When state Sen. Wendy Davis announced her campaign for governor in early October, she had not settled on a campaign manager.
Because Democrats haven’t won statewide office in Texas in two decades, the Fort Worth lawyer — who gained national attention after filibustering a bill on abortion regulations — wanted to get it right. So the campaign conducted a national search. About three weeks after getting into the ring, Davis announced she had selected Karin Johanson, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant known for winning uphill battles.
She had helped Democrats take back the U.S. House in 2006 as director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. More recently, she managed U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s successful 2012 campaign in Wisconsin.
Johanson, 58, was described by The Washington Post in 2006 as “one of those people whose names you never hear, a political junkie who has been toiling in the backwaters of Democratic politics for more than 30 years — and one who is playing a huge role in the party's efforts to regain the House.”
Her prominent role in one of the most closely watched governor’s races in the nation has already given Johanson more visibility. Over the weekend, Republicans accused Davis of distorting her background for political gain after a news report suggested she had blurred key details of her past.
Johanson said she wasn’t surprised at the attacks.
“This is a tried and true Republican strategy that they’ve used in this state and other states and nationally,” she said. “You look at a person and say, what is the person’s strongest thing, and you go right at it. This is what they do.”
Davis had previously said she divorced her first husband at age 19, but she acknowledged her divorce from him was not final until she turned 21. Johanson said the altered detail was insignificant and did not change the fact that she struggled as a single mother.
“Her story is not exaggerated. A single mother knows she’s a single mother when she is living alone with a baby,” Johanson said. “I think we’re seeing people rally to her side, and I think there will be more of that and people seeing this for what it is. Her story is her story, and they’re not taking it from her.”
Johanson recently sat down with The Texas Tribune. The Tribune requested a similar interview with Wayne Hamilton, the campaign manager for leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, but Abbott's campaign declined the invitation.
The following is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview with Johanson.
TT: Where did you grow up, and how did that impact your views?
Johanson: I grew up in Princeton, N.J. I grew up when it was a very political time, and my family is not political but they’re interested in politics, so there was a lot of discussion, and it just caught my fancy early on.
TT: When did you first get involved in politics?
Johanson: My first job as a campaign manager was for my friend running for eighth-grade president, and I wore a sandwich board that we designed and we had little buttons. She won. My first victory.
TT: What drew you to politics?
Johanson: I think it’s what still draws me to it: making change and accomplishing things. Making the world a better place — still idealistic reasons.
TT: What was your view of Texas before you got here?
Johanson: The sheer size of it, the scale, the physical size of it, is always just a little daunting. I’ve worked in California. I’ve worked in Florida. I’m used to places where there are big numbers of people. I think it’s unique. Texas is different because it’s so diverse in terms of the scale, the size, the number of cities and media markets. I think I knew this before, but you know the pride in Texas, the real identity as Texans, you need to remind yourself that’s the reality here. There’s a real Texas identity.
TT: What do you do as campaign manager?
Johanson: Make it all come together. The fundraising, the schedule, what we’re going to do on a day-to-day basis, make it move forward, help make decisions.
TT: If you had to boil down Wendy Davis’ message to a paragraph, what would it be?
Johanson: I’m for the regular guy. I mean I think that’s pretty basic. There are all kinds of things that can shoot out from that, but — for the little guy. I think they think of her as brave and principled. I mean, I think that’s what happened with the filibuster, that people thought she stood up for 13 hours and that she was a principled person.
TT: Is Wendy Davis ready for prime time?
Johanson: I think that actually we’re doing pretty well. I think we’ve made a few mistakes, but I think that there’s a natural ebb and flow to a campaign and pretty soon people are going to start saying you know what, that campaign’s pretty good. That’s the next step.
TT: Texas is a red state. What makes you think you can win here?
Johanson: As Paul Begala said, it’s a nonvoting state. There’s enough votes here to win this race. We just have to convince people to vote, convince a number to vote who might not be intending to right now in a nonpresidential year, and we need to persuade some people who intend to vote but aren’t certain. It’s not easy at all, but I think there’s a path. You’ve got a situation where you have a candidate who’s well known already, which Democrats haven’t had before, so there’s an excitement about her and a knowledge of her in any other Democratic candidate that I’m aware of since Ann Richards.
TT: Will Wendy Davis distance herself from President Obama when he visits Texas?
Johanson: She’ll probably meet him. He is the president of the United States. I don’t imagine she wouldn’t meet him. I know people made a big stink about it with [2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee] Bill White. I wasn’t here, so I have no idea.
TT: Will they campaign together in this race?
Johanson: I don’t know about that, but I’m sure she’ll meet with him. I mean, he doesn’t generally come down here and campaign, that I know of.
TT: Is Davis running away from the abortion issue?
Johanson: People keep wanting her to talk about it, but people know, they know that about her. What they need to know is other things. They know that they she stood up in the filibuster, I think. So much about that issue was about health care and the clinics and denying health care coverage to women who have used those clinics for cancer screenings, birth control, Pap smears, all that stuff. I think that’s what people know about her, that she stood up for those things, so there’s no reason to keep telling people about it; you need to tell people her own story. We have a limited amount of time and attention to talk to voters, and now we need to tell them something else.