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'For the first time in awhile, I feel optimistic about Michigan's recovery'

Face-to-face with Groveland Township resident Ruth Johnson, newly elected Michigan Secretary of State

Ruth Johnson. Photo by David Fleet. (click for larger version)
November 10, 2010 - Ruth Johnson will travel 140 miles round trip between her home in Groveland Township and her new office in Lansing, where she begins work in January after being elected Nov. 2 as Secretary of State.

It seems a long commute, but Johnson notes the only traffic light she faces before she gets to Lansing is the one at Grange Hall Road and Dixie Highway.

"There is not one more light until I get to Lansing— it's very quick," she said. "The light is usually green. There's nothing to stop me now."

Johnson, 55, visited The Citizen offices on Tuesday to talk about her career and goals for the state in her new position.

"I am sad to leave the county, but it's so exciting to be part of Michigan's comeback," she said.

Johnson has had a long, steady rise to political stardom. She spent a number of years working as a clinician in Oakland County Children's Village and was elected in 1988 to the Oakland County Board of Commissioners and served 10 years (five terms). In 1998, she was elected as a state representative, and she served until 2004, when voters made her the first woman elected clerk in Oakland County's 176-year history. She was reelected in 2008 and then set her sights on becoming secretary of state.

"I wanted to take on the responsibility as secretary of state to make services more convenient, lowering the cost of services, increase voter integrity," said Johnson. "We have 102.54 percent of the eligible electorate voting. We have people voting under the names of people who have passed away. We need to clean up voter rolls and make sure people only vote once and make sure they are citizens."

She described the past six months on the campaign trail as "grueling." Johnson, who has been married to Don Nanney for 31 years and is the mother of Emily, 11, was never a coffee drinker— until she began her secretary of state campaign.

In the hectic months leading up to the election, she found she loved java— the smell, the taste, and the energy boost that came with the caffeine. After a landslide victory Nov. 2, Johnson is off coffee now, not wanting to be dependent on caffeine, although she acknowledges with the work that needs to be done, she will need a lot of energy.

"There is so much I want to do," said Johnson. "Hopefully I can balance life better so I can spend time with family. It will be a lot of hours."

She notes that Michigan will go through more hard times before things get better and she is ready for the transition. Michigan needs to do more with less, Johnson said, with the state living within its budget, and politicians being accountable to people and stopping fee, fine and tax increases.

As clerk, she noted she cut 20 percent of staff and millions from the clerk/registrar's budget and at same time received 14 national awards for customer service, innovation, voter integrity, and identity protection. This is the management style she plans to pursue as secretary of state, where she notes there are currently 1,545 employees in the secretary of state's office.

"We're going to have to cut costs and make services more convenient," Johnson said. "It won't be easy, it will be a lot of hard work, but it's necessary."

Her ideas include partnering with public and private sectors for more of the services currently offered by the secretary of state. Johnson believes licenses for trailers, snowmobiles all-terrain vehicles and boats should be available at retail outlets. She would also like to have a pilot program where motorists can renew their tabs at auto dealerships. She noted it would be great marketing for the dealerships, as well as convenient for citizens.

"There are 138 Secretary of State offices, where 20 million transactions take place each year," Johnson said. "The more we can partner with public and private sectors, the less people have to go to branch offices, and the shorter the lines for everyone."

One of her first orders of business will be to organize at least six committees of people from all over the state to gather information and offer input. She expects the next four years to go by quickly.

"I don't know where we'll be in four years, but I don't want our kids and grandkids to live in another state. They have to leave because there are no jobs. Any time you make services more convenient and less costly, it helps families and businesses... For the first time in awhile, I feel optimistic about Michigan's recovery."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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