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Crow Wing County Board District 3: Johnson wants to bring common sense to county government

Johnson, 46, is taking a second crack at seeking election to the board to represent District 3, challenging the incumbent Commissioner Steve Barrows alongside three other candidates in the Aug. 9 primary election.

Keith Johnson speaks about his Crow Wing County Board candidacy while seated at a table
Keith Johnson speaks about his candidacy for Crow Wing County Board District 3 during a June 27, 2022, interview at the Brainerd Dispatch.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Common sense: that’s one thing the Crow Wing County Board needs more of, according to Keith Johnson.

It’s something he says people know when they see, and they aren’t seeing enough of it from the current slate of commissioners. That’s one of the reasons Johnson, 46, is taking a second crack at seeking election to the board to represent District 3, challenging the incumbent Commissioner Steve Barrows alongside three other candidates in the Aug. 9 primary election.

“He’s (Barrows) been nothing but a gentleman to me, but he hasn’t done much to affect my life in the positive,” Johnson said during a June 27 interview. “And that’s not an insult to him. It’s just, I can’t see — or my neighborhood, the people that I talk to — can’t see it.”

Map of Crow Wing County Commissioner District 3
A map shows the areas of Crow Wing County included in Commissioner District 3.
Contributed / Crow Wing County

Johnson, who lives in south Brainerd, went head to head with Barrows in 2018 to fill a board vacancy left by the retirement of Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom. He lost 2,185 votes to 1,828, a 357-vote margin Johnson said he’s confident he can make up this go-around by dedicating more time to campaigning.

The husband and father of four previously ran an over-the-road trucking company, but now he’s his own boss as a truck driver and said he rearranged his schedule to demonstrate his dedication to the position. A resident of Brainerd since a young age, Johnson is well traveled because of his profession, and that’s revealed just how much name recognition Crow Wing County has across the country.


“Everybody seems to know. No matter what corner of this country you go to, they know where we are. And I'm very, very proud of that,” Johnson said. “And I want to get in there and clean it up. It just doesn't seem like our current city or county government kind of really sees the big picture from the national spotlight like I see it. I see it all the time.”

Keith Johnson headshot
Keith Johnson.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Johnson said one of his top priorities as a commissioner would be fixing what he characterized as a broken social services system, which he said fails to hold people who abuse children accountable. He said he knows this from his own personal observations. The situation he experienced prompted him to poke around, and he only found more problems, he said.

“That is what I really want to dig into: accountability. If whoever is in a position and can't do their job, they should be fired and replaced. If the whole program does not work, we should eliminate the program and start over from scratch,” Johnson said.

Johnson also said the drug problem in the county is out of control, and despite numerous programs available in the community to assist those with addiction, it’s getting worse.

“When I’m mowing my yard and pick up drug needles, I have a problem with that. So I’m going to get involved,” Johnson said. “The current board doesn’t really do much, from what the general public can see. So why don't we get involved and make things happen?”

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Johnson said involvement in county government represents a more direct line to influencing policy at the state level. Even if a program is mandated by the state, he said he would use his power as a county commissioner to lobby state legislators for the kinds of programs that do work.

“Out of the thousands of government programs, tell me one that actually works the way it should. There isn't one. It doesn't exist,” Johnson said. “Because everybody just sits back and goes, “Ope, that's not our job, that's their job. Ope, that's their job, that's their deal to do that.’ ‘Here at the local level, we can’t do that.’ Well, why not? Because nobody’s stood up and done anything about it, that’s why.”

Johnson said he sees numerous problems in public schools and as a county commissioner, he would promote private schools coming into the area. He said he would pursue a voter referendum to make it illegal for an adult to talk to a child about their sex.


“The schools want to have their teachers talk to children, young children about this sort of thing. That should be completely illegal,” Johnson said.

When asked about the possibility this could open up the county to legal liability, given it does not oversee school districts, Johnson said he thinks it’s worth fighting for and he would be willing to spend taxpayer dollars over that fight. How much?

“Enough to stop the perverts from talking to our children the way they do,” he said.

Johnson said when it comes to controversial land use issues before the board, they require compromise to ensure people on both sides of the equation get something they want. But, he said, he’s not willing to sacrifice what he sees as Crow Wing County’s culture on behalf of metro visitors, who’ve increasingly begun calling the lakes area home. He said while he wouldn’t discount their concerns, he would give preference to people with deep local roots.

“The metro beliefs can stay down there,” Johnson said. “If they want to come up from the metro, they're more than welcome. They're wonderful people. Please come on up here, but leave your politics down there. If you want to change up here to down there, then you stay down there.”

Johnson said ultimately, no matter his personal opinions, his job would be to do what his constituents ask him to do, and his focus is what works best for the district he would represent.

“I don't agree with certain things in the trucking industry, but it’s my job to obey the law. It's my job to do my job. And that's what I would be doing. Basically I'm applying for a job here, you know, and so my job is to do what my boss — aka my constituents — ask me to do.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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