Sen. Johnson holds first news conference since strokeby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
On a December day of last year, a group of South Dakota reporters were on the weekly conference call with Sen. Tim Johnson. During that call, the senator began slurring his words and then, he stopped talking.
Johnson suffered a near fatal brain hemorrhage. He was absent from the Senate for several months. Ever since then, his schedule has been limited and his public appearances very controlled. A teleconference with South Dakota media today was the first open news conference in nearly a year.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — Sen. Tim Johnson began the conference call catching many people off guard.
"As I was saying," Johnson said, followed by a long pause.
It was his way of picking up right where he left off nearly a year ago, talking about things important to South Dakota. Except a lot has happened in a year.
Johnson is still weak on his right side and uses a motorized scooter to get around the capitol. His speech is slow and deliberate and often slurred. But he slipped in light-hearted comments as he talked about the issues.
"While we often stop conference calls for a couple of weeks around the holidays, I wasn't expecting this much time away from you all," he said.
The dry sense of humor was a good sign to reporters who have covered the senator since he started out in the state legislature. Jerry Oster, news director at WNAX radio in Yankton said the senator's personality was evident.
"I was really pleased to hear his sense of humor right off the bat, saying 'I was so rudely interrupted a year ago.' And his other comment about 'Gee, we were talking about budget bills when I left and here we are talking about it again.' The Tim sense of humor which they told us was there, is still there," Oster said.
The omnibus spending bill is an issue Johnson hopes will be settled without cutting funding for the Lewis and Clark water pipeline and other issues important to South Dakotans.
"The president is threatening to veto the omnibus because it spends too much money on projects like Lewis and Clark, education and law enforcement," Johnson said. "The president's budget will short change many of South Dakota's priorities."
Johnson sometimes struggled to verbalize his thoughts. He stumbled and paused and sentences often came to an abrupt end.
Johnson told reporters he was encouraged when an amendment failed earlier this week, that would have gutted many farm programs.
"This will make good progress, and I'm hopeful that before the week is out that the Farm Bill will have been passed. I am assuming that the (long pause) I'm assuming it will pass."
There were several times Johnson's press secretary added additional information for reporters. But that's not uncommon in conference calls.
Johnson says he'll mark the one-year anniversary of his stroke with a private meeting with the doctors, nurses and therapists who treated him and then a lunch with his staff.
Johnson has already said he will run for re-election in 2008. He says he's able to campaign and says he will debate his opponent.
"Common sense dictates that I approach this carefully in the early phases in the campaign, but I am ready to go."
Johnson will visit several South Dakota communities during the congressional holiday recess including his home town of Vermillion, Mitchell, and Aberdeen.
- All Things Considered, 12/12/2007, 5:23 p.m.