“I’m not a telemarketer,” the friendly voice says into his cellphone. “I’m your United States congressman.”
But that doesn’t stop Rep. Timothy V. Johnson. The Illinois Republican just keeps calling. And calling. And calling — usually 100 or more calls a day, seven days a week, stopping only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
In an era of blast e-mails, robocalls and tweets, Johnson is fixated with the old-fashioned telephone as the way to reach out and touch each one of his 653,647 constituents. He calls them from home, the office and the airport. He calls them while riding in the car, working out on the treadmill and walking through the Capitol.
“If I only do 100 a day, I have guilt feelings,” he says in between calls, naturally.
His telephone calls — as well as an independent streak that includes working with liberal Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan — have earned him a reputation as “one of the most unconventional Republicans in the House,” according to CQ’s Politics in America.
“I think a good many of my colleagues spend too much time talking to each other, and not enough time talking to the people they represent,” Johnson says. “This year, more than any year I’ve seen, people really are angry that government is not listening to them. I want to make sure they know I am.”
Some of his constituents approve of the personal touch.
“It’s nice to hear somebody actually seeking out the opinion of a constituent for a change,” says Gregory Brakeville, a retired salesman who told Johnson to “keep fighting for the people” during their chat.
“I was surprised,” says Cathy Malin, who picked up the phone one day to find her congressman on the end of the line. “It wasn’t a recording. It was really him.”
The technique seems to work. The 64-year-old lawmaker has won every one of his elections to local, state and federal office since 1971. He once ran a tongue-in-cheek campaign ad showing him swimming with the phone.
Though he’s served in Congress for a decade, few know of Johnson outside his heavily rural district, which extends about 60 miles south of Chicago to near the Kentucky border, taking in corn and soybean farms and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Critics say that’s because he’s so focused on the phone, he doesn’t spend as much time as his colleagues on other activities they consider important, such as debating legislation on the House floor.
“I don’t speak often on the floor,” he admits, brushing off the criticism, “because, frankly, oftentimes members of Congress speak too much.”
His colleagues marvel at his discipline.
“He knows what his people have on their mind probably more than any other member of Congress,” says Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). “In a world of conformity, it’s refreshing when you have a Tim Johnson … who really is doing it differently than the rest of us.”
The thrice-divorced father of nine grown children and grandfather of 11 was elected as a 24-year-old law student to an Urbana City Council seat held once by his father. His daughter, whom he lives with, holds the same City Council seat. He is health conscious, fasting 48 hours every week and eating no more than one meal a day — foods like organic cottage cheese, granola and rice cakes.
Johnson doesn’t have his name on any notable legislation. Instead, he says his accomplishments are rooted in helping constituents get action from the federal bureaucracy. He recalls reaching a disabled vet who was at the end of his rope and was able to help the man get medical care.
Johnson has been active in efforts to promote civility in hyper-partisan Washington, although he cast the only vote against a resolution congratulating the New Orleans Saints on their Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts this year. “I’m an Indianapolis Colts fan,” he says.
He says a lot of his constituents ask why, with all of the federal government’s problems, Congress is passing resolutions like a recent one congratulating the Saratoga Race Course on its 142nd season. He voted against that one too.
Between votes, Johnson combines his passion for physical fitness with his cold calling. He walks back and forth through the Capitol corridors, over and over again, call sheets in hand, tie loose, cellphone to his ear.
On a recent day, he spent half an hour reaching only answering machines.
“This is Timothy Johnson. I’m your United States congressman,” he tells one.
“This is not one of those annoying robocalls,” he adds in the call.
Dodging tourists as he continues walking through the Capitol, he finally reaches a person. “I was just calling you to see if there is anything I could do … or any issues you’d like to talk about with me,” Johnson says.
“Nothing that I can think of right now,” the constituent could be overheard replying. “Thank you, anyway.”
But some people do need help.
“I had one lady who had cockroaches in the basement and wanted to see what I could do,” Johnson recalls. Coincidentally, Johnson knew the woman’s landlord and gave him a call. Another constituent asked for help in getting a relative out of prison. (He couldn’t help.)
He also recalls the bad timing of one call — reaching a constituent whose wife died minutes before.
Sometimes, his constituents give him hell. He listens anyway.
“There have been times when people have just raked me over the coals for my voting record,” Johnson says in between (you guessed it) more calls. “If I’m not willing to take the slings and arrows, I shouldn’t be in this business.”
Opinions he heard over the phone contributed to his decision to break from most of his fellow Republicans on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They motivated him to introduce legislation requiring greater disclosure of the costs of taxpayer-funded congressional travel.
Some say the calling comes at a cost, taking Johnson’s time away from other House business. Not surprisingly, one of those critics is his Democratic opponent in the November election.
“There is a tremendous workload involved in being a responsible U.S. representative, and I would like to see Mr. Johnson approach some of the other work his job entails with the same zeal with which he approaches these cold calls,” says challenger David Gill.
Johnson, whose cellphone’s ring tone is Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” occasionally played at the start of his beloved Boston Celtics games, has been calling constituents since the rotary phone days when he served in the Illinois statehouse. Then, he tore sheets out of the phone book.
Unlike a lot of his colleagues, Johnson is techno- allergic. He doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter or own a BlackBerry. But he uses computer-generated call lists taken from voter rolls. If a constituent has a concern, Johnson notes it on the sheet and asks his staff to follow up.
Sometimes, he encounters suspicion that he may be calling to solicit campaign funds. But Johnson says he is scrupulous about using his taxpayer-funded phones — which come with unlimited minutes — only for congressional business.
His personal record for most calls in a day, Johnson says, was set while he was vacationing in Hawaii — nearly 1,000 calls. “I had nothing to do except lay on the beach.”