By Larry Bivins
Sen.-elect Ron Johnson is a far cry from the country-bumpkin character played by actor Jimmy Stewart in the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," though Johnson’s election to the Senate could be considered as stunning as the selection of Smith to replace a deceased senator was in the 1939 film classic.
Johnson is a polished, pin-stripe suited, well-spoken businessman, whereas Jefferson Smith was a naive, impressionable nature enthusiast who led a Boy Rangers club. Johnson is a millionaire. The fictional Smith was of modest means.
But what they have in common is the dearth of legislative and political experience brought to their new roles as members of the United States Senate.
On Wednesday, Johnson, 55, will embark on his maiden voyage in the upper chamber of Congress when he takes the oath of office in a swearing-in ceremony that will be attended by his wife, Jane; daughters, Carey and Jenna; son, Ben; and father, Dale Johnson, along with other family and close friends.
In a recent interview, the Oshkosh Republican reflected on the responsibility he took on when he decided to run for the Senate and the challenges before him now that voters have given him the job.
Johnson acknowledged that for at least the next six years, his life will be "totally different."
"My background for the past 31 years has been building the same business in Oshkosh," said Johnson, who has entrusted his plastics manufacturing company, Pacur LLC, to his younger brother, Barry.
"I’ve never been involved in any type of elective office. I’ve had an awful lot of community involvement, volunteering on boards, that sort of thing. But this will be something totally different, no doubt about it."
Getting accustomed to how the Senate works and how to be effective can be frustrating, even for seasoned legislators. For political neophytes like Johnson, it can be downright daunting, experts say. Just learning the significance of the vote bells requires more than a little patience. Then, there is that tricky maze of a tunnel underneath the Capitol, connecting it to Senate office buildings. But if he doesn’t want to walk, he can hop on the subway.
"What he can expect is a sudden and deep immersion in all kinds of things that are pretty much alien to him," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "That includes figuring out the rules of the Senate and figuring out the lingo."
Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report newsletter, said what Johnson is about to experience is nothing short of "culture shock."
"It’s going to be very interesting to watch him navigate this crazy place that is the Senate that is full of rules, some of which make no sense," Duffy said. "At the same time, I’m interested in seeing how much he brings his business background to bear - where does he find that line between what he campaigned on and what’s the best deal he can get."
Some of what Johnson must learn includes floor procedures and protocol, and what measures require a majority or two-thirds vote or 60 votes. And he will learn that he may not always have a chance to speak on the Senate floor when he has something to say.
"Some things about the bureaucracy, office budgets, franked mail are probably not going to make a whole lot of sense to an accountant," Duffy said, referring to Johnson’s education and business background. "He’s got a lot to learn. I know the whole (freshman) class is considered a bunch of outsiders, but he’s really the outsider here."
Johnson and the other Senate newcomers got a sample of what’s in store during a weeklong freshman orientation two weeks after the Nov. 2 election, in which Johnson toppled Democrat Russ Feingold, an 18-year incumbent. Johnson, who avoided media during the week, said it was a valuable experience.
"We got to meet an awful lot of senators," Johnson said. "They did a very good job of briefing us on things like ethics, the employment laws, the number of services available to senators in terms of making sure you’re following the ethics rules."
Johnson campaigned on a theme that was a mantra for many conservative candidates: Rein in government spending, fix the economy and repeal the health care law. Johnson pelted Feingold on his support for health care legislation and derided the Democratic incumbent as a career politician.
The senator-elect said he decided to enter the race to challenge Feingold after President Barack Obama signed health care reform into law. Johnson said he believes the law will not only ruin the nation’s health care system but also explode the deficit.
"So I stepped up to the plate to see what I could do in terms of contributing to bringing fiscal sanity to this government," Johnson said. "We are bankrupting this nation. We’ve got to reverse course."
During the campaign, Johnson said he was just what the Senate needed, someone with an accounting and manufacturing background.
"I think Washington needs the perspective of people who actually make things, manufacture products, who understand really what the incentives and disincentives are that are created by legislation, by rules and regulations, by the level of taxation," Johnson said. "I’ve been living with the consequences of what Congress has been doing for the last 31 years."
One soon-to-be colleague who appreciates the perspective Johnson can bring is Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has agreed to be Johnson’s Republican mentor. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Milwaukee, will help Johnson along from a Democrat’s point of view.
"He brings no political experience, and that’s a positive," Coburn said. "He brings common sense and world experience from having run a successful business. He was willing to put his business on hold to come in and try to make these changes."
Coburn said he expects Johnson to be a quick study in the Senate.
"In six months," he said, "he’ll learn everything he needs to know."
Johnson has begun making good on his promise to push for fiscal control. During orientation week, he and several other incoming Republicans joined Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., in calling for a moratorium on earmarks, funding targeted for projects in lawmakers’ districts. Johnson also sided with DeMint in pushing for a delay in the consideration of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
DeMint, a tea party favorite who endorsed Johnson and a host of other conservative Republican candidates in the midterm elections, has a reputation as a flame thrower.
"Each issue will have its own pros and cons, and they’ll also have certain people with whom you form alliances," Johnson said regarding his support for DeMint’s initiatives. "I ran on the elimination of earmarks. You need to govern the way you ran as a candidate, and I totally intend to do that."
Critics, however, say Johnson already is starting to backtrack on some campaign rhetoric, arguing that while Johnson attacked Feingold for being on the side of special interests and lobbyists, he turned to homeland security lobbyist Donald Kent Jr. to run his Senate office.
Johnson said he sees no contradiction in the move and challenged the accuracy of a Washington Post story about Kent’s hiring.
"I don’t think I ever even mentioned the word ‘lobby’ during our campaign," Johnson said. "As someone who’s been in the private sector for my entire adult life, I need to hire somebody who understands and can help me navigate through Washington. I want people with very high integrity and also high intelligence, and I think I’ve certainly found that in Don."
Johnson’s association with DeMint indicates he will be the kind of conservative he said he would be during his campaign, said James Simmons, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. But Simmons said he expects Johnson to be a lot more low-key than DeMint.
Johnson is "fairly laid-back and soft-spoken," Simmons said. "Even though he’s conservative, he’s much like Herb Kohl in terms of his personal characteristics."
Simmons said he believes that Johnson is sincere when he says he doesn’t intend to be a career politician, that he wants to help get the nation’s fiscal house in order and then return to Oshkosh.
"On the other hand," Simmons noted, "Washington is addictive."
Political experts say that while Johnson’s goals are noble, he faces a political reality in Washington that has confounded others determined to change how things are done here. The question for Johnson, they say, is whether he can adapt to consensus-building as one of 100 senators after having had people react to the snap of his fingers as a private company chief executive.
"You can do well if you’re interested in making something happen and you’re good at developing interpersonal relationships and willing to work across the aisle," Ornstein said. "It helps if you have some sense of how to build consensus and build coalitions."
Johnson said that although he is a newcomer, he has not been in the dark about what goes on in Washington.
"I’ve been watching what’s happening here in Washington for a very long time, so I don’t come into this naive," Johnson said.
How long he stays in the Senate, Johnson said, will depend on how successful he is in accomplishing his goals. But he maintained that he considers himself a citizen-politician.
"I look at it this way: I signed up for a six-year stint," Johnson said. "If I’m effective, we’ll make that decision, I suppose, five years from now on whether I will go for re-election. The promise I made at the convention is I will never vote with my re-election in mind. My task right now is I’ve got to figure out the neighborhood. I’m the new kid on the block, and I’ve got to figure out this town and see how I can be effective."
Cook’s Duffy said that while Johnson may have been faulted for bringing on Kent, she believes he has his head on straight and ultimately will meet the challenge of not being consumed by the culture of Washington.
"Once he gets acclimated -- and every newcomer deserves the chance to do that -- I think he’s going to be a pretty good senator," Duffy said. "I think he knows what he doesn’t know."