Stepping off the Trump train

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State Sen. David Johnson is standing athwart the 2016 presidential race, yelling “Stop!”

Johnson, of Ocheyedan in far northwest Iowa, represents the third-most Republican district in the Iowa Senate. His father, Donald Johnson, finished second in the 1968 GOP gubernatorial primary to Bob Ray. He’s a conservative who has represented a conservative constituency for two terms in the Iowa House and nearly four in the Senate. He’s no RINO.

But this week, he left the Republican Party, changing his affiliation to “no party.” He’s watched Republicans jump on the Donald Trump train, and he’s decided, for now, to jump off. He can’t support a presumptive presidential nominee whom he considers to be a “dangerous man at a dangerous time.”

And then, the phone started ringing. It hasn’t stopped since he made the announcement Tuesday.

“I just got a call. It said ‘Ontario, Canada’ on it. She wouldn’t even let me say anything. She just read me the riot act,” Johnson said Thursday.

But that’s the exception, he said.

“It’s overwhelmingly positive. It has hit a nerve, there’s no question about it. All across the country,” Johnson said. “I’m still a Republican in my heart. But I’m glad that I’ve sent this message out.”

So what was the last straw for Johnson? What was the low point for a senator whose district includes Iowa’s highest point?

Maybe you’ve heard the one about the “Mexican” judge, born in Indiana, who Trump says can’t possibly impartially preside over a lawsuit against Trump’s defunct “university” because his ethnic heritage makes him biased against such a big, beautiful wall-builder?

Trump mentioned the name Gonzalo Curiel to his fervent crowds, and boos erupted. Odd.

Also, Muslim judges are a bad idea, too. No offense. And please don’t let him be misconstrued.

“Calling him out by name, questioning his ethnicity when he’s a U.S. citizen. That was it. I decided I had to do something,” Johnson said. “You can’t just say that those comments are inappropriate, but I still support him, he is our candidate. You need to do something more than that.

“I’m going to stay with the values my parents raised me in, in a very Republican Catholic conservative family. And I’m not going to back off on those. I won’t support him,” Johnson said.

“It’s just amazing that over the course of 150 years we’ve moved from being the party of Lincoln and the party of freeing the slaves to supporting an absolute bigot,” he said.

And yet, that clarity has eluded so many of his fellow Republicans.

We had to watch U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley this week launch his general election campaign by tying himself in Trumpian knots. The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee couldn’t bring himself to flatly condemn a bigoted attack on a federal judge, or disown the attacker.

“I can only tell you what I would do in a like situation,” Grassley told reporters on Tuesday. ”And I wouldn’t say what Trump said. On the face of it, I disagree with Trump’s assessment. But I’ve also got to tell you I don’t know the facts of the case.”

By midweek, Grassley felt he had to compare Trump’s remarks to a speech made by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor before her 2009 confirmation, including a line plucked from its context about being a “wise Latina” who brings her life experiences to the bench. But then, facing criticism for echoing a Trump talking point, he insisted he wasn’t trying to equate Trump and Sotomayor.

Grassley, it should be noted, also thinks Trump would pick “the right type of people” to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. But, presumably, no Indiana Mexicans.

Gov. Terry Branstad, who has gone all in on Trump’s greatness, conceded it’s “not smart” to comment on the judge handling your case. But let’s not be too hard on misunderstood Donald.

“Most people that know Donald Trump know that he’s not a racist, and that he’s had tremendous relationships with minorities and he has a lot of minorities and women that have been in key positions in his business,” Branstad told reporters Monday.

Others begged to differ.

“Public Service Announcement: Saying someone can’t do a specific job because of his or her race is the literal definition of `racism,’” Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska tweeted Monday. Sasse, unlike Branstad, doesn’t believe Trump will make America great.

But Trump will go down in history as the Great Definer. Republicans from this day forward will be defined by where they stood when Trump marched in. Or where they waffled, ignored and enabled.

Johnson is taking his stand with Iowa Senate Democrats holding a slim 26-24 majority. So his protest complicates Republican efforts to gain the majority. And yet, not one member of Republican Senate leadership has reached out to Johnson.

Some Democrats have reached out, although Johnson is just as firm in his opposition to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But he doesn’t think opposing Clinton is a good enough reason to vote Trump. Politics has to be about more than picking tribes.

“I’m sorry, but this is the whole point, that we’ve become so polarized,” Johnson said. “Politics isn’t the art of the possible any more, it’s the art of the impossible, the art of shutting down government or the art of bankrupting government.

“My party is in big trouble. But I don’t believe that our leaders see it. They’re using the old playbook,” Johnson said.

And it’s not all about Trump.

Johnson supports raising the state sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation trust fund created by voters in 2010. He believes it’s the best source of funding for water quality efforts. He’s “shocked” by the push to build a hog confinement operation in an environmentally sensitive area in Allamakee County near a trout stream. He says confinement rules must be revisited.

Johnson also opposed what he calls the Branstad administration’s “rush” to privatize the state’s Medicaid program because he saw the harm it was doing to his constituents. Those stands don’t sit well with many Republicans.

Johnson still hopes to serve as a Republican in a Republican-controlled Senate. But he’s making no promises on when he’ll return to the party. It may depend on what happens at the Republican National Convention in July. It may hinge on what happens in November. It may be that he remains a lawmaker without a party when he returns to Des Moines in January. It’s true he’s not on the ballot this fall, but he insists he’d do the same thing if his seat were on the line.

Johnson said he read a quote from a Senate colleague in a news story arguing, surely, he would “come to his senses.”

“I never lost my senses. That’s the problem with Republicans. They’re not listening,” Johnson said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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