South Dakota senator at the center of attentionby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson has made it through the crucial first 72 hours since brain surgery last week. Johnson's staff says it's a benchmark that's considered a good sign for recovery.
The two-term Democrat's surgery sparked a fire-storm of media attention for a man who prefers a more low key approach. Some speculate on the balance of power in the U.S. Senate while others focus on his recovery. Those close to the senator believe he'll return to work.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — Tim Johnson remains in critical but stable condition. Doctors keep him heavily sedated to give his body a chance to heal. Johnson underwent brain surgery for an intra-cerebral bleed.
The medical reports couldn't be better according to Johnson's press secretary JulieAnne Fischer.
"This is brain surgery, we did not expect him to be doing jumping jacks by now," Fischer says. "He is a strong man but he needs time to heal. A few days time is not long enough to make these long term guesses that people are starting to reach for."
Fischer has seen her boss every day and says his medical condition is improving.
Johnson's roots run four generations deep in South Dakota. His great-grandfather was a farmer and his father was a college professor. Johnson learned early the value of education and hard work. He earned his undergraduate and law degree from the University of South Dakota and served in the South Dakota legislature before running for the U.S. House. Johnson served five terms before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996.
Senate Democrats selected Tim Johnson to head the Senate Ethics Committee when Congress reconvenes next month.
That appointment is telling of Johnson's reputation according to Bob Burns, chairman of the political science department at South Dakota State University.
"I think the Democrats in the Senate and the House alike are attempting to elevate ethics to an item of national priority and very deliberately chose a U.S. Senator in that role of chairman of the Ethics Committee whose personal ethics could not be challenged," Burns says.
Burns says Tim Johnson is an effective leader who accomplishes small things that leave a big impact on people in the state. People are not star struck when they meet him, but they know he speaks for them no matter what the issue. Johnson is an advocate for transportation issues, veterans and farm policy. He also has the affection of low income residents and minorities.
Patty Gourneau, personal assistant to the Lower Brule Tribal Chairman, says Johnson is a champion for all Native Americans.
"You know right where you stand with him," Gourneau says. "If you need something done he's going to do everything that he can do within his power to make sure that it gets done. As long as you as a people, speaking from the Native American perspective, are going to benefit as a whole. He doesn't favor one tribe or race in South Dakota."
Tim Johnson's press secretary Julieanne Fischer says he'd rather be home in South Dakota than in Washington D.C. Meeting people and listening to them is what Tim Johnson likes to do best. People who meet him know they are seen and not forgotten.
Fischer says Johnson's reputation in Washington is as a moderate voice who only speaks when he has something to say. Johnson is always available to South Dakota press, but he's not a publicity seeker. Fischer says he would hate all this media attention.
"He's probably the only member of the United State's Senate who does not wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, 'Good morning Mister President.' The amount of national news attention he's getting, I'm sure we'll have a joke or two about it later on. I'll tease him about it and say if he wanted national attention we could have gotten it in other ways," Fischer says.
Health issues have plagued Johnson and his family over the past few years. Tim Johnson battled prostate cancer two years ago and his wife Barbara is a two-time breast cancer survivor. In a release Barbara Johnson says her husband is doing well and she will throw a small 60th birthday party for the Senator next week when their children come to Washington. The Johnson's have three children and three grandchildren.
- All Things Considered, 12/19/2006, 5:50 p.m.