Jeff Johnson was my high school biology teacher at South Kingstown High School. Students like me know him as the teacher who consistently dresses poorly and reads poetry out loud for fun. In many ways, he lives a life of absolutes. His desk is eternally messy; his glasses are always missing. His vocabulary and control over language are often awe-inspiring; his typing speed, not so much. He is universally loved by his students. He is fiercely intelligent and curious. But most importantly, he is so incredibly caring, not only to his students and to his family but also to our planet and to all its citizens.
Mr. Johnson has spent the past three decades fighting for the people and the issues politicians don’t care to talk about. Since the 1970s, Mr. Johnson has been engaged in the fight against climate change, and in March 2016, he helped organize a Climate March in South Kingstown. In the late 1990s, Mr. Johnson became heavily involved in the protests against the inhumanity of the American sanctions on Iraq which killed an estimated 500,000 children. Opposed to the Iraq War from the beginning, Mr. Johnson, alongside thousands of people, participated in the Iraq War demonstration in NYC on February 15, 2003. Over the years, Mr. Johnson has brought to the high school activists like Ralph Nader and the late Howard Zinn to speak on issues ranging from climate change to perpetual war.
But even with all of these things going on, Mr. Johnson always finds time to help his students. When I was at the high school, Mr. Johnson was always helping someone after school, whether it was with biology concepts, family problems, writing an essay or a science fair project. These conversations would go well into the afternoon, sometimes into the night. And it was one of these late afternoon conversations that sparked the idea for this campaign.
Today, his campaign is run by the volunteer work of a dozen of his students (current and former). We have spent countless hours working on a campaign platform (available online) that covers everything from agricultural policy to social security reform. We have been kicked out of libraries while collecting signatures outside. We have marched through torrential rain holding deteriorating cardboard box anti-war signs in our arms. We have designed a bumper stickers and yard signs, brochures and a website. We do this because we have talked to Mr. Johnson; we have gotten to know what a passionate man he is; and we really believe that he has the ability to affect change, meaningful change, where Mr. Langevin hasn’t in his decade and a half.
To Mr. Johnson, and perhaps to his campaign’s detriment, the election isn’t just about winning and a job in Congress— it is about his students. “The reason why I got into politics was because I was always talking about issues like climate change, but if all you do is talk about them, all you do is depress kids,” he told me earlier today in his classroom, “I felt like I had to do more than a hollow, academic exercise. It had to be a tangible part of my life. I was tired of feeling guilty.” This same feeling motivated Mr. Johnson to run in 1994, 1998 and then again in 2000 for statewide office. In 1994, Mr. Johnson ran for Lieutenant Governor as a Green, receiving about 6% of the vote. To date, no statewide election has matched that vote share result for a Green candidate.
Mr. Johnson is a candidate who will not represent corporate greed and war. He will never take money, as Mr. Langevin has, from defense contractors: General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrup Grumman. He will not be passive as climate change ravages our world— he will be practicing civil disobedience with the activists— he will be getting arrested on the streets so that people will pay attention. Mr. Johnson is a person who understands the plight of the “American dream” and the American worker. He was the first person in his family to graduate from college, and today, he holds four degrees. He has worked as a submarine welder, a quahogger, a farmer, a prison dishwasher, a medical technician, a Ford assembly line operator, a gas station mechanic, a painter, a landscaper, a book editor and a paperboy. Nowadays, in addition to the high school, he commutes to Providence to work in DCYF group homes on weekends. Private sector, public sector, white collar, blue collar, Mr. Johnson has seen it all. He has seen for himself the struggle and hardship Americans must face every day.
This election season, we hang on the precipice. We must think carefully about whether we want to maintain this status quo of wage stagnation and environmental degradation. We must be open to alternatives, no matter our political affiliation or views. And more than anything, we must courageously vote our conscience after we have given all candidates a fair assessment. Mr. Johnson, I believe, offers alternatives to our status quo, alternatives that will leave a healthy planet for future generations, alternatives that will heal our economic system so that it is more equitable and fair for both the American people and those abroad.