Dusty Johnson is the vice president of Vantage Point Solutions in Mitchell and is a former Public Utilities Commissioner. He was also part of Governor Mike Rounds policy staff. Dusty Johnson is a Republican candidate for the United States House of Representatives. He detailed his campaign on In the Moment. Listen to the entire conversation here.
Lori Walsh: Welcome to In The Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. Dusty Johnson is running for U.S. House. He's currently Vice-President of Vantage Point Solutions in Mitchell. He's a former Public Utilities Commissioner. He was also part of Governor Mike Rounds' policy staff, and we'll learn much more about him as he joins me now in the STPB studios at the University of Sioux Falls. Dusty Johnson, welcome to In The Moment.
Dusty Johnson: Thanks for having me on, Lori. I appreciate it.
Lori Walsh: We've been chatting a little bit before the show because we've actually never met in person, although we both follow each other around on social media, but we've never actually sat down. So thanks for taking the trip and sitting down in person.
Dusty Johnson: Well, you're so much nicer in person. You come across as so mean and overbearing on the radio.
Lori Walsh: I could say the same about you.
Dusty Johnson: Right.
Lori Walsh: All right, let's talk about this run for U.S. Congress, and why now?
Dusty Johnson: Well, I think it still matters who runs this country. I've been out of the public sector for three or four years, and I kind of thought when I walked out of the state capital for the last time, Lori, that I was sober. I was on the wagon. I was going to go be a co-owner and a manager of this great technology firm in Mitchell, and spend more time with my kids and my wife, and I have loved that. But honestly, I've got to think I'm like a lot of your listeners. You just see what's going on and you think, gosh darn it, we can do a little better than that. And for me, because my skill set I think is a really good fit for what we need, I just kept feeling tugged on; that it was time for somebody to run into the fray and try to make a difference.
Lori Walsh: Talk about your qualifications then: time with Mike Rounds, time with the PUC Commissioner. Give us a little outline of how you're qualified to do the job.
Dusty Johnson: Well, folks who know better than I do tell me that to really be relevant out there -- and just as an aside I will tell you I have been surprised, it's not 435 members of the House who are relevant out there. It's dozens or scores, 40, 50, 60 people who really make a difference out there. All 435 make some difference, but it's like a community. Mitchell's home for me, and if you really wanted to get something big done, if you wanted to build on an addition to some community building, you would want buy-in from 15,000 but you would know to get that, there were really going to be 30 or 40 or 50 community leaders that you had to get to; the people who care, the people who will put their shoulder to the wheel to make something happen.
And I think that's true in Washington, D.C. Those people who are really relevant have three things: they're willing to work really hard because nothing happens easy out there; number two, they have the brain power, the know how to be able to understand how these complex issues fit together. Listen, if you're not willing to read the bill, you're not going to understand how page 27 interacts with page 41. And if you don't understand that interaction, you may not understand how South Dakota families and businesses could get impacted by that. And then the third thing is, you've got be willing to build relationships. If you go to Washington, D.C. with some sort of messiah complex, thinking that you are going to save the entirety of Western civilization on your own, you're an idiot. It is going to take working with people to move this ship of state.
And so I would say this, Lori. There are a lot of things I'm not good at, but if the recipe for relevance is hard work, know how, and relationships, I'm ready to get to work. That stuff, I'm good at.
Lori Walsh: When you travel around South Dakota and talk to people, what are some of the first things, what's top of mind for South Dakotans right now?
Dusty Johnson: It's interesting because it has changed. During the summer, the only two things people wanted to talk about seemingly were the drought, which was terrible. And in August, some parts of the state got a fair amount of rain which really took the edge off that pain; did not make it go away, of course, and plenty of places are still really dry. But the drought was really the most common thing talked about during the summer. But then, healthcare.
Now since we have gotten into the new year, people have a slightly more optimistic tone about what's going on in Washington, D.C. I think tax reform helps. I think the fact that they're willing to debate immigration in sort of an old school, old 'the leadership doesn't get to order people around on what they're going to get to vote on'. It makes people feel like oh gosh, maybe we have remembered how to govern. Of course, the stock market last week wasn't great, but prior to that, I think people kind of felt like there was upward pressure on wages, so there was a little bit more of a sense of optimism and people wanted someone who was willing to go to D.C. to be a part of the solution. And it was less about burn the whole place down and more about gosh, you know what, we're headed in the right direction, we need to keep moving.
Lori Walsh: As you've watched the healthcare debate and the tax reform debate -- which they really went in two different directions -- and now, as you mentioned, we're looking at immigration and looking at some moves towards bipartisanship, sort of two steps forward, one step forward, two steps back maybe, let's dig a little deeper into that notion of an old school governance, or figuring out how to have a conversation, how to have a debate, how to make a compromise. Is that something that's desperately needed right now, or are you seeing signs of it happening already?
Dusty Johnson: There are such safety, there is such safety in numbers. And so in a hyper-partisan environment -- and I'm not a guy who's going to blame the media -- but because media consumers sort of love interesting and compelling stories, and because human nature is that conflict is more interesting than harmony, we do really have a tendency to focus on conflict in the public sphere and it becomes a little bit more of a zero sum game. And so it is a little safer if you move with this clique or this cabal or this party, and I think that has made it a little more difficult for people to get to yes.
One commodity that would go -- and it's not a commodity because it's not very common -- but I guess one characteristic that would go a long ways in Washington, D.C. is a little more political courage. A lot of these problems have answers that I think we understand. With people living 10 and 15 and 20 years longer than they used to, are we going to have the same retirement age for my kids as I have? Now I'm not talking at all about changing benefits for people who are 70 or promised benefits for people who are 60 or 50. But if you're 41 like I am, I think it's a pretty legitimate question to say, okay, when Social Security was founded the life expectancy for an American man was 64 years old. Getting to 65 was a major accomplishment.
How do we, in a way that is respectful to people and compassionate to people but adds sustainability to this government, right-size the future of these programs for 40-year olds and 30-year olds and 20-year olds? And that requires a ton of political courage because the second you say something on the radio like I just did, there will be people on Facebook and organizations that will think about investing a ton of money in this race. And not to say that I'm a nice guy, but that's what we need out there; people who are willing to do the job rather than care so much about keeping the job.
Lori Walsh: How important is just to get those difficult solutions or those ideas, that sort of brainstorming in some way on the table to just even talk about it?
Dusty Johnson: Yeah, that's what we really lost, is a safe space -- and I'm not putting quotes around safe space -- I would say a respectful environment where people can brainstorm. "Hey, I don't know, what is the right way to tackle this problem?" Now generally, as soon as you float a trial balloon like that, there are all kinds of institutional actors that are threatened by that. And so they pile on, and now you've got a pack of hyenas at your heels. And for whatever reason, my political calculator is broken. I'm a twice-elected, statewide elected official and yet I still ... I'm willing to still brainstorm out loud.
Now one thing we know about brainstorming is that the first, second, and third ideas are almost always terrible, but that creative energy leads you to other people helping you get to the tenth idea, which is the right idea. And I'm still willing to sort of think out loud. It gets me in trouble from time to time, but I think there are worse things than losing a race, Lori. And I think being politically cowardly and intellectually numb is way worse than losing.
Lori Walsh: The big issue today as we talk on February 15th is yesterday's school shooting in Florida, and this is one of those issues that has ... Everybody says it's unacceptable, we need a solution, our children need to be safe in their schools, too many kids have died. And then you get to how do you solve it, and nobody wants to say ... There's no easy answer and certain things don't want to come to the table, and certain people don't want to come to the table. How do you wade into ... Fast forward and pretend that you're in Congress and there's a tragedy in your home state, God forbid. How do you handle that, and what does America need to be talking about after, before, to prevent future school shootings?
Dusty Johnson: I suppose like everybody, there's a certain sadness, almost like a distraught feeling because I don't mean ... People use the word senseless, and I guess that's as good a one as any although it seems pretty inadequate. It's just tragic, and this violence is a symptom of, I think, a deeper and even more tragic problem that I feel awful about. I mean, we have in our society and particularly among our young people a deep, a sense of being deeply unwell. Whether it is eating disorders or brutal cyber bullying or cutting, or the fact that we have a suicide every 12 minutes in this country, we're not doing as well as we should be.
I embrace the idea that we have got to talk about solutions to this terrible symptom of school violence. Great, let's talk about bump stocks and let's talk about metal detectors at schools. I'm not offended at all by a tactical and real discussion about things we can do at a policy front, but I am very nervous that when we do something like that -- because that's what everybody says; Facebook's lit up with let's do something, enough prayers, let's do something -- and I just am concerned that psychologically that emotionally, once we, quote, "do something" that we are going to let all the air out of this balloon and because we will have treated a symptom, we will not have all this pent up anger and pressure to deal with root causes of the problem, which is we are not taking care of one another.
I mean we have thousands of teens who are poisoning themselves to suicide every year. We had 600 acid attacks on the London Underground last year. We have hundreds, dozens, some years hundred of young American men being radicalized on the internet by terrible militant extremism groups. And so one thing I do not want us to do is to play Whack-a-Mole. I am not interested in playing a game of Clue to chase different weapons around the board. I mean, yes, let's treat symptoms, but let's never forget the fact that we have real problems that are generating these acts of school violence that we have done almost nothing to combat.
And again, I'm not offended by my party, the Republicans, talking about the fact that it's a mental health problem. It's a mental health problem, clearly it is, and I think that's inarguable; it's not to say it's the only problem. But so what have we done with 18 school shootings this year? What have been the real transformational changes that we as a country have undertaken to, in a new and powerful way, do a better job at taking care of one another? We have done very little.
Schools, communities, churches, these traditionally have been places where we watched over one another. There were warning signs with this instance, as there almost always are. I read this morning that the FBI received a school shooting tip from somebody with the same YouTube user name as the shooter. We have systems in place. We have mechanisms in place. We are letting ourselves down, and so I think after we grieve as a step one, the step two has got to be fixing the systems that are already in place. And then of course, step three is yes, let's see if there are new systems that we can apply.
Lori Walsh: When we talk about immigration, which is until this shooting happened, one of the biggest topics of the week was DACA and Dreamers and what to do; a border wall and President Trump's plan to do that. Where do you stand on the immigration conversation? How do you think we in South Dakota need to think about that nationwide conversation as well?
Dusty Johnson: Legal immigration, when done well, is a really powerful part of the American story, the American experience. And I am vehemently opposed to illegal immigration. I think it imposes all kinds of seen and unseen costs on this country, and I think we need to hold people accountable. And I think we need to have border security. I think one of the important parts of being a country, of being able to maintain your sovereignty, is a control over your borders. So yeah, let's talk about illegal immigration and let's really, in an aggressive and an effective way, deal with that.
I don't want us to forget the tremendous benefits that legal immigration, when properly done, can have. I mean if you love freedom, if you love free enterprise, if you want to come to this country to be able to build something better for your family, if you want to add to an economy, to innovate and to be free, you sound like a great American to me. And the color of your skin is sort of an absurd piece of trivia when piled on top of all of that basket of really awesome characteristics.
And let's make sure we ... and of course, the President is all for that. When the President talks about a merit-based immigration system, he is talking about making sure that we continue to be a home for some of the globe's best and brightest to be able to come and make our country and our broader society a better place for us to live. But let's make sure that we are keeping that path. Let's have big wall, let's have it be robust, but let's make sure we've got good and effective and well-working gates in the wall.
Lori Walsh: Are you speaking metaphorically or literally? Do you think we need the wall? Do you think we need a literal wall at the price tag that is has?
Dusty Johnson: Well, we clearly need some physical barriers, and that did not used to be a particularly partisan idea. I don't remember the exact number but I think we added a couple hundred miles of physical barrier, a wall, during President Obama's tenure. That was not anything that we really scratched and fought and yelled about. All of these things that you invest in are part of a wave. We have a million things that we want to get done as a country. There's an unlimited number of good things we can do with other people's money, right? And I do think that a more robust investment in secure borders makes sense.
Now listen, there are going to be times when technology is a better solution, when well-trained human law enforcement is a better solution. There are going to be times when a physical barrier at a place, a big, beautiful wall as the President would say, is the best solution. But I am a data- driven guy. I think the worst, the worst insult we do to voters is when we try to govern with the same bumper sticker slogans that we campaign with, and the President knows that. He's said that. He understands that a wall overnight at a particular price tag at every inch along the way that Mexico will pay for was a concept. It is aspirational. It is something he believes in, but he's put forth proposals to compromise to get better border security, and I want to be a part of that discussion to make sure we get it done properly.
Lori Walsh: You talk on your website ... And if you're just tuning in, Dusty Johnson is my guest. We're talking about his run for the U.S. House. And on your website about fiscal responsibility, and I'm wondering when you look at what's happening in Washington, and you spoke positively of some of the results of the recent tax reform package, increase in military spending, now we're looking at ... Are you concerned from a fiscal sense that so much is being spent and Republicans are definitely divided on that topic as far as how much is being spent right now and the impact it could have on the economy in the future?
Dusty Johnson: I think it's a huge problem, and I don't know that there's ... There's a little bit of a debate about that, but I think most real experts understand that having too much debt, being over-leveraged can capsize an individual, it can capsize a business, it can capsize a country. And that's not theoretical; we have seen governments who are unable to pay their bills and it's terrible. And I think the full faith and credit of the United States of America always needs to mean something. I think it's one of the great American values that, listen, when we borrow money from you, that is almost a perfectly risk-free loan for you to make. And I think that's pretty powerful. I don't think we ever want to get away from that.
It does mean at some point, we ought to say $20 trillion, boy, we're talking real money here. And those solutions are not going to come easily. I'm not a guy who wants to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Lori, but I would tell you I didn't love that deal last week. I mean it seems like we want to celebrate compromise, and I do know that's how governance gets done. But if a compromise is just, hey, let's give everybody more money for their key priorities they care most about to get this thing across the finish line, that's not always in the best interest of the country. And I would just tell you that I think the state of South Dakota has it right, most states have it right in that they have bright lines. We all do a better job when we've got certain bright lines that we cannot cross.
And in South Dakota, they can't meet in the legislature for more than 40 days. They know they have to got to get their work done. They have a bright line that they cannot have general obligation debt for the operational expenses of state government. They have got to have a legitimately balanced budget. And that means that within 40 days, they will deliver a balanced budget with no exceptions in the history of this state. In the federal government, because we lack those bright lines, it is all too easy for them to, I think, cut a deal that sometimes is politically easier, but from the future of our country is more problematic. I'm not the nation's greatest example of a profile in courage. I will tell you, if I go there I'm going to be somebody who, I think, to a greater degree than is normally seen, who's going to try to push us to make hard decisions rather than easy ones.
Lori Walsh: Do you see ... Avenues you mentioned, looking at Social Security and the retirement age is something that's worthy of conversation, even though controversial. Are there other areas that you see, like hey, this is something that we have to talk about as it relates to spending and how we run our government?
Dusty Johnson: Yeah. I grew up in a working class family. There were seven of us and it was a great family, but there were times when things were pretty tough. And I wonder if the assistance environment that we have setup in this country, welfare, if it's doing enough, if we're expecting enough from one another, if we're holding one another accountable. I know that as a young person, one of the things that made me grow, like it makes all of us grow, is being held accountable: by my teachers, by my pastor, by my parents, by my friends, by neighborhood leaders. And I think we need to make sure we've got a welfare program that takes care of people at the same time does not instill in them a dependence. Are we doing enough?
I think we've talked in this state about expanding Medicaid, and I have a real problem expanding Medicaid as long as a work requirement is prohibited. You can be a 30-year old man in Minnesota and quit your job, and now you don't have any income and so you are on Medicaid, and you have no co-insurance, no co-pay, no premium. I'm not sure free healthcare for the able-bodied when they can work but choose not to is holding people as accountable as we should be. I think we need to do this with an approach toward compassion, with a data-driven approach, with an approach that comes not out of anger or lording over people but out of we really want to help us collectively get more people off these programs.
Lori Walsh: And surely you know people and have met people throughout the state who are working and who cannot afford their healthcare and can't afford their insurance, and are uninsured even though ... I know several who ... That's it. Things are tight and they can't pay for it, and they're at risk individually and all of us are in some ways. So with Medicaid expansion for the working poor, how do you reconcile that with that you just said?
Dusty Johnson: The concern, I mean the value I'm talking about is that people who can work, should work, and you're talking about people who are working and being a functioning member of commerce, of our state, of their communities. And so I get a lot more open to the idea of helping people who are helping themselves than I do to people who I think maybe are not being held as accountable as they should be. And again, I'm just talking about options here, but the most commonly purchased item with food stamps, SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, is soda pop. And the reason we have these programs is because we want to make sure poor kids are nutritionally taken care of. We have said as a country this is really important. People should be able to have their nutritional needs met. And I drink a soda pop now and then, so I'm not trying to be holier than thou. But I would say is spending governmental money on soda pop furthering the goals of that program?
Lori Walsh: Is that a true number?
Dusty Johnson: Yes.
Lori Walsh: I mean, I've heard that before but I have not fact-checked it.
Dusty Johnson: It is absolutely true, it is absolutely true. So would we hold people more accountable? Would we further our collective goals of better nutrition for poor families if we had a program that worked a little better? And because I grew up in a working class family, and because I think I have seen some of the strain that poverty puts on people; even now at 41, there are parts of who I am psychologically that are always going to be inextricably tied to parts of who I am that I don't even fully understand. Right?
And so I have a really true, truly deep-seated fire in my belly to try to make sure these programs work. I don't think they work that well, Lori. Right now in this country, we have the lowest degree of income mobility out of the bottom 20 percent than we have ever had in our nation's history. So think about that. We have less income mobility in this country today than we did when government did nothing for poor people, literally nothing. And I'm not suggesting we go back to that. I am saying that, gosh, is it possible that some of these governmental programs are actually making things worse? And can we redesign them and reform them in ways that serve our needs better and our goals?
Lori Walsh: Let's talk about agriculture because it seems like we shouldn't let you go before we cover that. 2018 Farm Bill conversation's on the table. Now that we've had all this experience with the drought of 2017, what sort of conversations do we need to have going forward regarding agriculture in Washington?
Dusty Johnson: There are just not very many people in Washington, D.C. who understand production agriculture. Frankly, almost everybody in South Dakota understands production agriculture at a level better than most of the members of Congress. Most of your listeners could drive by a corn field and a soy bean field and understand the difference, right? They understand when a drought is impacting yields. They understand when input costs go up. And we have to have somebody in Washington who can tell the story.
There are not that many places in the country that grow wheat anymore. I mean there's still a tremendous number of acres, but really there are not that many members of Congress who understand what wheat contributes to the global economy and to the American economy. We have to have somebody who understands that. They're supposed to get the farm bill done this year, but they may not. And if they don't, I think we're going to need somebody who understands and who is relevant. I would tell you we have got to continue some of the progress, some of the improvement we've made in recent farm bills where the old direct subsidy payments, those are a thing of the past. What we really have is a system that tries to increase financial security, which is if you get a terrible situation, if you get a drought whereby yields are not going to be what they are, we want to make sure that that doesn't put you out of business.
Now that's not all that different from financial instruments that a lot of people use, insurance products to try to make sure that if a tragedy befalls them, they are still going to be able to pick up the pieces the next day. And I think that's a wholly appropriate part of the agricultural landscape. We want people to be out there feeding the world, and understanding there are going to be some highs and lows that come with that. We've made some strides on the livestock side. It used to be that we didn't do anything for the livestock guys and gals. The last farm bill moved us in the right direction. I think this next farm bill, there'll be some opportunities to improve even further.
Lori Walsh: Our time is short now. We hope you'll come back and talk about other things. Anything that you want ... I'm struck even after all this time of what you said about we're not taking care of each other like we should. So let's end with just some final thoughts on some things that we could do today to sort of take care of each other a little bit better.
Dusty Johnson: Yesterday, I posted on Facebook that I love my wife, and the first comment was a political attack. And I get it, I'm a public figure. It did not offend me. It did make me sad, not for me or for my beautiful wife, Jacqueline, but for this person who just saw the name of a political figure and could not help but lash out. And I know there are people out there who hate Barack Obama and there are people out there who hate Donald Trump, but I would just say to everybody this anger, this coarseness contributes to a society where we do not feel a oneness like we should. We are Americans. I am a Republican and I think the Democrats are wrong way more often than they are right. But the Democrats are not the enemy; they are fellow Americans. And today should be a day that I think we understand that we're just people trying to get though a day and make life a little bit better tomorrow than it was today.