Hill Climbers: An Arizonan Returns East

Posted April 10, 2013 at 5:37pm

With a grandfather who was a state Supreme Court justice and a politically interested and active family, Jennifer Johnson was on a career path well before she even knew it.

Born and raised in Arizona, Johnson first came to Washington, D.C., to study public policy journalism at American University.

From her early days as an intern at the Library of Congress, to her years spent as an editor covering Washington, to her new role as communications director for Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., Johnson has come to love the District and life on the Hill.

News and politics were in her blood. While most kids would do anything to avoid reading the news, Johnson was excited by what was happening in Washington, even as a child.

“I would run out on the driveway, still in my pajamas, to get the morning paper — just to rifle through it and see what the headlines were,” she said. “I loved news, and I loved the written word, and I loved front pages.”

Johnson grew up admiring the idealism of Robert F. Kennedy and often wondered what could have been, had history taken a different turn. But with adulthood came another hero, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and another story of what could have been.

“For two decades, I’ve been inspired by her brilliance, her resilience and especially her leadership on human rights,” she said. “To me, Hillary is the gold standard.”

Johnson secured a job as an assistant editor at the Federal Times as the Internet was beginning to change the way the news business worked and how journalists did their jobs.

As a younger employee who knew more about these changes than some of her older colleagues, Johnson became an invaluable resource to the newsroom, taking courses in HTML and training her older colleagues.

This new world of opportunity interested Johnson so much that she took a position at PBS Online before spending another decade working her way up to become the page one editor at The Arizona Republic, the state’s largest daily newspaper.

“Working with colleagues to figure out the most powerful images, the most compelling headlines, the most relevant and impactful stories for your readers, day in, day out — that’s a dance that is fascinating,” she said.

But Johnson also saw some of The Arizona Republic’s darkest days, when money became a problem and newsrooms struggled.

“I saw the writing on the wall, and there was the opportunity to go into a political job in Arizona, and so I took it,” Johnson said.

She became the communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party — the role that first introduced her to Kirkpatrick, with whom she felt a strong connection. After 2 1/2 years as spokeswoman for the Arizona Democrats, Johnson left to take a job with Kirkpatrick’s campaign.

The congresswoman is a “tough Arizona, Western woman,” Johnson said. “I find her to just be a genuinely good person.”

Johnson partly credits her success in politics to her earlier years in journalism. Good news judgment — and the ability to respect and understand reporters and editors — makes her a strong voice for Kirkpatrick’s office.

“The editor is the person who organizes the sock drawer — who, when they’re erasing the chalkboard, leaves no little mark unerased. We’re all about details, we’re about precision, accuracy and I think, I would like to believe that’s a commodity,” she said. “If I’m working for someone, I want them to have the confidence that they’re going to get a quality result from me.”

Although she’s an Arizonan at heart, Johnson appreciates the uniqueness of Washington and knows that no Capitol Hill staffer can take his or her position for granted.

“It truly is the people’s capital. You can go out onto the Mall, and wander the Smithsonians, take tours of our Capitol, see our monuments, read the words of Lincoln — and it’s just so open and accessible,” she said.

Johnson also appreciates that while it is possible to figure out some semblance of a work-life balance in Washington, not everything fits into a neat schedule, and politics is often a seven-days-a-week kind of job.

“You know, jobs don’t always begin the moment you set foot in the office or the minute you leave the office,” she said. “But whether it’s done from, you know, my living room, while I’m out walking my dog — it’s going to get done.”

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