The issue of redistricting congressional maps is back in the news, with the League of Women Voters of Illinois filing a lawsuit on Tuesday claiming that the new maps are unconstitutional. The once-a-decade redistricting process—this time headed by the Democrat-controlled state legislature—could hand the party three to six seats in November 2012 while obliterating the current Republican 11-8 edge.
In July, 10 of 11 members of Illinois’s GOP delegation filed a federal suit challenging the new map. Congressman Tim Johnson, of the 15th District, was the sole Republican lawmaker not to join in the lawsuit. “I’m too busy serving my constituents to get involved,” he told me in a telephone interview this week.
Reconfigured or not, the 15th District will continue to encompass the huge University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. That’s home to Johnson, who grew up in Urbana, earned his history degree from the U of I, and graduated from its law school. And today, if you’re one of his constituents, you’ve probably picked up your telephone to find him on the other end, asking how things are going and how can he help. Johnson told me that he makes anywhere from 50 to 250 calls a day to residents of his district, which, for the time being at least, runs from south of Kankakee to the Ohio River and also includes Decatur and Danville.
Last year, the 65-year-old Republican, father of 10 (one deceased), thrice divorced and long single, was voted one of the 25 hardest working lawmakers in Congress. He intends to run and win despite the remap, which, should it survive legal challenges, will make his district more friendly to Democrats.
First elected in 2000, Johnson, who calls himself a “pragmatic Republican,” is generally viewed as a moderate. He is a founder of the Center Aisle Caucus, which seeks bipartisan comity and decries the harsh partisan rhetoric that, Johnson argues, had as much as anything to do with Standard and Poor’s lowering the credit rating. That said, some of his views—he voted against lifting the debt ceiling and he is staunchly anti-war—mesh nicely with those of his close friend, Rep. Ron Paul.
Here, an edited transcript of our conversation:
CF: When people pick up their phones, and they hear you on the other end saying, “Hi, Tim Johnson, your congressman, here,” do most of them say, “Who?”
TJ: No, in general, I have real high name recognition.
CF: What’s on your constituents’ minds this summer?
TJ: People are angry at both Congress and the Administration for their failure to get along with each other. This is a time that we should be working together, and we’re in a food fight. I completely agree with their anger.
CF: By voting against lifting the debt ceiling, do you feel any responsibility for Standard & Poor’s lowering the country’s credit rating?
TJ: Why would I feel responsible when I voted against the bill that passed and then apparently triggered this? It was a cobbled-together bill. The cuts were, I think, far short of what is necessary to deal with our fiscal crisis in America. Also, it didn’t deal with the fact that we have already spent upwards of $2 trillion on three wars—or six wars, according to how you look at it. No end game, and we’re pouring gigantic amounts of money into something that I don’t think makes people in Bloomington or Decatur or Champaign any safer.
CF: You’re looking for more cuts in defense?
TJ: Absolutely. I want to get out of Afghanistan. I want to get out of Iraq. We shouldn’t be in Libya. We shouldn’t be in Syria.
CF: I’m curious how you get to the number six.
TJ: Let’s leave it at three. We’re providing money in Syria and at least two other countries, depending how you look at it. We’re fighting wars we can’t win. We need to get about the business of taking care of American jobs first, and we’re not doing that.
CF: Whom are you supporting in the race for Republican presidential nomination?
TJ: I’m still looking at al the candidates. I’m a close personal friend of Ron Paul, and I have a huge amount of respect for him. Ron Paul is the most principled man—or woman—who has ever run for office in America in my political lifetime. He is committed to a set of principles; he doesn’t deviate from those principles. His personal ethics are of the highest nature. Nobody has asked me to endorse them yet.
CF: I think Ron Paul is a mystery to many Americans. What’s he like? Do you go out to dinner with him and just talk?
TJ: Sure. He’s interesting, funny, extraordinarily bright, engaging—a fine human being. He’s a real workout fanatic. He’s in terrific shape. He’s the kind of guy who, if you tell him what you’re interested in, he probably knows something about it. He’s got an eclectic knowledge, and he’s able to talk about anything from sports to medicine—and everything in between.
CF: So you’re trying to get the Republicans and Democrats to act more like grownups?
TJ: I’m the cochairman of the Center Aisle Caucus. Steve Israel and I were the founders in 2005. [Israel, a New York Democrat, is now head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, charged with electing Democrats, a position once held by Rahm Emanuel]. Our purpose—we have 40 to 50 members of Congress, approximately split between Democrats and Republicans—is to try to work for constructive compromise where we can, and, where we can’t, to demonstrate civility to our colleagues. The 24/7 media focuses on the anger and vitriol that gets you on MSNBC or Fox News.
CF: Is Nancy Pelosi involved?
TJ: You’ve got to be kidding. Is that a joke? We expect people who are members of the caucus to try to restrain our rhetoric. And I don’t think she has restrained her rhetoric. I don’t want to single out Nancy Pelosi, certainly. We had a history as Republicans of increasing the rhetoric as well—people who point fingers more than solve problems. Members of Congress, just by their rhetoric alone, are part of the cause of Standard and Poor’s [lowering the credit rating].
CF: So if this remap holds, what will the district you’re going to run from in 2012 look like?
TJ: About half the current district goes over to Western Illinois toward Springfield, Edwardsville. I’m gonna win. It will be a closer district than this one is, but I feel confident that we’re going to be fine.
CF: Do you know who your opponent will be?
TJ: No, a variety of people have talked about running, but until they file, I don’t get too interested.
CF: Do you feel kind of alone being the only Republican not to challenge the remap?
TJ: I think the redistricting process was unfair; it wasn’t transparent, and I think the people of Illinois have been hurt. I’m not interested in the politicians; I’m interested in the people who’ve had a history of representation by one particular member of Congress, and now it’s dramatically changed. At the same time, I can’t go to somebody in Jerseyville, in the new district, and tell them, on the one hand, that I want them to vote for me, and on the other hand, I just filed a lawsuit asking that this map that includes that Jerseyville be eliminated. I hope the lawsuit succeeds.
CF: Any ambition to run for something grander than the House?
TJ: No, I have absolutely no aspirations to do anything beyond what I’m doing right now.
CF: How many more terms do you want to serve?
TJ: Oh, Carol, I couldn’t tell you.
CF: Tell me about your life before Congress.
TJ: I practiced law for many decades here. I owned a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store on the U of I campus. I served in the Illinois legislature until I went to Congress and on the Urbana City Council before that. I’m very interested in sports, Illini football and basketball fan, big supporter of the Boston Celtics and St. Louis Cardinals. I’m one of the biggest Cardinal fans in the country actually.
CF: What might surprise people about you?
TJ: Contrary to what many Republicans believe, Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity is a great focus. I think she is right on the money. I would join her in trying to deal with the obesity issue. And, no, I haven’t met her, and I have not been to the White House. I haven’t been invited.
Photograph: U.S. House of Representatives