Born in 1959, Bill Johnson, the oldest child of a career army soldier, grew up on air force bases until his father retired in 1973 and the family settled in Birmingham, Alabama. He attended John Carroll High School in the city, and then went to Springhill College in Mobile on a full academic scholarship, receiving a B.S. in Chemistry in 1981 and graduating cum laude.
In 1993 Johnson became active in politics and has worked to elect many conservative candidates. Four years later he was elected to the Birmingham City Council and in 200o completed the Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Governor Bob Riley appointed Johnson assistant director for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) in January of 2003; and in 2005 he was appointed as director for the agency. He stayed at that post until last year when he resigned to run as a Republican candidate for governor of the state of Alabama.
Johnson is married to the former Kathy Hale and they have three children ranging in age from 18 to 28. The family resides in Prattville, Alabama.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Bill, thanks for talking with me today. Tell me about your experience in Pakistan.
Bill Johnson: In between my junior and senior year at Springhill College in Mobile, I decided that I wanted to go and try to help the Mujahideen and their fight against the Soviets so I flew to Pakistan in the summer of 1980. I was pre-med in college and had interned with a pediatrics surgeon in Birmingham at Children’s Hospital for a number of years and so I had a fair amount of experience, although no formal training.
When I got over there the Mujahideen basically said, “Well, we’re Muslims and you’re a Christian and this is a Holy War so thanks but no thanks.” So, then I just came back and finished my senior year at Springhill.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): How did you get from pre-med to politics?
Bill Johnson: I decided I wanted to see the world so I spent the next ten years traveling … all through Africa (fourteen African countries), Central and South America. Seeing second and third world counties got me very interested in government, especially bad government. Mostly what makes a second and third world country is corruption in their government or a bad form of government.
It made me very appreciative of what made the United States a great country. I started paying more attention to what was happening politically.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Let’s discuss some campaign issues. As you are against abortion, would you like to see Roe vs. Wade overturned?
Bill Johnson: Yes. I believe life begins at conception. It’s kind of a moral issue with me. When God creates a life, whatever the circumstances, that innocent life deserves an opportunity to live. I’m against abortion … no exceptions.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): I read that you believed both in evolution and in God.
Bill Johnson: No, they misquoted me on that one. I believe in creation as defined in Chapters 1 and 2. I do believe that God’s guiding hand allows his creatures to adapt to their surroundings.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Do you think that charter schools would be a good idea for Alabama as Governor Riley suggests?
Bill Johnson: Well, we actually have a type of charter school in Alabama and that’s our Christian academies that we have all over the state successfully flourishing. So, I think the charter school issue, for the amount of money the feds are putting on the table, is a red herring in an election year. I would rather see that the parents are sending their kids to religious parochial type schools and have an opportunity to get tax deductions.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): How would you improve education in the state?
Bill Johnson: First, we need to change the mentality as a society and acknowledge that not all of our kids are going to college, as there is a 40% dropout rate. What I propose is to identify kids early on that probably aren’t going to college and get them on a career tech track or military track where we get them engaged where they want to come to school.
In other counties where I’ve seen these programs, if they are going to be welders at the end of their school they’re master welders. And when they get out they can make a living wage and can support a family. My view is if people get up everyday and they work to provide for their family, whatever they do is honorable whether they have a college degree or not.
We just need to acknowledge this up front that not all of our children are going to college and that’s okay. They can still make great contributions and we need them in other occupations.
The other part of that is even when our kids are getting college degrees, they can’t get a job. This all came from my experience as a Department of Labor appointee for the state and just really wondering where the higher paying jobs are out there. We’re graduating thousands of kids every year with degrees and there are no jobs out there for them. They’re saddled up with these student loads and they can’t find employment with the degrees they have.
So, the problem is first with the dropout rate and secondly for educating kids for jobs that don’t exist. Those are two big areas I think we need to focus on. We literally invest hundreds of millions of dollars in education at all levels and we’re not getting the return we could on it … and it’s to the detriment of our kids.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): How would you change health care in the United States?
Bill Johnson: The biggest problem that we have is not health care; it’s the issue with our insurers. The single greatest thing that we could do to increase access to health care in this country is to increase competition among the health care providers.
As an example, Blue Cross/Blue Shield has 89% of the Alabama market. They have a provision that is an agreement they made with all their physician providers that is called a “preferred provider” clause. Under that arrangement, doctors in their system agree to be reimbursed at a certain level. They agree if anybody comes to them for treatment that does not have Blue Cross or is uninsured, they have to charge that person more.
My wife, Kathy, had shoulder surgery back in December. We were talking to her surgeon about this and he said, “Blue Cross reimburses me $2,000 for this surgery and I can make money at that, but if anybody comes to me with another type of insurance (not Blue Cross) or is uninsured, I have to charge them $8,000. If Blue Cross finds out that I was treating people and didn’t charge them this higher rate, they would kick me out of their “preferred provider” arrangement. And he says in Alabama with Blue Cross having 89% of the market that he’d have to move if that were to happen.
That is a big reason our health insurance is artificially high. It’s because of these anti-competitive types of arrangements the insurance companies have with the physicians. We just need more competition and to reduce these anti-competitive rates.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): You say that government is sometimes not the best solution to help those in need. Does this mean you would like to cut some social programs like Medicaid?
Bill Johnson: What I mean when I say that is we have a lot of faith and community based organizations that are providing services to people. And if you think back a hundred years ago, the churches, our neighbors, and our families were our social safety net. We have tens of thousands of people in Alabama who donate, who volunteer, who work through their churches to help people, and I think we could leverage limited resources that we have in state government by partnering with these faith and community based organizations.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): What is your response to some critics who have said that you’re making Governor Riley the main issue in your campaign?
Bill Johnson: My response is that I have, ever since I’ve gotten into government, stood up for what I believed in and called out things that weren’t right and when the governor started doing things that I thought needed attention called to, I called it.
The $13 million no-bid contract that is still under scrutiny … I think the public needs to know what’s happening with that $13 million. Why is it going to a company that doesn’t have a business location?
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): You claim that Riley’s campaign received millions of dollars from the Mississippi Indians in 2002. Is there a paper trail to substantiate these claims?
Bill Johnson: I have seen, since I made those statements … I have had people send me where they went through political action committees (PAC). And then I had one lobbyist tell me that he was approached by the Riley campaign asking if he would run a half a million dollars through their PAC and he told them, “No.” He said he would testify to that under oath.
I was told personally by the Chief of Staff of the Governor’s Congressional Office, Dan Gans, that he was responsible for handling the Mississippi Indians gambling contributions for the campaign. And when the governor started trying to shut down that large entertainment complex called Country Crossing, it connected the dots in my mind that there could be another reason the governor was trying to close them down; that is, outside gaming interests could be affecting public policy in Alabama.
That’s when I came forward and said, “Wait a second, there could be a connection here.” Now the governor or the governor’s people say that Bill doesn’t know what he’s talking about or he’s not telling the truth, so I went and took a polygraph test on the issue and passed so …
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): I also see in the news today that the Mobile Press-Register is reporting Riley’s new antigambling task force chief received large contributions in 2006 from political action committees that were funded by gambling interests. Any comments on that?
Bill Johnson: It’s one more incident of hypocrisy of the governor and his task force trying to close down the Alabama gaming interests. But, I continue to believe that it’s because of the influence of Mississippi gaming interests.
I would like to say this about gambling: I want the people to have a vote on gaming in Alabama whether they want it or not. If they want it, I want to tax and regulate it.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): You did support Country Crossing?
Bill Johnson: Yes.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): So you feel like the bingo machines there are not illegal in Alabama?
Bill Johnson: I don’t know whether they are or not. They told me that they were not going to be illegal machines down there. And I know they had an outside expert that came in and said they verified that they met Alabama state law. I think that’s what the whole issue is.
But, the bottom line is anybody with a computer can gamble. And they can buy a lottery ticket for anywhere in the world. They can play bingo online. If you do a search for online bingo, there are 10 million Google search returns. So, anybody that wants to gamble can gamble.
I know that there is probably 300-500 million Alabama dollars going to educate kids in Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida, and I would just like the voters of this state to have an opportunity to vote whether they’d like to keep some of those dollars to educate our children here.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Are you still banned by GOP County Chairman Al Booth from Republican Party events in Autauga County?
Bill Johnson: Some members of the committee were all upset about that so they were going to try and undo it last week. What I understood from people over here (members of the committee) is that there wasn’t an official meeting in December. They told me they had a Christmas party and that they were never notified of a meeting officially which is required in the bylaws … and that they didn’t have a quorum there to pass this. So, I’m exploring whether it was even legal for them to pass that resolution.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Is there any progress in the investigation you’ve called for concerning possible conflicts of interest that involve Governor Riley’s son and son-in-law?
Bill Johnson: No, but that’s not untypical that I wouldn’t receive information. I’ve turned a lot of stuff in. When I was the head of ADECA, I turned over fifty things into the Ethics Commission, the Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney General, and the F.B.I. Typically that’s a one-way street. They will take all of the information, but you never hear back about what’s going on.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Did your wife resign as the Director of the Governor’s Broadband Initiative because of your disagreements with the governor?
Bill Johnson: Well, it was obviously making her job more difficult, you know, staying there when I was raising these issues with the governor, but we were looking for a good transition point for her to get out of that position and come work for the campaign.
You’ve probably noticed that we present ourselves running kind of together as a couple, so we always knew that eventually she was going to transition out and just had a good opportunity for her to do that.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Why do you feel that you’re the best person for the job as governor of the state?
Bill Johnson: As the head of ADECA, I worked with mayors and county commissioners, non-profits, faith-based organizations, and economic developers all over the state. I was there overseeing a budget of a quarter billion dollars in three years as director and three and a half years as assistant director. We had fifty different programs including economic development, work force development, and community development type programs.
Before that, I served four years on the Birmingham City Council representing one of the most diverse districts in the city. It was really like being on the front lines of government.
Then my experience of traveling to forty-six countries has really helped me have a good understanding of what good government is about and what makes bad government. So, I think when people look at the credentials and experience of the people running, they will see I’m the most credible person with the most diverse background to do the job.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): What would be the first thing you’d do as governor?
Bill Johnson: The very first thing would be to appoint the heads of the different cabinet members and agencies. What people would see there is a real change in the type of person that was there. For instance, for DHR (and I know that’s a Board-appointed position), but I’d be lobbying hard for someone who came from a faith or community based organization to head that up. At EMA I want to make it where representatives from faith and community based organizations disaster teams are actually at EMA headquarters.
At ADECA and even on the City Council, what people noticed about the people I hired or who I tried to work with … well, first of all I want to know if they have a compassion for helping people, so these appointments would have an immediate effect.
The next thing would be, obviously, working on the economy and trying to get folks employed in our existing industries.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Also one of the biggest concerns in the country today is hunger and homelessness.
Bill Johnson: Yes, and it’s the economy that we’re in. Contributions to these social service and faith-based organizations are down. You know, the heart of the American citizen is great, right? I mean we step up to the plate. It’s great that we do these overseas missions and when Haiti has a disaster we help them, but we’ve got folks that have critical needs right here now. They are hungry and living outside and I’d just kind of like to put the focus back on the folks here at home.
We have a lot of things that our folks need help with in Alabama and if you’ve got a heart to help people, you can really focus on our citizens right here. It’s like one of the programs I did called the Community Partnership for Recovery and Renewal. That is a faith-based prison re-entry program and I launched it on May 20, 2008. We have 11,000 people coming out of prison every year and without a job, transportation, a house, clothes, the whole thing, they have a very tough time assimilating and staying on track so 66% of them go back in.
When I launched that program I sent a letter to every church in the state asking if they were interested in coming to a meeting in Montgomery and hear about how they could partner to break this cycle. If they could just help someone find a home or job or give them food or clothes or whatever, they could improve the situation somewhat. We had over 800 people show up at the Embassy Suites in downtown Montgomery to hear about how they could basically “adopt a felon.”
People may not be aware that most (about 85%) are in prison because of the substance abuse issue. After dealing with people with those issues, you quickly realize that unless they acknowledge Christ as their personal Lord and Savior somewhere along the path, they’ll never get recovered. There are secular programs out there, but they just don’t have the success rate of faith-based programs.
Because of the separation of church and state, government can’t get in there and work these faith-based programs. We’ve got to have these kinds of partnerships with churches to break this cycle of recidivism.
Celebrate Recovery is a faith-based program started by a church in Gadsden and now there are a hundred different Celebrate Recovery programs in Alabama. Basically it’s a spiritual support group. I’d like to expand those programs from a hundred churches to a thousand churches.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): You don’t think the legalization of marijuana would help, especially in prison overcrowding?
Bill Johnson: No, I don’t believe that at all. You’ve got to have the law enforcement and the incarceration and then you need to have the faith-based programs. It takes a person about a year or more to get off drugs, and you’ve got to have the threat of incarceration hanging over them to make them take those substance abuse programs seriously.
Interview by Melissa Parker
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