State - -- Informed Vote 2010 -- Law professor and clerk face off in SOS race Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson takes on new challenge

By Corey Williams

Associated Press Writer

NORTHVILLE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson has never shied away from a challenge.

She was the first girl to be a "paper boy" for the Pontiac Press, a job she had to take on after her father died at age 52 of coronary heart disease when Johnson was 13.

In the early 1980s, she worked with a 12-member citizen's group that successfully fought off efforts to turn an abandoned gravel pit in northern Oakland County into a site for toxic waste disposal. As a Republican state lawmaker for six years, she made a name for herself investigating allegations of financial abuse at Oakland Schools. She took on the challenge of being Dick DeVos' running mate in the 2006 governor's race.

Now, the 55-year-old is running for secretary of state, having bested four GOP opponents at the party's August convention.

It's all part of having learned while she was growing up to dig in and get the job done.

After her father died, "it was very difficult for our whole family. My mom had to do everything," Johnson told The Associated Press after answering questions from voters in Wayne County's Northville Township.

"She bought a 1949 Chevy and there was no floor in it," Johnson remembers. "She got up under there with a drill and some nuts and bolt, and put two-by-fours and two-by-sixes and put a wood floor in it. That way we didn't fall out."

Her mother still lives in the Pontiac home she and Johnson's father bought 58 years ago for $5,000. As the family grew, her parents put their own sweat equity into the additions.

"They saved their money before they would build. Which is sort of novel, isn't it?" asks Johnson, of Oakland County's Groveland Township. "They lived well below our means, and our means were pretty low.

"I'm frugal. My wedding dress, I got at a garage sale."

She and her husband, dentist Don Nanney, were married 31 years ago and have an 11-year-old daughter.

In six years as Oakland County clerk, Ruth Johnson doesn't remember taking a sick day. She missed 14 session days during her six years as a legislator, but it was because she was on "strict bed rest" with a high-risk pregnancy, Johnson says.

To Johnson, if you have a job to do, then it should be done. No excuses.

Johnson says she wants to change Michigan's enhanced driver's licenses to make them more secure and save taxpayers money by streamlining operations.

"I really think government has the responsibility of the lowest possible cost with the best possible service," Johnson says.

Republican Oakland County Commissioner Sue Douglas has seen that belief put into action.

"She treats government money the same way she treats her own," says Douglas, who has known Johnson for 18 years.

A former print shop owner, Johnson was elected county commissioner in 1988. She won election in 1998 to the state House and two subsequent re-elections. Oakland County voters selected Johnson clerk in 2004.

Through September, Johnson had raised nearly $490,000 for her secretary of state race. About three-quarters of the money -- $354,000 -- was her own. The Michigan Republican Party donated another $61,000. Johnson still had more than $430,000 on hand.

Democrat Jocelyn Benson had raised more than $627,000 after contributing $9,000 of her own money and getting a four-month head start on Johnson, who wasn't nominated until late August. The Michigan Education Association's political action committee chipped in $17,000 to Benson's campaign, but most came from individual donors. The Democrat had more than $434,000 on hand.

Johnson's supporters include the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Right to Life of Michigan, the Michigan Manufacturers Association and Citizens for Traditional Values.

She and Benson are joined on the Nov. 2 ballot by Green Party candidate John Anthony La Pietra, Libertarian candidate Scotty Boman and Robert Gale of the U.S. Taxpayers Party.

The conservative Republican points to her record as Oakland clerk as part of the reason why she's the better choice.

Under her watch, the office has racked up national awards for customer service, cutting costs, government transparency, voter integrity and innovative technology.

"At the same time, we've cut a million dollars out of the budget and cut 20 percent of the staff," Johnson says.

Her efforts this year led to an investigation into suspected voter fraud after Johnson uncovered fake candidate filings. She says at least one person listed as a candidate of "The Tea Party" claimed he was nominated without his knowledge. Republicans and regular tea party activists successfully fought to keep "The Tea Party" off the November ballot, considering them a Democrat-supported group trying to put its nominees into closely contested races to siphon away GOP votes.

But Johnson also has worked with Democrats, and many speak well of her.

"I think she's a very honest person," says Macomb County Clerk Carmella Sabaugh, the 2006 Democratic secretary of state nominee. "She's looking out for the benefit of the public and how we can make things more efficient."

"She's always drawn from both sides of the aisle," Douglas says. "She is a good listener. She's doesn't get so fixed on an idea that she will throw all other ideas out. If you have good reasons and can lay it all in front of her, she'll listen."

Published: Wed, Oct 20, 2010

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