It’s November of 2010 and Dennis Daugaard, governor-elect of South Dakota, is busy selecting his staff for the coming term. Among those helping transition Daugaard into his new role is Dusty Johnson, himself recently re-elected to serve as one of the state’s three public utility commissioners.
Daugaard knew Johnson when the latter was a staffer for former Gov. Mike Rounds. Both had been on the campaign trail at the same time. The new governor had received advice from Johnson about campaign strategy and advertising; Johnson even helped write one of the governor’s speeches.
One day, the head of Daugaard’s transition team pulled the governor-elect aside with an idea – ask Johnson to be on the staff. Not sure Johnson would accept because of his reelection, Daugaard approached him with the offer to be the governor’s chief of staff.
It was a tall order. Johnson – a Fort Pierre native who grew up almost in the shadow of the state government – compared the position to being the chief operating officer of a $4 billion dollar company with 13,000 employees. Cabinet secretaries and policy staffers report directly to him, and he has responsibility for the governor’s major projects and initiatives.
After some deliberation, Johnson decided it was his duty to accept the offer.
“I think when you’ve got a friend who asks for your help, and you have a governor who tells you it’s time to serve, those are both tough requests to turn down,” he said
Still, Johnson said it was a hard choice leaving the job he had just been re-elected to.
Only six years prior he was, in his words, a “sacrificial lamb” candidate for the office, only gaining his party’s nomination because no one else wanted to run against the incumbent who had held the seat for the previous 18 years.
Also, the data-driven, detail-oriented world of public utilities is a policy area Johnson has always been passionate about.
In fact, he says the hardest part of his current post is that he can no longer be the honed expert on a subject he was at the PUC. At the Capitol he has to know a little about everything, including the 500 or 600 bills that will come through the South Dakota Legislature.
“State government is such a big and complex organization that you can’t be an expert in all of it. And for me, I’ve needed to shift from being an expert to being a manager of people and projects,” he said.
There is also the strain it puts on his family. His wife is a financial adviser in Mitchell and she and their three sons still live there. So every week Johnson makes the two-plus hour drive to work on Monday, and returns Tuesday night. After a day at home, he comes back to Pierre for Thursday and Friday.
On Wednesdays there is an all-day video chat set up between his home office and the Capitol. He can hear people in the hallway and they can still their poke their heads in for the 30 to 40 second micro-sessions that he says make up most of his meetings. He and the staff have dubbed the system “virtual Dusty.”
Even with some of the difficulties, Johnson said he does it because he believes government can do a lot of good people for the state’s residents. He shares Daugaard’s vision for lower taxes, less government regulation and looking to the private sector to grow jobs, he said.
“It makes me feel optimistic that we can actually have that impact,” Johnson said.
Before being elected to the PUC, Johnson worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., and for various local governments in the Kansas City, Kan., area. He majored in political science at the University of South Dakota and later earned a master’s in public administration from the University of Kansas.
He became interested in politics after a friend dragged him to a Teen Age Republican meeting where what they talked about resonated with him, he said.
And while not dismissing the possibility of running for office again, Johnson said for the moment he has made a commitment to himself and to Gov. Daugaard to focus on his current role.
“This is a job that’s pretty easy to screw up if you don’t give it your all,” he said.
Daugaard described Johnson’s performance as wonderful so far. In addition to what has to be genius-level intelligence, Johnson also has the gift to articulate his thoughts and issues, something not everyone has, Daugaard said.
“When Dusty explains something, it’s understandable,” Daugaard said.
He said Johnson is also a problem-solver, jumping into complex issues such as examining prison safety after the death of correctional officer RJ Johnson last year. The combination makes him invaluable to the governor’s office.
“It would be very hard to replace his abilities, I don’t know that we could,” Daugaard said.
Kelsey Webb, who worked on Johnson’s last PUC campaign and is a scheduler in the governor’s office, described Johnson as hardworking, involved, outgoing and “not your typical politician in any way.”
Johnson is the kind of person who will call an old woman who writes him a letter, even if it has nothing to do with his department, she said.
“He takes any meeting that comes his way, even if he shouldn’t or definitely doesn’t have the time,” Webb said.