“Most important for me is the lack of trust in the process,” the kind and passionate voice over the phone says to me as I feverously write down my notes. I’m excited by the news that the caller Josh Johnson is running for county commission, but I note that he seems to always run against well-known incumbents. “What I enjoy is climbing bean stocks and fighting giants. Those are the people that need to be challenged!”
Back when we first talked Johnson, a teacher at Godby High School, had just officially filed to run for the Leon County Commission at-large seat. Challenging the embattled incumbent Nick Maddox, who is seeking a fourth term on the county commission. Johnson has previously run for the Florida House of Representatives in 2016 and has earned a reputation as a rising star in the community and a political risk-taker. Despite being the challenger he has posted impressive fundraising totals which has often towered above Maddox’s and Johnson is now largely considered the front runner in the race.
I’ve known Johnson ever since that first race years ago, when he was a green first timer running against a local icon Loranne Ausley, as she sought to reclaim her old house district. It was a seat many had been eyeing and that no one reached for once it was clear that Ausley was going to use it as a springboard for a future state senate seat. The smart money the numerous gatekeepers, courthouse regulars, and high-heeled brunchers’ would be on waiting for her to move up. But, Johnson has never been a person to hold off when the iron is hot. He knew that he would lose, he also knew his challenge would lead to great exposure. But there was something else, he knew that Ausley needed to be challenged. That people needed to hear about the neighborhoods that Ausley didn’t visit.
Like it or not, Johnson was in many ways a precursor to the growing wave of progressive challengers that have made the once comfortable group of Tallahassee based incumbents sleep uneasy since 2018. Some saw his race as that of a young man testing the waters, until they heard him speak, then they realized they were hearing the opening act to a potential movement. He also knew people would grow frustrated by the Ausley return act, as a result Ausley may have won the Senate seat, but her political appeal has largely stopped growing as the political landscape of her district has changed widely.
Johnson’s however has only seemed to grow brighter.
” People take these jobs as stepping stones and you end up stepping on people,” the trend now seems to have changed. Following the repeal of Roe v. Wade earlier last month, a pop up rally was organized by numerous organizations outside of the capitol building. Johnson was asked to speak and electrified the crowd, images of the speech have been some of the most circulated images of the event. Both the person he ran against in 2016 and the incumbent he is running against this year didn’t speak and weren’t present.
To outsiders of the Tallahassee political world, this may not seem like much, but has caused shock waves among local volunteers. “Year after year, we see the same powerful interests get special treatment while the people, organizations, and neighborhoods that need help the most get left behind,” Johnson recently said.
This year Johnson is running on a platform that is both forward thinking and profoundly earnest. In his view many people are outsiders that the entire governmental process has left behind. Only with open engagement by public servants with deep roots in the community can the balance be restored.
“I always liked the process, the process has always been dear to me. There is a lot of public ills I want to right!” With that notion Johnson has been running a campaign that feels like a callback to the glory days of Lawton Chiles, a mostly one man band operation. He has a vast network of supporters and volunteers to be certain. But, no handlers, no gatekeepers. Its all him, the campaign, its themes, its speeches, all stem from this single candidate. Its a refreshing change in a democratic stronghold like Tallahassee, long known for its scripted candidates with isolated natures.
Johnson’s opponent Maddox has held his current position for over a decade and has never faced any real challenger. But a series of unpopular votes, connections to developers, and constant rumors of his desire to move up, have left a bad taste in the mouth of voters. While Johnson seems to be everywhere these days, Maddox has largely not campaigned. He currently doesn’t have an media presence and his healthy campaign chest is mostly filled by a few mega donors; its total is frankly a pale ghost of what it used to be.
Ending my call that day I asked Josh what his election would mean, “There is no way my election wouldn’t change the debate.” The simple fact is that for the past four years progressives around town have all been focused on the same mission “board majority”, achieve progressive majorities in both the city and county boards and pass sweeping new measures. At the moment that dream seems only a matter of days for the city commission which already enjoys two activist progressive members. But for the county commission, Josh would be the first to take up the cause in that body.
Its a task he is readying himself for and one the entire community is increasingly longing to see him undertake.