SPRINGFIELD — After more than 40 years as an elected official, Tim Johnson won’t be taking an oath of office this January.
At age 66, the Republican from Urbana is retiring from politics, a world he has inhabited since he was elected to his hometown city council while still a student at the University of Illinois.
Known best for his often disheveled hair and his practice of cold-calling dozens of his central Illinois constituents on a near-daily basis, Johnson says he is looking forward to a semi-retirement where he can spend more time with his family.
“My first priority is my family. I’ve got to reacquaint myself with family priorities,” Johnson said in a recent interview.
Johnson is serving out the tail end of his sixth term in Congress after earning a reputation as one of a few Republicans who was willing to break ranks with party leaders.
He served as co-chairman of the Congressional Center Aisle Caucus in hopes of reversing what he sees as poisonous levels of partisanship. A year ago, he was among just 14 members of his party to vote against a payroll tax break extension that was dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate.
Johnson said his independent streak was reflective of his district, which includes a mix of conservative rural areas and more liberal university communities.
“It’s partly because I have an obligation to represent the people of the district, not the party,” Johnson said. “I’m proud to be a Republican. But, I’m not close-minded enough to think that Democrats don’t have some good ideas too.”
His bipartisanship did not go unnoticed.
John Penn, chairman of the McLean County Democratic Party and a top official in the Laborers International union, said Johnson was among the first Republicans to break ranks with his party over a transportation bill supported by labor unions.
“Organized labor had a respectful relationship with Congressman Johnson. He had an open-door policy with us. I thought he did a really good job,” Penn said.
Johnson entered Congress in 2001 by parlaying more than two decades of service as a member of the Illinois House into a successful bid over Democrat Mike Kelleher of Bloomington.
He says he is proud of his efforts to secure funding for agriculture programs at the three universities he has represented — the University of Illinois, Illinois State University and Eastern Illinois University.
He also said evidence of his ability to bring home dollars for the region can be seen in the new transportation center in uptown Normal and new highway exits in Champaign and Mattoon.
“I’m sure that’s going to open up new areas for development in Mattoon,” Johnson said.
Former state Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, said Johnson will be remembered for his attention to citizens in the 15th Congressional District.
“The hallmark of his legacy will be his constituent service,” said Winkel, who first met Johnson when the then-city councilman came to speak at Winkel’s U of I fraternity in 1976.
Johnson was on the telephone constantly, often randomly calling voters in the district just to say hello and ask if there was anything he could do for them. One humorous campaign ad showed him working out in a swimming pool with a phone to his ear.
Johnson agrees that connecting with the people he represented was the best part of his job.
“I think the highlight of 44 years has just been the ability to deal with ordinary people in their day-to-day lives in a way that will hopefully convince them that there is some segment of government that, at least in a limited sense, knows them personally and can deal with their problems,” Johnson said.
Winkel, who now serves at the director of the Office of Public Leadership at the U of I Institute for Government and Public Affairs, credited Johnson with helping him win a seat in the General Assembly in 1994.
“He taught me a lot of what I needed to know about campaigning,” Winkel said.
Johnson announced his departure in April after having won the GOP primary in the newly configured 13th Congressional District. His new area put him in a more Democrat-leaning district with new territory to the southwest of his Champaign County base.
He initially called the new district “grossly gerrymandered,” but signaled he was game for another two-year term when he announced he would rent an apartment in Litchfield in order to show voters in the new areas he was serious about getting re-elected.
After cruising to victory in the primary, Johnson surprised voters when he announced he would not run in the general election because of an unspecified private family issue.
He says now that situation has taken care of itself. But he would not divulge the nature of the matter.
“The reason I said they are private is because they are private,” Johnson said. “It’s strictly personal between members of the family.”
In retirement, Johnson will join forces with attorney Frederick Nessler and resume an active law practice. He also plans to teach government and politics at Illinois State University.
Johnson will teach a course titled “Congress and War,” an examination of the application of Congressional war powers from the end of the Spanish-American War to the present.
“Being able to teach at ISU is really a labor of love. The lessons of history are a passion for me and one I hope to share with young people for as long as I can contribute,” Johnson said.
In making his exit, Johnson offered some advice for the new crop of lawmakers being sworn into Congress in January, including his successor, Republican Rodney Davis of Taylorville.
“While party loyalty is relevant, your first obligation is to your constituents and your conscience,” he wrote in a open letter penned earlier this month. “The other party will have ideas and legislation that are worthy of consideration. Don’t reflexively condemn everything that flows from the opposite party.”
Contact Erickson at email@example.com or 217-782-4043.