OCHEYEDAN, Iowa | Iowa Sen. David Johnson greeted me in his driveway on Main Street in Ocheyedan late Wednesday afternoon. He'd just finished physical rehab in nearby Sibley, a requirement following knee-replacement surgery on Oct. 10.
"I'm moving slowly," Johnson said as I grabbed a stack of papers from his pickup and followed to his back door.
Two hours before the final presidential debate I dropped by to report on the 18-year Iowa legislator who made national news on June 7 by leaving the Republican Party over its current standard-bearer, Donald Trump.
"I cannot be a member of a party whose leader is a race-baiter, a xenophobe," Johnson said as he sat to ice his right knee. "This is not the party of Abraham Lincoln. Conservatism is dead in the Republican Party. Donald Trump killed it."
He didn't cower as the countdown to Trump's final debate against Hillary Clinton continued.
"If you don't stamp out bigotry, sexism, misogyny and xenophobia when any one of them rears its ugly head, you better cut that head off as soon as you can," he added.
Our visit covered a wide swatch, from civility in politics to Watergate to the Cleveland Browns.
The Cleveland Browns? "I can't do anything right," Johnson said with a laugh, pledging allegiance to a team considered by many to be the worst in the NFL.
While he's loyal to his team, he broke from his party despite representing the third-most Republican district in Iowa. Johnson said he couldn't put party over conscience. His heroes? Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus, the attorney general and deputy attorney general who resigned rather than act on orders of President Nixon and fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox on Oct. 20, 1973, a chain of events dubbed the "Saturday Night Massacre."
Johnson grew up in West Branch, Iowa, son of Donald E. Johnson, a Republican who lost to Robert Ray in a gubernatorial primary in 1969. West Branch, the birthplace of President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, was largely settled by peaceful Quakers. The Underground Railroad, a pathway to freedom for slaves, ran near West Branch.
"My father, through example, instilled that you must have respect for every human being," Johnson said.
Johnson on Veterans Day will give a speech in West Branch at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, where he remains a trustee. The talk focuses on his father's steps in World War II with the U.S. Army's 89th Infantry, which was among the first to liberate a concentration camp in Germany.
Johnson spent a portion of his college summers working at The Washington Post in Washington, D.C., a city in which his father resided while directing the Veterans Administration. Johnson has vivid memories of Watergate, and of befriending African-American coworkers at the newspaper.
"In 1970, I gave co-worker Walter Jackson a ride home late one night. Walter turned to me and said, 'You know, we (African-Americans) cannot do this alone," Johnson said. The moment has remained, crystallized in Johnson's memory.
I came to know Johnson for his work as editor and publisher of The West Branch Times, a newspaper deemed the top weekly in the U.S. in 1991. Johnson did it all 25 years ago, covering local government, crime, education, feature stories and more.
He left West Branch in 1993 and, after toiling for a South Dakota newspaper for one year, found his way to Ocheyedan. After a stint with the Northwest Iowa Review, Johnson landed a job working for dairy farmers Paul and Phyllis and Vellema at Harris, Iowa, in Osceola County. He turned to politics when a legislator serving the Iowa House retired. Johnson visited 135 farms across 38 townships in 6 weeks, knowing the key to victory involved winning a three-way GOP primary. He emerged victorious by 159 votes.
"I still remember a man telling me I wouldn't win because of three things," Johnson said. "I wasn't born here; I wasn't Dutch; and I was one of those suspicious Catholics."
Johnson has now lived in this area for 21 years, longest continuous stretch he's resided anywhere. And, he's still Catholic. And while voters have elected him to the Iowa House twice and the Iowa Senate four times, Johnson giggled and said, "I'm still not Dutch."
What is he? Well, he's a public servant who altered the landscape in June, becoming the first political candidate in the U.S. to suspend his GOP membership over Trump. A growing number of elected officials have since called upon the billionaire real estate developer to exit the race in the wake of sexually offensive comments about women caught on tape in 2005.
Johnson doesn't support Democrat Clinton, either. He cast his ballot on Sept. 30 for Evan McMullin, of Utah, a candidate Johnson called "the only conservative in the race."
On Wednesday, Johnson participated in a forum in Des Moines, one focused on the lack of civility in politics. He's concerned about the future of politics, wondering how many decent people are being discouraged from entering public service, an outgrowth of smear tactics and shouting over an opponent.
"Who can control the civility?" he asked. "Is it the responsibility of the voter? The responsibility of the party? The reporter?
"This is where politics has gone," he continued as the last presidential debate began. "It's all about controlling what people hear, even if it's lies."