by Amy Keller
Updated 5 months ago
For many candidates, Marian Johnson's offce at the Florida Chamber is the frst stop on the campaign trail.
With 50 years of experience in Florida politics, Marian Johnson knows the voter registration statistics and demographics of practically every county in the state. She delights in dissecting polls, scanning the data for insights that can help her "figure out messaging" during campaigns.
A visit to her office at the Florida of Chamber of Commerce has become almost a rite of passage for potential legislative candidates in Florida.
One recent potential candidate who dropped by her office "had a good heart," Johnson says in a Southern drawl that softens an otherwise straightforward style. But "I had to tell him, the Democrats are going to want to keep that seat, and the Republicans are not going to want to help him. ‘You're on your own, buddy.' "
Jim McClellan, a former speech writer for Gov. Lawton Chiles and press secretary for Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, recalls visiting Johnson in the mid-1990s, when she worked at Associated Industries of Florida, to discuss whether he should run for Florida's 7th House district. He satisfied Johnson that he had a thorough enough command of the issues to make him an attractive candidate and a good lawmaker.
But then the rubber met the road. Johnson instructed him to go home and call up 10 friends and ask them each to donate $500 or $1,000 to his campaign. "I walked into her office very certain I wanted to run for House District 7, and I walked out of her office very certain I didn't want to run for House District 7," McClellan says.
Johnson says she never expected to get involved in politics. Her dream was to become a journalist and "write about life." But a stint volunteering for Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign for president hooked her on campaigning, she says.
Over the next decade, while holding down a job as a commercial insurance underwriter, Johnson volunteered on local races and in 1976 ended up overseeing a phone bank operation in Flor-ida's Panhandle during Gerald Ford's re-election campaign.
It wasn't until 1978, however, when GOP political strategist Rocky Pennington hired her to handle the south Florida operations of Ander Crenshaw's Secretary of State race, that she realized she might actually be able to make a career out of campaign politics. Two years later, Johnson got her first paid gig in campaign politics, serving as the south Florida field director for Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign. She went on to become political director of the Republican Party of Florida from 1981-84 and in 1984 returned to Reagan's campaign operation as the voter contact director for the Southeast.
Johnson loves the intricacies of polling data — breaking down the responses to a poll question by gender, demographic and economic information "so I can say, ‘Oh, the people in Panama City that make under $25,000 a year think we're headed in the right direction, but in Pensacola it was just the opposite.' I love looking at the numbers, knowing why it's that way."
Johnson was so good at the technical aspects of campaign strategy that the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers recruited her in 1985 to run their political action committee, the Florida Lawyers Action Group. While there, Johnson managed and directed a multimilliondollar campaign to defeat a statewide initiative that would have limited trial damage awards.
In 1992, Johnson left that job, citing ideological differences, and went to work for the trial lawyers' arch rival, Associated Industries of Florida, where she was tasked with building the business group's political machine. Johnson designed an aggressive, hightech program to identify and support pro-business candidates and provide resources to help those candidates win. She also developed and implemented a one-of-kind tracking mechanism for statewide offices.
In 2003, Johnson retired from AIF, but within a week Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber, asked her to set up a political program for the chamber. At the time, the chamber had just one political committee and handed out a meager $50,000 in contributions. A decade later, the chamber has beefed up its election arsenal to include 10 committees, and the business group's political giving topped $5.5 million in 2012. "I think we'll surpass that figure this year," Johnson says.
Today, Johnson heads a chamber political team that includes Mike Grissom, who has 10 years of political experience working with candidates and campaigns across 11 states and was executive director for the Republican Party of Florida. David Hart also plays a leading role on the political team – splitting time between legislative and political affairs.
Johnson has also built a powerful political research department that takes an in-depth look at every candidate running for office every election year to assess where they stand on critical business issues.
Johnson says she has been busy since the day after Election Day 2012 analyzing the 2014 election landscape – "looking at the candidates, assessing what we need to do, raising money." Over the coming months, Johnson and her team will travel the state interviewing every candidate running for office and comparing their stances on issues important to the chamber. She and her colleagues then will decide which candidates to recommend to the chamber's board of directors.
After five decades in the Florida's political trenches, the grandmother of three shows no signs of slowing down. "If I retired, I'd go bonkers," she says.
"My husband calls me an analytical nut. Very seldom a day goes by that I don't look at who's filed to run, look at how many signatures have been turned in to the Secretary of State for the constitutional amendments."
— Marian Johnson, senior vice president/ political strategy, Florida Chamber of Commerce
Among the major electoral trends Marian Johnson has seen in her career:
Changes in swing districts. One example: "Pinellas County, between the mid- to late '90s to around the mid- 2000s, you had an older, conservative population there … more Republicans than Democrats, and now that Pinellas area is one of the hardest areas (to predict). That's where you fnd all of your swing seats."
The emergence of independents: Among the 11 million registered voters in Florida, "you've got about 4.6 million Ds, 4.1 million Rs, but you've got almost 3 million other voters. They give up their right to vote in primaries, but if they had a really good strong leader, and I don't mean Tea Party kind of stuff, but some good structure, they'd take over this state. In 1984, anybody that was a No Party Affliated (NPA) voter, if you could get them out to vote, they were very conservative and 90% chance they would vote Republican. You can't do that now. Those 3 million voters – which include about 2.7 million NPA and 300,000 (registered) minor parties, such as the Surfers Party and the Pirate Party – can sway the election in any of these districts. So you've got to watch the mood of those people. You've got to see which way they're going, what issues are most important to them, what they believe is the right thing to do."