Before his surprising elevation to the role, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson cut a conservative path as an unassuming Louisiana state lawmaker who authored proposals with a religious bent.
Even though his political stances have been divisive, those who’ve worked alongside and opposed him concur Johnson has an agreeable nature that could be tested as he attempts to heal rifts within his party and the chamber.
Johnson was unopposed in 2015 when he ran to fill a partial term in Louisiana House District 8, comprising a portion of Shreveport in the northwestern section of the state. It was his first run for political office after he had established himself as an attorney representing insurance companies.
More prominently, Johnson represented Freedom Guard, an organization that came to the defense of public officials who refused to follow the June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized same-sex marriage.
State legislative record
During his first year in the legislature, Johnson crafted the Marriage and Conscience Act, which sought to protect anyone who objected to same-sex marriage for religious reasons. It failed to advance past a House committee.
State Rep. Jack McFarland, a Republican timber company owner, represents an area within Johnson’s congressional district. Both entered the Louisiana Legislature in 2015.
“He was extremely nice. He was not confrontational,” McFarland said. “And even when he disagreed with you, he did in a very respectful way.”
In the 2016 legislative session, Johnson proposed the Pastor Protection Act to shield church leaders from any practice that would go against their religious beliefs. Opponents saw it as another affront to same-sex marriage. It gained House approval but died in a Senate committee.
That same year, Johnson received near-unanimous approval for a law to prohibit “dismemberment abortion.” State Sen. Katrina Jackson of Monroe, then a member of the Louisiana House, was among those who crossed party lines to support Johnson’s bill. Jackson, a Black, anti-abortion Democrat, would go on to author the state’s strict abortion ban.
“Although we didn’t always agree, he knew how to disagree without being disagreeable,” Jackson said. “Any piece of legislation we worked on together that he was passionate about, he was extremely passionate, regardless of what opposition came up.”
Johnson’s wife, Kelly, is an adviser for Louisiana Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion group. They are the parents of four children, including an adopted Black son.
In 1999, the Johnsons were among the first couples in Louisiana to choose a covenant marriage. Enshrined in state law, it requires premarital counseling and additional counseling if the couple wants to divorce.
“My own parents are divorced,” Mike Johnson told ABC News in a 2005 interview. “As anyone who goes through that knows, that was a traumatic thing for our whole family. I’m a big proponent of marriage and fidelity and all the things that go with it, and I’ve seen firsthand the devastation (divorce) can cause.”
Another formative moment in Johnson’s life was the near-death of his father, James Patrick “Pat” Johnson, in a 1984 cold storage facility fire. The elder Johnson was head of training for the Shreveport Fire Department when he sustained permanently disabling burns and his colleague, Capt. Percy Johnson, was killed.
Pat Johnson survived and became a prominent advocate for burn victims. He died of cancer in 2016, just three days after Mike Johnson was elected to Congress from Louisiana’s 4th Congressional District. Its boundaries include Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier Parish and the U.S. Army’s Fort William Henry Johnson.
Shreveport lawyer Marshall Jones, a Democrat who opposed Mike Johnson in that congressional race, refers to Pat Johnson as “a local hero.” He recalled an amicable campaign without any personal attacks and even came to Johnson’s defense when then-Louisiana Democratic Party chairman Karen Carter Peterson attacked his opponent.
“I’m thrilled that Mike is the new speaker,” Jones said. “We might not agree on everything politically, but I know Mike to be a good person, and a good man and a good listener.”
One vulnerability Johnson has is his close link to former President Donald Trump, Jones said. Trump endorsed Johnson in his run for U.S. House and would later make him part of his legal team during his second impeachment proceedings.
Johnson, along with more than 100 other U.S. House members, also signed a friend of the court brief in support of a Texas lawsuit that sought to invalidate 2020 presidential election results in four swing states Trump had lost.
“We both went to the same law school. We both had the same constitutional law professors, I’ll bet,” Jones said. “But, you know, we have a different interpretation of what the Constitution allows you to do with respect to trying to overturn a presidential election.”
However, Johnson’s consensus election as House speaker gives him a “clean slate” with which he can prioritize the multiple crises facing the country, Jones said.
“He’s going to have to step up and try to get along with everybody,” Jones said. “He’s got the basic ability to do that. But how much influence being a vocal supporter of former President Trump is, is going to be a big conflict. I’m hoping that he’ll be able to handle it because right now, the House is frozen. Everybody wants Mike to succeed, they really do.