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

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

After she met and married Steve Johnson, she worked for GE Capital for four years while Steve stayed at home with the kids and went to school. When she became pregnant with their second child, they traded roles. For 10 years she was a stay-at-home mother, although she was heavily involved in volunteer work. She raised money for a community playground and served as construction captain during the building of it. She served in the PTA and oversaw a book fair that collected so many books the school library couldn’t handle them all.

She became disenchanted with city politicians while working on community projects. She raged when the city repeatedly created roadblocks to the construction of the park; she raged again when city councilmen refused to respond to her questions about community issues and projects. As she tells it, “One of the councilmen said, ‘I’m not going to talk to you about (the park),” she says. “Either he didn’t know what was going on or there was some other reason. I started watching him and realized he just wasn’t paying attention to the issues — and he was voting on things!”

After complaining repeatedly to Steve, he told her, “Either shut up about it or do something, because it’s not like you to complain.” The next day she registered as a candidate for the City Council, just three days before the deadline. She immediately drove to a bookstore and bought a half-dozen books on how to run for local office.

“I wasn’t expecting to win or make it through the primary election,” she recalls. “I thought I’d test the waters and make a serious run for it in two years.”

That was before other candidates and councilmen provoked her. One of them told her, “Don’t worry; when you lose you have to keep trying.” During meet-the-candidate events she was told that she didn’t know anything about politics and that she should first pay her dues by working on committees and other lower-profile positions.

“I thought, ‘Who are you to tell me that?’ ” she says. “So I redoubled my efforts. Instead of testing the waters, I’m in it to win now.”

She not only won the election, she garnered more votes than any of the incumbents or the mayor. Four years later, when Newton decided to relinquish the mayor’s office, Johnson abandoned plans to seek a second term on the City Council and pursued the mayor’s job. She won again, collecting a staggering 71 percent of the vote.

“My philosophy was run harder, sleep less,” she says. “I outworked everyone. I knocked on doors. I told people my philosophy. In the early part of the day, I targeted older people who were more likely to be home. In the late afternoons and evenings I walked neighborhoods. I talked to thousands of people, and I listened to them, and I’ve been listening to them for four years. That’s what had bothered me in the first place — our elected officials didn’t listen and didn’t share information. I gave out my cellphone. I emailed constituents to tell them what was happening.”

Not that she hasn't had detractors. She has received some backlash because she is a woman in a man’s world — from women. They think she should stay home with her family. For his part, Steve, a risk manager for American Express, struck a deal with his wife to enable her to hold office: He would take up the extra responsibilities at home if she agreed to let him turn their living room into a home gym. The living room, which has a vaulted ceiling, features a climbing wall, gymnastics rings, wrestling mats and a punching bag that is chained to the ceiling.

“It was the trade-off,” she says. As a woman who has been a professional, a politician and a stay-at-home mother, she says, “You can have it all; you just can’t have it all at the same time.”

Looking back, Johnson is confident that her time in office was well spent and quickly lists the highlights: the $16 million in regional, state and federal funding she helped secure to build roads needed for economic development; economic development that fostered the addition of 200 new business permits in the past two years (the city received an award from the governor for being business friendly); improved public safety services that resulted in West Jordan being named one of the 100 safest cities in the country; transparency in government, which led to an A-plus rating from the Sunshine Review.

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