'Little Bulldog' will take a break; the housewife and mother who became mayor

Published: Sunday, Dec. 1 2013 6:05 p.m. MST

West Jordan Mayor Melissa Johnson makes cupcakes Tuesday with three of her five children, Ryan, Alyssa and Amy. She made a bargain with her family that she wouldn't be a career politician, so she's getting out of politics for a while.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — Only in America could a middle-aged housewife, mother of five, coal miner’s daughter and political rookie become a city councilwoman and then mayor. It was enough of a challenge just being a woman seeking office. Melissa Johnson successfully campaigned for the West Jordan City Council while opponents dissed her. Four years later she was elected mayor of West Jordan, Utah's fourth largest city.

Now 43 and an eight-year veteran of public office, she is on top of her game, but she has delivered another surprise: She didn’t seek re-election. She will relinquish her office at the end of the year.

“I’m not a career politician,” she says. “I had a definite list of things I wanted to accomplish, and I was able to do most of it in my first term. Government functions best when people are not career politicians. It turns into a situation where they care more about getting re-elected than making good decisions. It would be hypocritical if I didn’t apply it to myself.”

So she’s getting out and doing so just when the job is going to pay. After she battled to make the mayor a full-time position and increased the pay five-fold six months ago — from $18,300 a year to $89,500 — she refused the extra money for herself and stepped down from the job before she would benefit financially.

“I signed away the money because I didn’t feel right about accepting the higher salary,” she says. “I was part of the process to get the salary increased. I pushed for it because I felt the next mayor should be full-time and be paid accordingly.”

Johnson has worked full time in the mayor’s office — 40-60 hours a week by her estimation — on a part-time salary. She shows up at the office daily, attending meetings with community groups, staff, businessmen and city employees, and answers phone calls and emails at all hours. She gives her personal cellphone number to everyone — it’s even listed on the city website — which means fielding calls from ordinary citizens on Sunday evenings and as late as 2 a.m. This is all while helping her husband, Steve, manage their five children. Does this woman sleep? Not much — five hours a night.

“I’m an insomniac,” she says. “I have trouble turning my brain off.”

Johnson, who is a little more than 5 feet, is a dynamo — intense, driven, confident. She tells you straight up she has never failed at anything and is unafraid of any challenge. Her predecessor, David Newton, once told the Deseret News shortly before Johnson took office, “She is aggressive; there is no question about it. She is a little bulldog, and she’ll make herself known and she’ll do well.”

Little bulldog? “That an accurate description,” says Johnson, grinning.

Johnson grew up in Price, where her father, Tom Jewell, worked as a coal miner after retiring from the Navy, and her mother, Gail, taught school. A voracious reader, Johnson was a regular at the local library, studied constantly and took a steady diet of AP classes. She started school a year early, skipped a grade and graduated from high school at 16 with straight A’s. She immediately went to work as a substitute teacher while attending classes at the College of Eastern Utah, which named her the school’s Outstanding Freshman. After transferring to the University of Utah, she studied engineering for two years before switching to organizational communication. She took a master’s degree in public administration, graduating with a 3.96 grade-point average.

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