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Eddie Bernice Johnson says she will retire from Congress after almost 30 years

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

Johnson’s retirement sets off a frenzy of political activity among would-be successors.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson is congratulated by friends and colleagues after she announced that she will retire from Congress during “The Justice Tour” luncheon for Democratic Party activists and judicial candidates, at Kirkwood Temple CME Church in Dallas, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

By Gromer Jeffers Jr.

U.S. Rep Eddie Bernice Johnson said Saturday she is retiring from Congress after almost 30 years, closing a chapter to a pioneering public service career that broke barriers and helped reshape the face of Dallas.

Johnson’s dramatic announcement, though widely expected, set off a frenzy of political activity as would-be successors scurried to develop campaigns for the March Democratic primaries. Numerous contenders to succeed Johnson in Dallas’ District 30 were on hand for the incumbent’s speech, making it a curious spectacle that attracted much of the area’s political class.

Johnson said people had been urging her to run for another term in Congress and she went back and forth about the decision but eventually decided to retire.

“I will retire and I will recommend to you who is the best to follow me.” she said, surrounded by generations of her family at the Kirkwood Temple CME Church in Red Bird.

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She did not issue an endorsement yet — but said she would be looking for a qualified woman to endorse as successor. Many potential candidates to replace her were at the event, which featured numerous Democratic Party candidates and activists.

Johnson reflected on her lengthy career in politics and especially her time in Congress and her pride at securing funding for public transit in Dallas County.

“I’ve worked hard. It’s not just a title — it’s a job,” she said. “It’s been some rugged times, but I have not acknowledged it. I was determined that I wouldn’t just be a title. I wanted to deliver. I thought about the district and all the needs that it had. The first challenge that hit my table was funding DART. It’s been my baby from the first day that I got there.”

Johnson is the 16th Democrat so far to announce retirement before the 2022 election that is expected to bring a Republican majority to the House in the midterms.

Johnson’s announcement was bittersweet for many of the 600 people gathered for a Democratic Party candidates rally at Kirkwood Temple organized by political consultant Jeff Dalton, who described Johnson’s speech as an “incredibly moving moment” and “a bit of history.”

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As Johnson opened her remarks, she gave the crowd one final tease.

“Nothing has been more heartwarming than the overwhelming support for me to run for one more term,” Johnson said as the crowd applauded. Then she cautioned to those who thought she was running for reelection: “Listen to my whole speech.”

When Johnson finally announced her retirement, some people in the audience wiped away tears. Others applauded in tribute, yelling “thank you” and “we love you.”

Strong reactions

“It’s a sad day, and it’s a good day,” said Irish Watson, a hair salon owner and community activist from Dallas. “She’s paved the way for someone else to come along and follow in her footsteps. The person that takes her place, they’ve got to be a hell of a person and someone that’s for the people and will fight for their constituents.”

Terry Allen, founder of a group called City Men Cook, said Johnson was an important figure in Dallas politics.

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“I am pleased with her legacy. I am shocked by her announcement, but I am happy that she’s going to identify someone to replace her so that we don’t close the doors that she has opened,” Allen said after Johnson finished her remarks. “She is a great example, a historical example of what success looks like in politics for people of color, especially women of color.”

After her speech, Johnson received praised from local and national leaders.

“Congresswoman Johnson has devoted her life to helping others, first as a nurse and then as a public servant. Her support, her friendship, and her dedication to the people of Dallas have meant the world to me,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said. “I will miss being able to count on her leadership in Washington on behalf of our city and our state, but I wish her a long, happy and healthy retirement. She has certainly earned it.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered her congratulations to Johnson, saying the veteran lawmaker was “vital to the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, now signed into law by President Biden.”

“Chairwoman Johnson has made history — from being the first Black woman elected to state public office from Dallas, to being the first African American and first woman Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology — whose leadership has made a difference in our nation,” Pelosi said in a statement.

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Ken Molberg, judge on the Fifth District Court of Appeals, said he’s known and worked with Johnson since the 1970s.

“It’s an end of an era,” Molberg said. “There comes a time when you step aside to let others do the job. And we’ll still hear from her. She’ll still be active and and I’m sure we will all hear who she wants to replace her.”

Johnson said she made a point to work with Republicans on projects, particularly her North Texas colleagues. Former Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, said he enjoyed serving with Johnson. They both hail from Waco and he played high school football with her younger brother.

“She has that personality that allows her to put coalitions together,” Barton said, adding that he helped her draw a Democratic congressional district in Dallas when, as state senator, she led the redistricting committee. “She’s very self-effacing. She’s not egotistical. She’s very determined to just get the job done. I’m surprised she’s leaving. She’ll be missed.”

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, right, announces that she will retire from Congress as she spoke during “The Justice Tour” luncheon for Democratic Party activists and judicial candidates, at Kirkwood Temple CME Church in Dallas, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)
Historic career

Johnson, born in Waco amid the segregated South, shattered barriers at nearly every stage of her political and professional career, paving the way for more women and African Americans to obtain leadership roles in politics, nursing and other fields in Texas and beyond.

She was the first Black person to serve as chief psychiatric nurse at Dallas’ VA hospital. The first Black woman elected to public office from Dallas, an accomplishment that still stuns people who reflect about the headwinds of the past. She is the first Black person from Dallas to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction. The first registered nurse elected to Congress. The first Black woman to lead the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

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A lasting monument to that history is Dallas’ Union Station, a once racially segregated facility that in 2019 was renamed after Johnson.

Throughout her career, Johnson was one of Texas’ most influential Democrats. Her status as a senior Democrat, one who served on influential panels like the House transportation committee, stood out in a state dominated by Republicans, providing her significant clout, particularly during years in which her party controlled the House.

She used her power and partnerships with Republicans to deliver for North Texas, including massive road projects like the DFW Connector and flood control improvements along the Trinity River to expansions at Dallas Love Field.

The news that followed Johnson wasn’t always positive.

Her most controversial misstep came in 2010, when it was revealed that she had improperly awarded thousands of dollars in scholarships to four relatives and a top aide’s two children. She ultimately paid back the money, saying she had “unknowingly” violated the rules.

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But that incident didn’t come close to denting Johnson’s popularity in District 30 and she continued to roll up landslide victories for reelection.

“I’m proud of what I’ve done,” Johnson said. “There’s no Texan in the history of this state who has brought more home.”

Race to replace Johnson

The race to replace Johnson in the safe Democratic seat is considered wide open. And Johnson said she would be active in finding her successor.

“I will be endorsing in this race and I would appreciate you appreciating my judgment,” Johnson said. “My goal is to look for a female.”

That was a message to several male contenders for her seat. Several of them were listening, including state Rep. Carl Sherman Sr. of DeSoto, the emcee of the event, and state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who addressed the crowd before Johnson spoke.

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Even before Johnson began considering retirement, state Rep. Yvonne Davis, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and West were considered potential successors. But Johnson stayed in office so long that the original trio of potential replacements are likely to think hard about whether a career in Washington makes sense, since they are much older than likely candidates that have recently emerged. Still, West has been asked by supporters to run for Congress and will consider it.

Candidates already running in District 30 include Dallas lawyer Abel Mulugheta, small-business owner Shenita Cleveland, progressive Democrat Jessica Mason and Dallas Democrat Zachariah Manning.

Jane Hamilton, who directed President Joe Biden’s Texas presidential primary campaign, launched an exploratory committee and is expected to campaign for the District 30 seat.

Other potential candidates include state Reps. Jasmine Crockett and Toni Rose, both of Dallas, and Sherman. Former state District Judge Elizabeth Frizell of Dallas has also expressed interest in the seat.

“I was sad when she made the announcement. When she literally said it, my eyes got watery,” Sherman said. “She’s led in such a gracious way, but very effective in getting legislation done and bringing things home. It matters to me who she endorses. That person has big shoes to fill.”

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Sherman said his focus is “running for whatever God has in store for him.”

Crockett, also on hand for Johnson’s announcement, said she wanted to let Johnson have her day, but is considering running to replace her.

Other potential candidates include former Dallas council member Vonciel Jones Hill.

Former state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, along with Hasani Burton and Cleveland, challenged Johnson in the 2020 Democratic primary. Johnson racked up over 70% of the vote. Cleveland was second with 13%. Caraway, a former Dallas City Council member, has made five attempts to unseat Johnson.

Johnson took a dig at her former opponents in talking about who she would endorse.

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“Anybody that’s already been rejected by this district, they will not be receiving my endorsement,” she said.

Democratic Party leaders predicted a spirited campaign.

“We are sad to see Congresswoman Johnson go, but at the same time she has left a legacy that we are going to make sure that we fill with a strong person who’s going to keep moving forward Dallas Democratic values in southern Dallas County and be able to continue all the work that she has done at that level in Congress,” said Kristy Noble, chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party.

Noble pointed out that Johnson’s retirement generates interest in her seat, and other political posts that could open up when elected officials vacate their posts to run for Congress.

“There’s rumblings of many people wanting to jump in,” Noble said. “And I see over the next few weeks, before the December 13 filing date, that there’s going to be a lot of movement in that area that is going to do nothing but good things for voter turnout and help Democrats up and down the ballot.”

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Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot acknowledged the politics ahead, but added that is was important to remember Johnson’s “unparalleled” service.

“No one has held that position with such dignity and respect, and not only represented her congressional district but all of Texans and the best interests of Americans,” he said. “We’re going to miss her.”

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson is met by supporters including "dianne gibson,"left, with the Rainbow Push Coalition, as they wave goodbye after Johnson announced that she will retire from Congress, during “The Justice Tour" luncheon for Democratic Party activists and judicial candidates, at Kirkwood Temple CME Church in Dallas, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson is met by supporters including “dianne gibson,”left, with the Rainbow Push Coalition, as they wave goodbye after Johnson announced that she will retire from Congress, during “The Justice Tour” luncheon for Democratic Party activists and judicial candidates, at Kirkwood Temple CME Church in Dallas, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

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