In Big mix of candidates, intrigue in House 3A special election, Range blogger extraordinaire Aaron Brown observes about one candidate running to fill the vacancy created by the death of David Dill:
. . .Kelsey Johnson — has filed to run as an independent candidate .. .
Johnson’s website is here, which also appears to cast a picture of a generally progressive candidacy, if anything one that seems to use messaging similar to that of a DFL candidate. Most recently, Johnson was the lead lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association in St. Paul. She is from the rural St. Louis County portion of the district.
Bluestem has noticed a distinct resemblance to the positions outlined by DFL endorsement seeker, Ely City Council member Heidi Omerza.
Other information online suggests that Johnson's political genealogy is less connected to the progressive wing of the DFL, than to the moderate DFL senators who form the backbone of Tom Bakk's leadership in the Minnesota Senate. Moreover, with the exception of one gun-control group, her client list isn't particularly associated with the progressive left in the North Star state.
A DFL political genealogy
Zoominfo.com has preserved a January 2014 profile of Johnson that had been posted at Capitol Hill Strategies, a lobbying and public affair firm, prior to her moving on to serve as director of state affairs for the Grocery Manufacturing Association (GMA). A press release issued by the GMA in February scrubbed out the specifics, while keeping the outline.
Here's the pre-GMA career profile once posted by her former employer:
Kelsey A.L. Johnson – Government Affairs Consultant
Kelsey Johnson is a native Minnesotan. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy[AH1] from St. Catherine University in 2004. While at St. Catherine University Ms. Johnson was the recipient of the Thomas More Leadership Award, President of the Student Senate and captain of the swim team. Since graduating from St. Catherine University Ms. Johnson honed her skills in customer service, negotiations, and solutions-based selling through her work in the private sector. In her last career before entering the political arena she was an Account Executive, selling audio, web and video conferencing solutions. During her sales career she negotiated contracts with Fortune 500 companies and worked with all levels of leadership within various corporations to come to mutually exclusive agreements.
Ms. Johnson began her political career by interning with Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch. After leaving the Attorney General’s Office, she interned for Minnesota State Senator LeRoy Stumpf, Chair of the Senate Education Policy and Finance Committee. Ms. Johnson subsequently took a position in the Minnesota House DFL Caucus where she worked for numerous Representatives and the Chief Sergeant -At-Arms.
Following Ms. Johnson’s departure from the Minnesota House she began lobbying and continues to do so today. During the 2012 election-cycle she served as the campaign manager for the successful re-election of State Senator Terri Bonoff, who has been appointed the Chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. Ms. Johnson recently completed her Master’s of Arts in Organizational Leadership with a concentration on ethics and leadership at St. Catherine University. Her final project focused on transparency in campaign finance. In conjunction with her master’s degree, Ms. Johnson obtained a certificate in Strategic Management. Ms. Johnson is a diligent worker who maintains strong working relationships.
Ms. Johnson understands the importance of a balanced life and enjoys any opportunity to play hard. She is an avid water sports enthusiast as a member of both USA Waterski and USA Swimming. Ms. Johnson is active in her community as a current member and former board member to the League of Women Voters Minneapolis, active member of the Junior League of Minneapolis, and current member of the Citizen’s League where she assisted in the development of a platform for current water policy concerns.
Stumpf (Plummer), the DFL senator with the most seniority, now chairs the Capital Investment committee. A social conservative, he voted against legalizing same-sex marriage and supports pro-life positions. He was excused from the Senate for the day when raising the minimum wage came up, so we're at a loss to group him with folks like Lyle Koenen.
A key Bakk ally who chairs the senate's Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, Bonoff (Minnetonka) is more progressive on social issues, but conservative enough on economic and education issues that she won the support of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and NFIB. In a recent MinnPost article, How Senate DFLers are becoming like Republicans, Bonoff served as columnist Cyndy Brucato's sole DFL source.
Bonoff was also involved in a bit of rebellion relating to the passage of the Women's Economic Security Act, MPR reported in 2014, although she did end up voting for the bill. In a column published in the Star Tribune, Bonoff supported the notion of a "two tiered" minimum wage, allowing businesses to pay lower wages to tipped employees.
These political connections don't exactly scream "Sheila Wellstone" from the mountain tops. Moreover, she's running as an independent for an empty House seat in one half of Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk's home district. Following the DFL primary, would any Democratic state lawmaker buck the nominee?
Nor do her clients while she lobbied holler, "Independent," unless one only defines independence as free of the partisan.
Lobbying for GMA--and beyond
While Johnson bills her "advocacy" for the group as a matter of "feeding the world," progressive citizens might pause to reflect about what chemicals the GMA is comfortable being in children's products. Since joining the GMA, Johnson has testified against former state representative Ryan Winkler's Toxic Free Kids Act (March 2014 hearing) and Senator Ann Rest's SF1099 this past session (Winkler was chief author of the House companion bill). Johnson followed the bill through the committee process, testifying against it three times (here, here and here).
Johnson was also cited in a Star Tribune report about GMO labeling on food products, Food labeling bill stirs debate at State Capitol about genetically modified products, and testified at a 2014 informational hearing for Minneapolis state representative Karen Clark's HF3140, a GMO labeling bill. Her testimony starts at the 28:16 mark on The Uptake's Youtube of the hearing.
The U.S. Right to Know pro-labeling campaign runs through a laundry list of the GMA's positions and anti-transparency activities. Perhaps Johnson set aside her concerns about campaign finance transparency after finishing grad school.
Prior to joining GMA (for whom she registered as a lobbyist in other states such as Florida), Johnson's clients for her lobbying services included the judicial reform group Coalition for Impartial Justice, prison profiteers Corrections Corporation of America (there's a bid to re-open or lease its Appleton prison afoot), Michael Bloomberg co-chaired gun control group, Everytown for Gun Safety, pro-tip credit Minnesota Restaurant Association and the National Popular Vote.
Bluestem suspects having the "gun safety" group on her resume might have clashed a bit with the NRA membership, but there's no timeline. As gun right supporters, Bluestem would like to know if she was for or against gun rights before she was against them--or if she just happened to support both her client and the NRA at the same time. That would be breathtakingly independent.
Whatever that case may be, Johnson's business relationships with powerful special interests make her claim to be "independent" of partisan affiliation to be rather beside the point. Sources tell us that polling in state house districts reveals that voters are tired of moneyed interests having more power than ordinary citizens.
It's not an argument for electing one of the most powerful trade group's lobbyists to the Minnesota House.
Given that zeitgeist, it's not surprising that on her website, Johnson uses language to obscure her day job. She wasn't a lobbyist for a group of food industry corporations; instead an "advocate" for "our area and small businesses":
Most recently, Kelsey has been working as an advocate at the State Capitol, working to pass legislation that helps our area and small businesses.
As Director of State Affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, she has learned what it takes to successfully advocate for policies that protect and support our most important initiative: Feeding the World.
Really? Sourcewatch describes the trade association in a much different light:
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), previously the Grocery Manufacturers of America, based in Washington, D.C., is the world's largest trade association for corporations making food, beverage, and consumer products. Representing such companies as Campbell Soup Company, Kraft Foods, and Pepsi, it channels political contributions, lobbies and engages in public relations on behalf of its member corporations. In 2007, the Food Products Association (FPA), which focuses on science, nutrition labeling, and food safety, merged with GMA.
GMA's primary wing -- its 501(c)(6) trade association -- took in nearly $41.4 million in total revenue in 2013 (its most recently available filing), spent over $41.4 million in total expenses, and had over $31 million in net assets available as of the end of that year. Its 501(c)(3), "GMA Science and Education Foundation," had $588,626 in total revenue, $337,891 in total expenses, and $1,477,901 in net assets for the same time period.
GMA's PAC made $222,245 in political contributions at the federal level in 2014 -- 63 percent to Republicans and 37 percent to Democrats -- according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The top recipient of GMA political contributions from 1989 through the second quarter of 2014 was Democratic Senator Ron Kind of Wisconsin, according to the Sunlight Foundation. GMA made $11,073,608 in political contributions at the state level in 2014, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. It has spent $41,052,904 in lobbying at the federal level 1989 through the second quarter of 2014, according to the Sunlight Foundation. It spent $4,620,347 lobbying at the federal level and had eight lobbyists active in three states in 2014.
Earlier in this post, we visited her testimony for her client. Perhaps she can spell out how that testimony helped the area and small businesses. Or was she moonlighting?
Perhaps we should simply be grateful that she's not running in the seat Ryan Winkler vacated.
All snark aside, we think that the bid reflects the Minnesota Nice culture of insider politics. We're sure she's a nice person--multiple sources tell us she dated Mr. Nice Guy Kurt Daudt which must have been a nice time--but policy-making should be built more than just being one of the guys.*
*A generic, tradition non-gender specific Minnesota language term for "people." You guys know what we mean.
Photo: According to a GMA press release, Senator Terri Bonoff (right) wasn't expected to win, but lobbyist Kelsey Johnson (left) saved the day as her campaign manager. Other sources were not as certain of Bonoff's potential defeat. Photo via Minneapolis Junior League Facebook page.
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