- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson announced Wednesday that he will attempt to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in 2016.

The east Helena Republican said at a news conference that Montana should not be complacent with its leadership given that the state’s per capita income recently ranked second-lowest in the nation.

“It doesn’t matter, frankly, that the unemployment rate is 4.1 percent when the quality of the jobs that are available are still at a level that don’t allow the individual to adequately care for his or her family,” he said.

Johnson, 64, said he wants to focus the state’s attention and resources back on agricultural research and the cultivation of crops and raw materials. Montana cannot acquiesce to the decline of timber, mineral and coal development, then rely on technology and tourism to prop up its economy, he said.

“We’ve seen tremendous, benign neglect of our rural communities in eastern Montana,” Johnson said. “I think that’s one indicator that we’re on the wrong track.”

He didn’t specify a plan to address that region’s underfunded infrastructure needs but said he is against funneling more federal dollars there. He said he would like to lure entrepreneurs from western Montana to the east.

Johnson leads the state utilities commission, served as Montana Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, and has a master’s degree in agriculture with a background in business management. He began an exploratory gubernatorial campaign June 23, but until Wednesday has spent little time on the campaign trail.

He said he began considering challenging Bullock when he watched in dismay as budget amendments passed quickly and without discussion during legislative hearings this year. He said the executive branch should be more transparent during budget negotiations.

The state could benefit from reforming its biennial Legislature to include an annual budget session, he said.

Johnson’s wife, Linda Ruth Johnson, teaches eighth-grade English in a suburb of Austin, Texas. She spent most of her 18 years in the Air Force as a drill instructor. They were married last year.

“She’ll be here as campaign events dictate, but she’s got her career and a commitment to those kids for the school year,” Johnson said.

In the meantime, Johnson’s dog Bobbie will be his companion on the campaign trail.

Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said the state’s voters have been quick to run Johnson out of office time and again because he has a record of mismanagement and scandal.

“Today’s announcement all but confirms that the Republican gubernatorial primary will be focused on pandering to the far-right, not about the important issues Montana’s families face every day,” Keenan said in a statement Tuesday.

Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann welcomed Johnson to the race and applauded his long commitment to public service in a statement Wednesday.

After losing his 2008 re-election to Democratic Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Johnson worked as an energy development consultant. He ran for the Public Service Commission in 2010, but suspended his campaign after pleading guilty to driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.24 - three times the legal limit.

The day before he voluntarily entered an alcohol treatment program, Johnson lost the Republican primary by 134 votes.

He describes the DUI as a life-changing event that forced him to recognize and successfully deal with a problem.

“I certainly wouldn’t choose to go through it. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. But I can tell you I truly am a better and stronger person, and I think a better and stronger public servant, for the experience,” Johnson said.

Johnson failed to unseat McCulloch in her 2012 re-election, but returned in 2014 to win his current seat.

Republican Greg Gianforte, a Bozeman entrepreneur and Johnson’s former employer, filed paperwork to begin an exploratory campaign Aug. 17.

Johnson was a salesman from 2000 to 2004 for RightNow Technologies, the startup that Gianforte later sold to Oracle for about $1.5 billion.

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