Weather Forecast


Successful businessman no longer 'sitting on the sidelines'

Ron Johnson

It was one thing -- the passage of the health care bill -- that motivated an Oshkosh businessman to challenge 17-year incumbent Russ Feingold for one of Wisconsin's seats in the U.S. Senate.

"The health care bill will destroy the finest health care system in the world," said Ron Johnson, who stopped in the area for an interview before attending Farm Technology Days.

Johnson, 55, a Republican, tells his story with emotion.

His first daughter, Carey, was born with a heart defect -- her pulmonary artery and aorta were switched around.

In her first day of life, the infant was rushed to Milwaukee Children's Hospital where a doctor performed a process to save her life.

That surgeon, said Johnson, started the nearly eight-hour operation at 6 a.m., was still at the hospital checking on his patient at 6 p.m., called in during the night and was back at work with another patient at 6 a.m. the next day.

Twenty or 30 years ago, children with his daughter's condition had a 25 percent to 50 percent mortality rate. When Carey needed further treatment, the Johnsons researched alternatives and took her to the University of Minnesota, a leader in the treatment she needed.

Today his daughter, 27, is a nurse in neonatal intensive care.

"I realize that America is where medical miracles really occur," said Johnson, who is loathe to interfere with the process that produces those miracles and that allows families to seek out the treatment they think is best.

He said he has "tender thoughts" about doctors.

'A free-market' guy

"I'm a free-market guy," said Johnson. "But if anyone should enjoy financial success, it should be doctors."

While he agrees our medical and insurance systems aren't perfect, he thinks they can be changed without the drastic measures planned. It's also wrong, he said, for the government to take over a business that accounts for a sixth of the national economy.

After giving a speech at an Oshkosh Tea Party meeting in October 2009, Johnson was encouraged to run for office but resisted.

"I go 'No way,'" said Johnson. "I've seen what politics is like."

Johnson and his wife Jane were married the same year he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor's degree in business accounting. They have three children.

While working as an accountant, Johnson attended night school to earn an MBA, completing all the course work but not the final thesis before moving to Wisconsin to start a business with his brother-on-law.

He admits that not finishing the thesis is something that has nagged at him over the years.

But, joked Johnson, it was harder then: "We had to type on a real typewriter and use white-out."

Besides, after working 15-16 hours a day starting the new business, PACUR, "writing a thesis was not on the top of your list."

PACUR, which now employs 120 workers, makes a specialty plastic used for packaging medical devices. The company's customers include some of the largest medical supply companies in the country.

The health care bill passed by Congress is designed to lead to a single-payer system, said Johnson, pointing to other countries where people wait months for treatments and have little say in the care they get.

While he was busy with business and involved in his community, he has never held elected office.

"I was just sitting on the sidelines," said Johnson, admitting that he had "pretty much the just-leave-us-alone mentality."

While others encourage him to run and he pondered the decision for months, it wasn't until May 17 that Johnson announced his candidacy.

While others complained that Tommy Thompson seemed to be dragging his feet on deciding whether or not to run for Senate, Johnson was glad for the delay.

"I was probably the one person in Wisconsin saying, "Tommy, take your time."

"There was no grand design or plan to this," said Johnson, who would have to defeat businessman Dave Westlake in a September Republican primary, if he is to challenge Feingold in November.

Still, a Rasmussen Report survey that was released last week shows Johnson with 47 percent support and Feingold with 46 percent of the vote.

BP mistakes

Johnson has been attacked politically for allegedly defending BP after the Gulf oil spill and for owning an estimated $100,000 worth of BP stock.

"I haven't apologized at all," said Johnson of earlier statements. "As the information keeps coming out, it becomes clear that BP was really stupid... It was a tragedy for everybody."

"They made a huge mistake. They're paying for it. Their shareholders are paying for it," said Johnson. "They should pay the penalty. Their shareholders should pay the penalty... I'll take a hit on it."

He has also been criticized for allegedly supporting drilling for oil in the Great Lakes.

"There is no way I would support drilling in the Great Lakes," said Johnson, who still wonders what that accusation is based on. "I never said Great Lakes, and I never said drill in the Great Lakes."

He says he did say the nation should look at drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

"I think we need to realize we're an oil-based economy," said Johnson. He said the country has to look at the most environmentally friendly ways of producing oil.

In the 31 years he has helped run a successful company, Johnson said he has collected substantial personal assets.

When an interviewer asked about using that money on his campaign, Johnson had a ready reply.

"He said, 'How much (of that) are you willing to spend?'" recalls Johnson. "I said, 'All of it.'"

Feingold has spent an average of $10 million on his last three campaigns.

Johnson believes he has the assets and the backing to "run a credible campaign" in that league.

But still, he said, he doesn't intend to finance his campaign on his own and has been aggressively asking for contributions. In June alone the campaign raised over $500,000 in contributions.

"Thirty-one years in business teaches you an awful lot," said Johnson. Too many in the nation's capital haven't worked in private business and too many are lawyers who, while they may have worked in a business, haven't created jobs, he said.

"The election is going to be about the economy and jobs," said Johnson. "About the government sucking money out of the private sector."

He concluded, "I'm a huge believer in the private sector. It works."

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.

(715) 426-1049