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Stricken senator returns

After brain hemorrhage, Tim Johnson is back on the Hill. Democrats, with a slim majority, breathe a sigh of relief.

September 06, 2007|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Nine months after being stricken by a brain hemorrhage, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) returned to the Senate on Wednesday to the applause of his colleagues and the relief of his party.

"It must already be clear to you that my speech is not 100%," Johnson said on the Senate floor, his words and his gait slowed by the life-threatening attack. "But my thoughts are clear and my mind is sharp, and I'm here to be a voice for South Dakota in the Senate."

The bipartisan collegiality that marked Johnson's return was in contrast to the lack of civility that recently has characterized the Senate. The chamber was unusually hushed, and in a rare sight, most senators were in their seats. Ovations were frequent, rancor at bay.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who won his Senate seat in 2004 after losing to Johnson in 2002 by 524 votes, introduced a resolution honoring him.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) thanked his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for not exploiting Johnson's absence -- crucial with Democrats holding a fragile majority.

In the morning, Johnson, 60, arrived at his office in the Hart building with his wife, Barbara, a two-time breast cancer survivor. The doors were held open by his South Dakota congressional colleagues, Thune and Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin.

The back door to his suite now opens by remote control, his desk has been elevated to accommodate his motorized chair, and his office bathroom door has been refitted. In the Capitol, he now has a second office close to the Senate floor, his desk on the floor was moved toward the front, and an elevator was designated for his use to speed him to floor votes.

After a joyful reunion with the staff, Johnson gave interviews to South Dakota reporters and met with his chief of staff and legislative assistant.

"Watching him come into the Hart building again, what an incredible feeling," said spokeswoman Julianne Fisher, who was at the senator's side when he became disoriented during a conference call with reporters in December. "Last time we left here, we weren't so sure he would be back. To watch him come back, after working so hard to get back, it's hard to put into words how cool this is."

Accompanied by his Democratic colleagues from North Dakota, Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron L. Dorgan, Johnson attended the weekly Democratic policy luncheon, where colleagues praised his courage. In the months since most of them have seen him -- months since a doctor told his family he might die in surgery -- Johnson had to learn to walk and talk again.

"This has been a long and humbling journey," Johnson said on the floor. "I believe I have been given a second chance at life."

With the Senate barely in Democratic hands, Reid wasted no time trying to capitalize on what he called "an amazing recovery." In an e-mail from his political action committee, Reid urged supporters to "welcome Tim back by making a contribution to his reelection campaign today!"

Johnson has yet to announce his plans, though staffers say he intends to make the race.

"Clearly he wants to run," said Drey Samuelson, his chief of staff. Republicans are already targeting the race -- South Dakota is a conservative state -- and hope to attract a candidate with the popular appeal of Gov. Michael Rounds.

Political experts say both sides will have a delicate challenge. Republicans will have to be careful to navigate the partisan waters without splashing mud on a heroic figure, and Johnson will have to demonstrate that he has the stamina to do the job.

"The question for Johnson and his hopes for reelection lie in how voters react to him over the next few months," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the independent Cook Political Report. "They will be looking to see that he can handle the rigors of both the Senate and the campaign trail."

At a welcome home ceremony last week in Sioux Falls, a cheering crowd listened to a 12-minute address in which Johnson offered thanks for the support he has received -- and offered a memorable line about his slowed speech.

"I will promise you that when my speech is back to normal, I will not act like a typical politician and overuse the gift," he said, to laughter. "Of course, I believe I have an unfair edge over most of my colleagues right now -- my mind works faster than my mouth does."

Samuelson, who has worked for Johnson for 22 years and considers him a friend, said the senator wrote the line. Asked about his boss' mood after the ordeal of relearning to speak, walk and write, Samuelson said the senator, who has also survived prostate cancer, is incredibly stoic.

"He's an ethnic Norwegian," Samuelson said. "He doesn't expect the world to be fair, so he is not shocked when it isn't."


Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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