By Ben Olson
Editor’s note: The Sandpoint Reader usually publishes a candidate questionnaire before the primary and general elections, but since there is only one contested race in our district this year, the Reader reached out to District 1 Idaho Senate candidates Scott Herndon (Republican), and Steve Johnson (who is running as an independent write-in) with a request for an interview for the Oct. 27 edition of the Reader. Unfortunately, Herndon’s campaign declined to participate in an open interview format.
Background, family and career
Steve Johnson was born in 1949 in Longview, Wash. Johnson’s family moved to North Idaho in 1957 when he was just 6 years old.
“Mom and Dad didn’t have much money back then,” Johnson told the Reader. “They had a couple thousand dollars; and, when they found an 80-acre farm for sale, they purchased it for $3,750.”
Johnson said a big inspiration for his lifelong love of education came from his father, who did not finish high school.
“He always dreamed of having a farm,” he said. “As a younger man, he was always able to work in the woods, in sawmills and such, but when WWII came, he ended up with a back disability from some things that happened … After WWII, he wasn’t able to do some of the physical work he did before, so he and my mom encouraged me and my three brothers to have a backup plan. I considered education a really good backup plan.”
Johnson attended public school in Bonner County, graduating from Sandpoint High School alongside his wife Marguerite in 1968.
“In those days, Southside Elementary went to the eighth grade, as all country schools did until the 1960s or so,” Johnson said. “I had a teacher named Jim Stoicheff, who was a really good teacher for me and principal. I decided in eighth grade, in his class, that I wanted to be a teacher.”
Johnson received a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Idaho, and ultimately ended up returning to Southside Elementary — but not before a stint in Eugene, Ore., where he taught school while his wife attained her master’s degree. It was there that the couple decided they wanted to have kids.
“We applied to the state of Oregon for adoption and waited almost a year before we got a call from Portland,” Johnson said. “They told me they have a hardship case — three siblings with the same mother — and they wanted them to stay together after being through foster homes. We told the case workers we’d take them home … when we met again, Jeremiah, Heide and Dennis came home with us. We went from having zero children to three children in 24 hours.”
After both Johnson’s and his wife’s parents experienced health problems, the family moved back to the family farm and built a log home. It was some years after this when Marguerite became pregnant with Jennifer, the couple’s fourth child.
“I’ve pretty much been there ever since,” he said. “The first person who hired me was Jim Stoicheff.”
Johnson taught elementary school at Southside, as well as Northside, Priest Lake and Farmin-Stidwell elementary schools, ultimately serving as principal for Southside.
“Most of my 20-plus years of elementary teaching were here in Bonner County — 10 of those as principal,” he said. “Then I was not in teaching for a while. I built houses and ran the family farm.”
Motivations for running for office
Johnson said he was inspired to public service early on, thanks to having Stoicheff as a teacher and principal. Stoicheff was a well-respected Democratic state lawmaker, serving as the longtime representative for Idaho’s Legislative District 1 from 1984 until his death in 1999.
“It sort of clicked for me at an early age that public service was important, as Stoicheff was going down to the Legislature and became the minority leader,” he said. “That probably had some impact on me. Also, growing up, [public service] was a topic of conversation around the dinner table, as well as conditions and things happening around the country. There were also a lot of discussions about how to make a living — and, even though Dad never finished high school, he was really conscious of his lack of opportunity. He really encouraged us not just to make a living, but to make a life — to have something meaningful in your life instead of just paying bills. Education, for me and my brothers, we found to be a very meaningful endeavor.”
Stance on issues
Johnson’s website lists his stance on a handful of issues that face voters in District 1, including property tax reduction, infrastructure, education and positive leadership.
“I’m real concerned about property taxes,” Johnson said. “There are some who have inherited property — in some cases, hundreds of acres — and rather than a developer making money, they’re dividing the acreages up themselves.”
Johnson said he was alarmed when he saw a five-acre parcel in his neighborhood sell for $48,000 a couple years ago, and noticed a similar piece selling this year for $200,000 more.
“That’s scary,” he said. “Mom and Dad wanted to keep our 80 acres in one piece where we can farm and selectively log it, so it’s a concern when property taxes go up.”
As one solution to help ease property tax relief, Johnson looked to the homeowner’s exemption.
“I want to double the homeowners’ exemption, which is up to the state Legislature,” Johnson said. “It currently maxes out at $125,000, and I’d support at least doubling that.”
He also believes the state should provide more guidance and resources when it comes to comprehensive planning.
“There should be some kind of incentive if you preserve farmland and rural character,” he said. “There needs to be a comp plan and respect for individual property rights, but we’re all part of the same society and there’s only so much farmland.”
Johnson cites infrastructure as a large part of his agenda, should he be elected to represent District 1.
“This federal infrastructure bill that was passed, that’s billions of dollars that we sent to the federal government that can come back to road improvements, bridge improvements, water systems, broadband internet,” he said. “There are all kinds of things we desperately need and can put to good use. There are a group of people — including my opponent — who say they’re not going to accept any federal money at all. If we don’t accept it, it goes to other places, like California or Washington. It seems ludicrous not to receive the money we’ve already sent in and put it to good use. It’s not just logical, it has the potential for a tremendous economic impact. If you don’t have decent roads and decent water systems, how are you going to keep the businesses we have and attract new businesses?”
Johnson said he is confused by the push by some to refuse acceptance of federal money.
“No. 1, it’s not federal money, it’s money we’ve already sent to the government to be put to good use,” he said. “I don’t understand it at all. Supposedly there’s some fear that they would make us wear masks, but it’s been determined by state agencies over and over again that this is not a possibility. It’s not going to happen. I’m just confused by somebody who keeps acting like it’s not needed.”
Regarding education, the Reader asked Johnson about the fact that Idaho is often ranked last or near last in funding per pupils — specifically the counterargument by some that this metric does not alone dictate the performance of schools.
“[Funding per pupil] is certainly not the sole factor, but it certainly makes a difference if you can retain effective teachers and have decent buildings,” he said. “Any company of good size has to recruit people, and when they see schools with leaking roofs and a school system that doesn’t have what looks like interest and support from the community, it’s pretty hard to attract quality people. Quality businesses demand quality people.
“When I was education chair for the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, we had businesses asking about education. They asked, ‘What are your schools like?’ and ‘What are the percentages of students who go on to do something else?’ Education is an important part of our economy,” he added.
Addressing the $410 million funding bill put into place by the Idaho Legislature after Reclaim Idaho’s Quality Education Act citizens’ initiative led a successful campaign, Johnson said he hopes the legislators’ hearts were in the right place.
“I’m an idealist,” he said. “I hope they realized the [Idaho] Constitution says you need to provide good quality free schools for populations for the next generation. I think there is a good majority who believe in that. Unfortunately, there are those who don’t. My opponent has said he doesn’t support public education.”
Johnson said one caveat to the $410 million funding is that the money is not specifically earmarked.
“The next Legislature has the opportunity to use that money as they see fit,” he said. “Some people, I don’t believe, understand that. [The Legislature] can decide to put it into other programs. They have a lot of leeway, and quite a group of them might not want to put it into public schools. One who wouldn’t put it into public schools is my opponent.”
On his opponent
When asked why he would be a better choice for District 1 state senator, Johnson told the Reader his roots in North Idaho give him a calling to support the community.
“I feel this is truly my home,” he said. “You live in one place long enough, it becomes part of your identity. I’ve been here since I can remember. I want what’s best for my home. Not division, polarization and crooked, distorted campaigns. It’s one thing to run a campaign or be a person who talks about the issues, that their ideas are better than others, but I was stunned, as well as a good number of people, when [two-term incumbent District 1 Republican Sen.] Jim Woodward lost. I saw some of the postcards that my opponent sent out and they were consistently, deliberately distorted. I’ve never seen it happen in all the time I’ve been here. It was such an ugly personal attack, and not hardly talking about issues at all. It was pretty much a smear campaign.
“Even though he got more votes than Jim,” Johnson continued, “I think there was quite a backlash to it. I’m part of that backlash who felt that this isn’t the way we win elections.”
Johnson cited low voter engagement as a primary reason that Woodward lost the May 2022 Republican primary election to Herndon.
“I think it’s a reflection of people who are really busy and really working hard,” Johnson said. “They just assumed — like I did — that the better candidate is supposed to win. You just assume that’s what’s going to happen. You get busy, you don’t vote … they sort of assumed they didn’t have to get too involved because [longtime former Dist. 1 Republican Sen.] Shawn Keough had been in for a long time and did a really great job. Woodward had been in for four years, why would they need to be engaged?
“I think it’s a big wake up call that this actually happened,” he added. “I want to make sure this doesn’t become a precedent, where people can exploit other people’s fears and lack of time that people can devote to following campaigns. It’s kind of a luxury. We’re worried about gas prices, food prices. For a lot of people, it’s an extra thing to worry about who is representing them.
“At the same time,” Johnson continued, “I don’t want to excuse people. All of us are busy, but this is important. … This has led to a coalition of what I call moderate responsible Republicans who are very supportive of my campaign, as well as moderate reasonable Democrats and independents. I think that’s the best of all possible worlds. It’s a lot of people working together who normally, unfortunately, haven’t worked together a whole lot.”
When asked to cite a positive characteristic of his opponent, Johnson said, “I’ve seen pictures of him with his family, and it looks like he’s got a lovely family with healthy children and it’s important to be a good family man.”
As far as criticisms go, Johnson listed a few alarming trends he’s noticed on Herndon’s campaign materials.
“A number of his ideas on social media are in line with this group called the Redoubt, where they almost want Idaho to secede from the union and become a sovereign state,” he said. “That to me is just fantasy and unrealistic. To spend time in the Legislature beating the drum for things that aren’t real or productive when we have so many real needs, like roads, bridges, that the government is expected and actually obligated to do.
“I’m concerned there will be a lot of wasted motion, what’s been termed ‘culture war’ stuff,” he continued. “I have two daughters, both of child-bearing age, and one of my real concerns is there might be enough people [in the Idaho Legislature] to make our current abortion ban even worse. I heard [Herndon] on one video bragging about having no exceptions for the life of the mother … in addition to charging whoever gets health care to terminate a preganacy with murder.
“The thought of a 12-, 13- or 14-year-old girl getting raped by a horrible person and getting pregnant — adding to her trauma with a possible jail sentence — is just ludicrous,” Johnson said. “It’s a waste of time and energy to be focused on that, in my opinion.”
Because Herndon has made his religious faith a large part of his campaign, the Reader asked what role religion should have in society, as well as in the government.
“My experience is that religion can be a wonderful thing for a whole bunch of people, including myself, but your religion is your opinion,” he said. “There’s a big difference between having your personal opinion and turning it into law that commands the rest of our society. That happened back when the pope was the supreme ruler of Europe, it’s happening in parts of the Muslim world where it’s a theocracy.
“As long as you’re in that group, then everything is fine, but how does that fit into a multi-faceted society like we have?” he added. “To me it’s dangerous and I think way back to our Founding Fathers and Mothers. I think they saw the danger of that and they emphasized the idea that religion is not the same as government.”
Johnson encouraged voters to not only check out his stance on issues, but also look at his opponent’s pages to see if their stances align with voters.
“Look at the media, look at our website, stevejohnsonforidaho.com, and read and re-read it to see if it’s meaningful to you and something you can agree with,” he said. “Try to maintain an open mind about things. [With] an independent candidate, in my opinion, it’s really important to do your research on the person you’d like to represent you and see if they are running a legitimate kind of campaign and if they’re walking the walk or just talking the talk,” he continued. “I feel like I’m pretty sincere and genuine and believe in the people here. I believe in our future and I hope I can represent us.”
How to represent those who don’t vote for him
When asked how he would represent the segment of the district that didn’t vote for him, Johnson said he would focus on bridging some of the divide between the parties as an independent.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been an independent in the Idaho State Legislature, so I’m still learning how that would work with committees and caucuses,” Johnson said. “I imagine if you’re not in either party, you can go back and forth between Democrats and Republicans to caucus, which would ideally be my goal — to be a liason or intermediary between two groups to make government work. This polarization, especially if each side is not willing to compromise, is terrible for government.”
Johnson acknowledged that winning a write-in campaign is an uphill battle.
“Realistically, even if God forbid I don’t get enough votes, I hope it’s at least a message to my neighbors and the whole community,” Johnson said. “It’s a message that it wasn’t a mandate for this person [Herndon] — that there’s some real concerns about the behavior he has exhibited, and we will be watching what he does.”
In conclusion, Johnson said that he hopes to be a representative for all constituents in District 1.
“My goal would be to serve everybody equally,” he said. “If people are resistant or not appreciative of the idea of compromise, it’s pretty hard to please everybody all the time. … Personally, I’d like to do what I can to make their lives better.”
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