Change of Plans
Baking Irish soda bread in one's kitchen while answering questions from potential voters might seem like an unusual way to campaign for office, but Brendan Johnson is not a typical candidate and these are not ordinary times. Said bread baking occurred via Facebook Live on March 17, a week after the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in Michigan and a week before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order was issued.
"There are lots of different ways [COVID-19's] affected us," Johnson said. "The first is that for our campaign individually, it's completely upended any field opportunities. It's going to cost a lot more for what was going to be a field campaign to a mostly mail-based and digital campaign."
Johnson, who's running for Michigan's 45th State House District, which comprises Rochester and Rochester Hills, pointed out the added challenge presented by losing the ability to have those critical one-on-one conversations with voters in a traditionally conservative-leaning area.
"If we want to flip this seat come November, we were relying on me having a lot of persuasion conversations with Republicans," Johnson explained.
However, in the spirit of running a nimble campaign and adjusting to unexpected forces, Johnson and his 30-person-strong team have devised a robust schedule for all involved. For those who would otherwise canvass door-to-door, phone banking and postcard writing are possible. And from weekly "Coffee With Brendan" events via Zoom videoconference to virtual house parties and an April 30 "At Home Together" performance by Johnson, who is a professional pianist, perhaps the only thing that could truly slow down this campaign would be for Johnson himself to contract the virus. Regrettably, that's exactly what happened; Johnson began exhibiting symptoms the day after this interview. (See accompanying story.)
Sense of Urgency
Johnson, who is 26, said he imagined that one day he might run for office, but perhaps not this early in life. Like many others, he credits Donald Trump with the motivation to throw his hat in the ring.
"It was really the election in 2016 that I was like, 'Oh no,' — and I probably used a more creative word than 'oh no' — but, 'I've got to do something right now.'"
Johnson studied international relations at Michigan State University's James Madison College — he's a diplomat by training — and he said he recognized the danger of the president's isolationist approach to foreign policy.
"I was watching my beloved home state of Michigan — I was born and raised right here in the Rochester area — and I watched us be largely responsible for electing him into the White House. But we are also a type of demographic community that I know could be persuaded against voting for him again."
He cited U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin's and Whitmer's wins in the 2018 midterms as examples of what many see as a trend in Johnson's geographic area. Slotkin is one of Johnson's role models, and when he was earning a master of science in foreign service from Georgetown University, he had the opportunity to serve as senior intern for foreign affairs and national security in the Congresswoman's office in Washington, D.C.
"After the 2018 election, and watching all of their work, I said I can do the same thing in 2020. That's sort of what prompted me to do this now," Johnson said. "I also think you need more young people at the table. There's something to be said for having young representatives."
On the Issues
Progressive candidates in Michigan often reference the state's abundance of fresh water and the responsibility elected officials have to protect and provide it safely to the citizens of the state. Johnson speaks perhaps more passionately than most about this particular issue.
"Aside from our current pandemic crisis, clean water is probably my number one motivating factor," Johnson said when asked where he'd personally like to invest his energy if elected. "We're surrounded by 21 percent of the entire planet's fresh water and yet we are not good enough custodians to give it safely to our own citizens. It's not just Flint, though that's our most infamous example."
Among other things, he named PFAS contamination and the ongoing environmental risk of the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline passing under the Straits of Mackinac. He added that not only has lead been detected in the water in a number of area schools, mercury was found in the water of some schools in Rochester Hills in 2018.
"As a young person who is very cognizant of the impending crisis of climate change, I'm aware of our position in the future as probably the best place on the planet for climate refugees," Johnson said. "Be it from coastal flooding, or just desertification and lack of fresh water, we are probably going to need to bump up our infrastructure just for people who want fresh water."
Johnson also named infrastructure in general and education as high on his list of priorities.
"As a state, we've seen so much de-investment over the past two decades," Johnson said.
He added that he knows several education students who left the state upon graduation because the wages are so low. Equity in per-pupil funding and a focus on both skilled trades and STEAM education are other changes he'd like to see.
In addition to specific issues, Johnson said something he'd personally implement in his district is "good governance." All too often, legislators in "safe seats," be they red or blue, are lazy when it comes to constituent relations. He said it's been like that in the Rochester area "probably always." However, he's hopeful that this trend is shifting based on the engagement he currently sees among his competitors.
"I'm energized by looking at what the 2020 election looks like so far," Johnson said. "I know that on the Dem side — I'm biased — I think that I'm doing the best job at re-energizing my community — but I know all three of us, two Dems and one Republican, are on the doors … right now, and I think that's something to be said for March in a traditionally very safe seat."
As an openly LGBTQ candidate, Johnson echoed what many of his LGBTQ peers running for office have said regarding the importance of representation in elective office and the support he's received from others whose footsteps he's following.
"Seeing other people who are in the LGBTQ community in elective office has been an inordinate source of support for me being able to do this as authentically as possible," Johnson said. "I cannot emphasize that enough: on the person level, me being able to engage with other LGBTQ electeds; on the national level, me seeing other people who are going about their lives in very similar situations."
Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Eliz Markowitz, a candidate for State House in Texas, were named as sources of inspiration. Johnson also said he chats regularly with a couple of the other local LGBTQ candidates running for State House in Michigan.
"I am energized and immensely helped by that representation from other people and I am ever aware of that," Johnson added. "And I am also aware of the power of that, separate from me. There have been several events that I've been to where people have come up to me afterward and told me that I was an inspiration to them and I helped them, and that's a weird experience, but it's so amazing … that one person can have that much of an impact. And I'm aware of it because that's been the case for me."
If elected, Johnson may be the first Michigan State Representative to have worked at a world-class zoo. In fact, Johnson worked at the Detroit Zoo prior to attending graduate school. That's not to say he took care of the animals — Johnson was an event planner, a job he said he loved.
"When I was applying to grad schools, Georgetown told me they really liked one of my essays," Johnson recounted. "It started with, 'When I tell people I worked at the zoo they're confused because they know I have a BA in IR [international relations] and they tend to make a hesitant joke about it being like the UN but for animals.'"
Joking aside, what Johnson believes he learned from his experience at the zoo that prepares him for elective office is that it really is a kind of public service. Interacting with people at events can be like dealing with constituents; vendors and colleagues can be compared to lobbyists in that each has an agenda, Johnson suggested.
"This is not unique to the zoo," Johnson said. "I was also a host at Olive Garden. Anyone working in the hospitality industry will tell you that customer service is an amazing skill that cannot be taught, but you have to hone it through experience. It is grueling, often, but that is so much of what being a representative is: being able to talk to your constituents and solve their problems. That's just public service."
Find out more about Johnson's campaign online at brendanformichigan.com.