“The whole idea is so the press and public can figure out who these people are,” Johnson says.

“One thing Ross has really brought to the agency is making sure there is more transparency,” Roman Porter says. “The commission has done a better job of informing the media under Ross’ leadership.”

Says that anonymous lawyer, “Roman’s leadership style is much more outgoing and press-friendly than previous executive directors’ have been. That is a reflection of Ross Johnson.”

Kenn Minter
Kenn Minter

Johnson jokes that he is trying to make it easier to “follow the money” because reporters rate poring through campaign records right up there with “trimming toenails.”

Ross Johnson: Friend of the media. Who knew?

“I’m always saying that a free democracy has nothing to fear from a free press.”

*     *     *

“I truly don’t believe public financing can work in a state like California because of the size of legislative districts—the biggest congressional districts in the country—and the potential for gaming the system,” says Johnson, when asked if taxpayer-funded elections would level the playing field.

His rationale: Regulation would be a nightmare given the number of races in a state with 58 counties and 500-plus cities. Would taxpayers fund the serious and non-serious candidates? (Remember Gary Coleman for governor?) What about candidates who would receive public financing for a high-profile race simply to build name recognition for lower office? Or those who run to raise awareness of their pet issue? “All you have to do is look at the presidential level,” Johnson says. “Lyndon LaRouche got $1 million in public financing while he was in prison, for goodness sake, running for president of the United States!”

As Johnson says, “It’s free money,” and it would also have to be paid to candidates lavished with thousands, even millions, in independent expenditures.

“I had in the legislature, at one point in time, an open mind on public financing, a quarter-century ago,” he says. “But I’m troubled by the idea of having your money used by people you fundamentally disagree with.”

It must be killing Johnson that a pilot project for public financing in the next Secretary of State race essentially guts the public-financing ban voters approved in his Prop. 73, Alexander says. “It happened so long ago, but I imagine he’s not too happy about that. He has very strong feelings about public financing. I don’t get a sense his feelings come from partisanship; it’s more a matter of principle.”

*     *     *

One Ross Johnson story is part of Capitol lore.

During a marathon budget lockdown early in his Assembly career, he was with about 30 members of the Republican caucus huddled in the Rules Committee room when someone came up with the bright idea of bringing in a blender to make gin fizzes to break the monotony. As the, ahem, deliberations were raging, word came down that the now-late Lou Papan had suddenly called a meeting of the Rules Committee, which the Democrat and so-called “Dean of the Assembly” chaired. The Republicans hastily hid the blender and paper cups, but they forgot to unplug the appliance, someone tripped over the cord, and its contents spilled all over the room. Johnson’s GOP colleagues beat a hasty retreat, but he had to stay behind as a member of the Rules Committee. That left him to be the target of Papan’s ire over the “disgraceful” condition of the room. The berating went on for some time, with Papan repeatedly calling Johnson “a drunk.” Reporters covering the hearing had no idea what had transpired as they walked into the room just in time to hear Johnson tell Papan, “No, I am not a drunk, but if I were, I’d be sober tomorrow and you’d still be an asshole.”

That marked the only reference to Johnson Time magazine ever printed. And how could you blame them? As he said at the conference table, “I was pretty strident in being an accurate reflection of the districts I represented.” But Johnson’s sense of fairness made him more than just another partisan Republican hack out of Orange County.

As a member of the Elections Committee, Johnson was ready to stick to his law-and-order principles by supporting a Republican bill that would have outlawed anyone with a felony record from being a paid worker in a voter-registration drive. When testimony revealed such work was among the few entry-level positions open to ex-cons that would allow them to establish a record of reliability that could lead to better jobs and less chance of recidivism, Johnson led the push to kill the proposal in committee. Late in his career, he confronted the Schwarzenegger administration about the piss-poor condition of California prisons, saying the state’s historic approach to incarceration did not work and more funding for rehabilitation was necessary.

Shortly after taking that stand, Johnson quit politics “cold turkey.” Gearing up for another election that, by the time you read this, will no doubt have produced a slew of new complaints (and $4.5 million and counting in new independent expenditures between June and November), he seemed at peace with his decision to re-enter the fray.

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