HELENA — Montana Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson says he will attempt to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in 2016.
The East Helena Republican told The Associated Press of his candidacy ahead of a Wednesday news conference where he planned to kick off his campaign.
Johnson, 64, said he wants to focus the state’s attention and resources back on agricultural research and the cultivation of crops and raw materials. Montana cannot acquiesce to the decline of timber, mineral and coal development, then rely on technology and tourism to prop up its economy, he said.
“We’ve seen tremendous, benign neglect of our rural communities in eastern Montana,” Johnson said. “I think that’s one indicator that we’re on the wrong track.”
He didn’t specify a plan to address that region’s underfunded infrastructure needs but said he is against funneling more federal dollars there. He said he would like to lure entrepreneurs from western Montana to the east.
Johnson leads the state utilities commission, served as Montana Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, and has a master’s degree in agriculture with a background in business management. He began an exploratory gubernatorial campaign June 23, but until Wednesday has spent little time on the campaign trail.
He said he began considering challenging Bullock when he watched in dismay as budget amendments passed quickly and without discussion during legislative hearings this year. He said the executive branch should be more transparent during budget negotiations.
The state could benefit from reforming its biennial Legislature to include an annual budget session, he said.
Johnson’s wife, Linda Ruth Johnson, teaches eighth-grade English in a suburb of Austin, Texas. She spent most of her 18 years in the Air Force as a drill instructor, and they were married last year.
“She’ll be here as campaign events dictate, but she’s got her career and a commitment to those kids for the school year,” Johnson said.
In the meantime, Johnson’s dog Bobbie will be his companion on the campaign trail.
After losing his 2008 re-election to Democratic Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Johnson worked as an energy development consultant. He ran for the Public Service Commission in 2010, but suspended his campaign after pleading guilty to driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.24 — three times the legal limit.
The day before he voluntarily entered an alcohol treatment program, Johnson lost the Republican primary by 134 votes.
He describes the DUI as a life-changing event that forced him to recognize and successfully deal with a problem.
“I certainly wouldn’t choose to go through it. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. But I can tell you I truly am a better and stronger person, and I think a better and stronger public servant for the experience,” Johnson said.
Johnson failed to unseat McCulloch in her 2012 re-election, but returned in 2014 by winning the PSC seat.
Republican Greg Gianforte, a Bozeman entrepreneur and Johnson’s former employer, filed paperwork to begin an exploratory campaign Aug. 17.
Johnson was a salesman from 2000 to 2004 for RightNow Technologies, the startup that Gianforte later sold to Oracle for about $1.5 billion.