Karen Johnson still remembers how it felt to watch parades as a youngster in her northern Illinois hometown.
“When the bands and the flags would go by, something would happen. There would be a lump in my throat and it would be hard to hold back tears,” she said. “I think I was born with a patriot gene.”
The longtime Mesa lawmaker — known for her sweet demeanor and biting one-liners — must also have been born with a dichotomy gene. And one foot perpetually in the 1950s.
Johnson’s views are among the most extreme in the 90-member Legislature, guided in large part by her interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. But she’s a throwback to a time when people voted their conscience, politics wasn’t personal and government was smaller.
The conservative Republican senator has represented Mesa’s District 18 for nearly two decades, but her politics still come from her gut.
And Johnson has actually mellowed a bit. Even so, she often says what other people only think.
“When I first came here I thought, ‘What’s wrong with these people? Why can’t they be a right-wing wacko like me?” she said during an interview Monday.
“It took me awhile to figure out, these are really neat people with different backgrounds. Their thoughts and their opinions are just as valuable.”
On Monday, it also was Johnson’s turn to lead the prayer to begin the morning session. She asked God for wisdom to bridge the current-year budget deficit “in a way that might be pleasing to you” and that would “bring us back to the Constitution.”
Later Monday, she announced on the Senate floor that she wouldn’t be voting on any more bills until the $1 billion shortfall is resolved. Even then, she probably won’t like the compromise.
“They have found smoke and mirrors and everything under the sun to balance this budget,” she said, bemoaning the use of bonding to finance school construction and sopping up most of the reserve rainy-day fund.
A study in contrasts, she has championed the rights of juvenile sex offenders, whose stories have brought her to tears during committee hearings. But she’s chastised the Bush administration for being too extravagant and compassionate, and wants to opt out of No Child Left Behind because it infringes on state’s rights.
She’s on the board of a Mesa substance-abuse treatment center and donates to the East Valley Child Crisis Center, but is fiercely committed to small government and supports deep cuts to social programs to help reverse the “nanny state.”
“We have totally left the Constitution,” Johnson said. “We’ve walked away from family-grounded principles into socialism and fascism.”
The 67-year-old mother of 11 and grandmother to 26 has been married five times, but has supported legislation to make it harder to divorce and opposes benefits for unmarried couples.
She’s on the board of the Church of Scientology’s Citizens Commission on Human Rights and has sponsored bills on its behalf to limit use of psychiatric medications, though at least one of her children has struggled with drug and mental health problems and another was an alcoholic.
Wearing flowery dresses and big blond hair, Johnson is a self-described gun lover with a bumper sticker in her office that says, “Keep honking. I’m reloading.”
Most recently, she’s pushed a bill to allow concealed weapons on school grounds.
“A crazed person comes through that door, they can protect those students. Otherwise, they’re nothing but sitting ducks,” Johnson said during a committee hearing last week.
But if a teacher or student had a concealed weapon, she said, “he’d be able to know who it was and, excuse the expression, plug them.”
Johnson may be best remembered for fiery statements linking homosexuals to the decline of the American family and packing a black .22 in her purse and on the floor of the Senate.
But she’s also considered among the warmest and easiest of legislators to work with, willing to compromise and, at the very least, respect the other side’s opinion. In the process, she has made some unlikely allies.
Last year, she pushed a package of bills to ease laws on juvenile sex offenders, allowing them out from under harsh and often lifetime probation and registration requirements.
“I think she was a true advocate for children,” said Beth Rosenberg of the Children’s Action Alliance, which often finds itself on opposite sides with Johnson.
“Against what was popular and against what was safe, she really took a position on behalf of kids,” Rosenberg said. “She took the position that these kids are different, because they are.”
Even her alliance with the Church of Scientology, which discredits psychiatry, didn’t prevent Johnson from compromising with mental health advocates.
Responding to objections from the Arizona Mental Health Association, Johnson significantly amended a bill to require parental consent for mental health screenings.
But this year, she has resurrected legislation that would require an accounting of all psychiatric medication dispensed to children by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, as well as the name of the physicians who prescribe them.
“I think that she has been completely, 100 percent sucked in by the Scientologists,” said Sherri Walton, executive director of the Arizona Mental Health Association.
“I would say that her mission to make psychotropic drugs unavailable to children is very dangerous,” Walton said. “But she’s not as dangerous as she used to be.”
Johnson is known for embracing the very people she disagrees with. Like Sen. Ken Cheuvront, D-Phoenix, who is gay and, to Johnson’s way of thinking, has chosen a lifestyle.
“I tell Ken, ‘I love you to pieces and you’re entitled to run your life any way you choose. Just don’t ask me to say I think it’s great.’ ”
Much of Johnson’s political philosophy is born from her conservative upbringing and her Mormon faith.
She recalls watching the McCarthy hearings after school and devouring political tomes that came from her father’s book of the month club. When she came home from high school extolling the virtues of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, her father set her straight.
“I still remember him pounding the dinner table,” she said. “Dad said FDR pulled us away from the Constitution.”
Johnson wound up in Arizona because of her first, short-lived marriage. She was introduced to the Mormon Church by her second husband, a banker in Tucson.
But that marriage, too, ended in divorce.
A third husband was killed. And her oldest child died last year in a car crash.
Johnson started working because of her husband’s back injury, and the family of 13 got by on about $20,000 a year, she said. That makes it hard for her to see why state government can’t live within its means.
“Some of my experiences were pretty tough,” she said, “but I wouldn’t take them back.”