now counts Johnson as a friend.

So does former Commissioner Mark Andrew, a former state DFL Party chair, who said he had a "bitter" relationship with Johnson until both realized they had more in common than they thought.

"We didn't necessarily agree on politics but we agreed on policy," Andrew said. "I think he'll be remembered as one of the finest policy mechanics of a generation. Randy was one of the brightest commissioners I served with."

Johnson had planned to run for re-election this year, but then changed his mind to travel and spend more time with his wife, daughters and three grandchildren. He said he plans to be a library volunteer and perhaps teach as well.

But first the self-proclaimed pack rat must whittle down the contents of 120 boxes filled with plaques, files and books. In a dark, fenced-off space in the attic above the Government Center's top floor, he recently sorted through shelves of boxes. An app on his phone counted down the days, hours and minutes until Jan. 3, when Richfield Mayor Debbie Goettel will take his seat.

Johnson picked up an old poster, looked at it and then decided not to toss it. "How can I leave this behind?" he said. "It brings back a lot of memories."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141