Politics in the Family: Tim Johnson
By Jim Meadows
You can find family businesses in any number of walks of life – third generation doctors, plumbers, lawyers, architects, accountants – you name it. Not surprisingly, the same could be said for politics. Former Congressman Tim Johnson is the product of a family political tradition reaching from his grandparents to his own grown children.
In December during the final weeks of Johnson’s final term as a Congressman, he walk inside Lincoln Square mall in downtown Urbana. Johnson had his cell phone and his chief of staff, Phil Bloomer, close by during his walk. Rep. Johnson frequently conducted congressional business during these fast-paced walks through the mall.
Johnson's political roots run deep, going back generations. They extend to southern Missouri Democrats on his father’s side, including his grandfather, Kirby Johnson, who was close to the family of Harry Truman, back during Truman’s days with the Tom Pendergast machine in Kansas City. Central Illinois Republicans made up his mother’s side of the family, including maternal grandfather Arthur Evans, who worked as chief of staff for U.S. Representative Frank Funk of Bloomington in the 1920s.
Tim Johnson’s father, Robert Johnson, started out as a Democrat, but became a Republican, a few years after marrying into the Republican Evans family. He went on to become a Champaign County GOP chairman, an Urbana alderman, and Tim Johnson’s political role model.
“My dad was universally regarded as the most honest politician in the history of American politics,” Johnson said. “I think that even people who diametrically opposed him in philosophy would agree that Bob Johnson was a person of real high integrity.”
Tim Johnson said his father mentored him on the value of hard work, good organizational skills, and staying honest and close to the people.
“My dad was essentially a populist,” he said. “He had a terrific, close relationship with the people that he represented.”
Johnson’s own political career led to him winning election to his father’s seat on the Urbana City Council, then to 24 years in the Illinois House, followed by 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. Johnson’s daughter, Urbana alderwoman Heather Stephenson, is just the most visible of several politically active siblings and offspring who have joined Tim Johnson as products of a family immersed in politics.
”I don’t ever remember a dinnertime with my grandparents or my dad and mom when politics and government and so forth wasn’t discussed,” Johnson recalled. “It was an active part of our everyday life.”
Johnson says he was aware growing up that many of his peers looked at politics with apathy, and even hostility. But he says that in his family, it was an honorable profession.
The inauguration of the new Congress in January happened without Tim Johnson present. Last year, he cited urgent but unnamed family reasons in deciding not to seek a seventh term. Tim’s daughter Heather Stephenson is also stepping down this spring after two terms on the Urbana City Council.
Politics still runs in the Johnson family, and its level of political activity could ramp back up with the next election cycle. But once Stephenson’s city council term expires this spring, there will be only two members of the family taking part in formal political work. Tim Johnson’s brother, former Champaign County Board member Tom Johnson, and Tom’s daughter, August Johnson, both serve as Champaign County Republican precinct committee members.
As for Tim Johnson, he plans to teach a course on congressional war powers at Illinois State University, and he said he will be using his leftover campaign funds to support the candidates he likes. However, he said he does not plan to run for public office again.