Brightest minds in Florida politics: Marian Johnson

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Marian Johnson caught the political bug while volunteering for Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid in 1964 — derailing this Florida campaign guru from what would have been her intended career as a writer. And hundreds if not more of Florida politicos have come to be grateful for this turn of events in her life.

Johnson’s world quickly turned from the campaign volunteer to paid pol. In 1980, she served as s the South Florida field director for Ronald Reagan’s bid, and then led the Republican Party of Florida from 1981 to 1984 before returning to Reagan’s reelection operation — this time as the voter contact director for the Southeast.

As her talents for data breakdowns and strategy became more and more sought, Johnson has also had a chance to hone her personal instincts — and to consider where she wants these talents spent. That’s what led Johnson to leave a successful post working for trial lawyers — defecting to the group’s “arch rival,” the Associated Industries of Florida.

“I proudly consider myself one of Marian’s children — I was so green when she hired me nearly three decades ago that I had never even voted,” says Democratic strategist Steve Vancore, president of VancoreJones Communications.  “She understands the people, the power, and the politics like no one else in this business.

She worked for about a decade developing and building Florida’s base of pro-business candidates — designing programs to identify and support them — no small task. And just when Johnson thought her retirement had started, in 2003, she was called back in — this time to head up the Florida Chamber’s political program. She grew the organization’s contributions from an unimpressive $50,000 to greater than $5.5 million in 2012.

And it seems like she’s glad she was pulled back in.

For a January 2014 Florida Trend interview, Johnson said, “If I retired, I’d go bonkers.”

Instead, to the Trend, Johnson’s 50 years of experience in Florida politics has her knowing the voter registration stats and demographics in practically every county in the state — using these data to figure out the best strategic messages in each.

Contribution Link founder Brecht Heuchan sums up the consensus on Johnson nicely.

“Like a mom to many of us, she has a knack for sizing up people and situations quickly and offers a steady hand from years of experience.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.