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Omaha Magazine

Riding into the Sunset?

May 13, 2014 09:25AM ● By Chris Wolfgang
In February 2013, U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns announced he would not seek reelection for his senate seat this November. But don’t ask him if he’s looking forward to his retirement.

“Well, retirement is always (discussed) in these circumstances when you’ve decided not to seek reelection,” Johanns says. “I honestly don’t plan on retiring as such. I’m not exactly certain what will be next, but no, it won’t be retirement.”

Due to senate ethics rules, Johanns isn’t able to officially accept offers for employment until after the November elections, “but you can answer a call or a letter, and it looks like there’s a lot of interesting things out there,” he says.

Of course, if he was to retire, who could blame him? His political career is coming to a close after 32 years of public service across a variety of offices. During those 32 years, Johanns was either running for something, or his wife Stephanie was running for something, or he was serving, or Stephanie was serving. For her part, Stephanie has worked as both a county commissioner and a Nebraska state senator.

So, it’s hard not to speculate in an information vacuum. The most natural move, considering his past, might be some form of return to his agricultural roots. After all, Johanns is a farmboy at heart. And, in his life outside of city and county government, agriculture has been a major focus of his life. In fact, early on, he considered a life on the farm he grew up on in Iowa. “You know, I gave it a lot of thought. My parents put a tremendous amount of value in education. And they would always say, ‘Get an education, then come and talk to us about farming.’ I think they knew that once we left the farm and got a college degree, I think they were fully aware of the fact that we probably weren’t going to end up farming.”


He did end up back on the farm for one summer after receiving his bachelor’s at St. Mary’s University. “I loved farming,” he says. “And I was good at it. I was good with livestock and good with equipment.” But, his great passion was the law. So, after undergraduate work in Minnesota, he attended Creighton Law School.

With law degree in hand, Johanns began to consider running for political office. But that young Johanns is not the politician we know now. Consider: He had grown up in a devoutly Catholic family with pictures of the Pope and John F. Kennedy on the wall. “I think as a very young man, I kind of thought, gosh, what a great calling. I must admit, (Kennedy) probably sparked the interest as much as anything.”

In 1981, Johanns ran for county commissioner in Lancaster County as a Democrat. He was elected to the position in 1983.

Before Johanns won his seat with the Lincoln City Council, he found himself inspired by another charismatic president: Ronald Reagan. His view of the role of government shifted. In time, he says, “I just felt the conservative philosophy matched my judgments better.”

Johanns was elected mayor of Lincoln in 1991 and served for eight years. Immediately after, he became Nebraska’s governor. He was reelected for a second term in 2002, becoming the first Republican to do so since the ’50s.

As governor, Johanns traveled frequently, often to Asian countries to facilitate the sale of Nebraska agricultural products to a growing middle class. Johanns’ background in agriculture didn’t escape the attention of Washington, D.C. George W. Bush appointed Johanns as his Secretary of Agriculture in 2004.

“I had the background in agriculture, I came from a big ag state. This was a natural,” Johanns says.

After a few years in a cabinet position, he was ready for something else. So, he ran for the U.S. Senate. “It was just a great opportunity to take that ag background, a background as mayor and governor, and put that to work.”

As Johanns prepares to leave his seat in the Senate this November, he can look back on a career that’s fairly controversy-free. Indeed, the few controversies in which he’s been embroiled where more a consequence of party politics, not his own maneuvers. Take, for example, the explosive issue of the government shutdown last October. His natural inclination was to negotiate and diffuse.

“I said before the shutdown, I wasn’t sent to Washington to shut down the government.”

He reflects that each office he has held had its own challenges. If closing government was a nightmare at the federal level, trying to open a new jail (as any city or county officials would likely agree) was a nightmare in Lancaster County. “As county commissioner, we built a new jail. And nothing is more controversial than a new jail. No one wants to spend money on jails.”

Perhaps public life was more contentious at the most local level. When he was on the Lincoln City Council, there were budget issues. Throughout eight years as mayor of Lincoln, controversy was everywhere from budgets to planning.

While Johanns says he has no plans for retirement, it is clear he has plans for a more leisurely pace in life. When describing his idea of the perfect future—halcyon days spent with his wife and grandchildren—he does sound a bit like a man targeting semi-retirement.

“A life that would let us focus on our faith—faith is very important,” he says. “We have grandkids, and I have two children by my first marriage, and then five grandchildren. Stephanie and I want to spend more time with family.”

It also sounds like Johanns hopes to spend more time in the couple’s home in the Old Market enjoying his wife’s company.

“Stephanie wakes up every day believing that it’s this day that’s the best day of her life. And that attitude just…if you met her, you would say how does she do that? But she lives her life that way. The two of us have just had the most amazing time.”

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