'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.

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.

The lack of transparency was largely what drove Johnson to seek office in the first place. She emailed a group of constituents regularly while serving on the City Council, informing them of council decisions, and as mayor she changed the way information was posted on the city’s website so that everyone would have easy access to it.

The politicking takes its toll, and sometimes, after returning from a day at City Hall she takes out her frustrations on that punching bag in the family room.

“I envisioned some City Council member and punched and kicked the bag,” she says. “It helps! It helps me so I don’t say things I shouldn’t say. I hit the bag and then I feel better.”

At one point Johnson promised her family that she would take a break from politics after her current term ends. She does not discount resuming her political career someday, perhaps in the state Legislature after working in a state agency, where she can “increase my knowledge base.”

“I really enjoy the people I work with, and I love the community, but I knew it was a short-term thing,” she says. “I knew I was not going to be mayor a long time. I didn’t want that. And I’m ready to move on to different challenges. I’m happiest when there’s a learning curve. I’ve reached a plateau here with the mayor’s job. We have the same issues that come up in cycles. There is always more to learn, but not enough to keep me motivated.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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