In a deserted park on Capitol Hill, a gaunt man with a head of gray wisps has a cellphone pressed to his ear.
Somewhere in Decatur, Ill., a phone is ringing.
“Ah, yes, Mrs. Stark? Uh-huh. Mrs. Stark, my name is Tim Johnson. Timothy Johnson. I’m the United States congressman for Decatur,” the man says. You learn a few things after making half a million phone calls. One is to get the word “congressman” out as fast as possible, so people don’t decide you’re a salesman and hang up.
“I really didn’t have any particular reason for calling, Mrs. Stark,” Rep. Timothy V. Johnson (R-Ill.) goes on. This one hasn’t hung up yet. “I just wanted to call and say hello.”
In the bellowing jungle that is the U.S. Congress, Johnson is a quiet man with an incredible story. His goal is to call all 300,000 households in his district. Personally.
Johnson calls from the airport. He calls from the treadmill. Over 10 years, this habit has cost him a vast chunk of his life and left him with little legacy of landmark legislation. But, if nothing else, it has meant he really knows the people in his district.
Or, at least, he used to.
This year, the Illinois legislature has drawn a new district for Johnson, leaving out a vast number of the people he’s been calling. If he gets reelected and wants to keep up the practice, he’ll have to start again with hundreds of thousands of strangers.
“That is agony, I’ll tell you,” Johnson said. “I thought: All these relationships! All these friendships! All this service! You know, what is it all about?”
This is a man haunted by democracy: The idea of representation, when practiced by Congress’s ultimate purist, looks a lot like a compulsive disorder.
Johnson is 64, three times divorced and the father of nine children. He has been calling all of his constituents since he was in the legislature. He continued the practice when he was elected to Congress in 2000. In that time, aides estimate, he has called most households twice.
“This person I’m going to call right now likely views government as completely detached from their lives,” he said, repeating the mantra that he uses to psych himself up for calls. “This is going to be the one chance that I’m going to have to convince them [that] that isn’t the case.”
He is a man comfortable with endurance. Johnson exercises religiously and fasts for 48 hours every week as a ritual of self-denial. In a Congress full of smooth-faced senior citizens, he stands out for looking unimproved: weathered, rumpled, wrinkled around the eyes.
The phone calls are Johnson’s way of applying that personality to the fundamental quandary of representative democracy. How can one person speak for 653,647 other complicated souls?
Well, Johnson figures, he can start by calling them all at home.
“Mr. Steenblock? Oh hi, Mr. Steenblock. My name is Tim Johnson,” Johnson said. It was after 7 p.m.: The rest of Congress was closing up for the evening, headed to receptions or happy hours. He was still working through the S’s of Decatur. “Congressman Tim Johnson.”
To track the calls, Johnson circles names on a sheet. He notes whether the person was there (T), whether he left a message (LM) or whether he got a busy signal (B). The T’s get a follow-up note. The B’s won’t get another call for years.
Johnson makes calls while exercising, setting the treadmill at 3.1 mph so he won’t be heard panting. He calls from the Capitol, weaving between tour groups. He has even called from Hawaii: “I don’t have friends to walk with. . . . I’ll get on a treadmill, and I’ll call, on a vacation, as long as 10 or 12 hours.”
The calls let him drop, unexpected, into daily life in Oblong or Rantoul or Gibson City. People answer his calls in the middle of birthday parties. They answer in the middle of screaming arguments. A few times, Johnson thinks, people have answered in the midst of that other, more intimate, type of “congress.”
All right, he can’t prove that. But they sure seemed in a big, big hurry to get off the phone.
Sometimes, though, people want to talk. Johnson said these conversations have helped him dream up legislation, such as a proposal to limit overseas fact-finding trips by congressmen (the “STAY-PUT Act”). They’ve allowed him to help with complaints about veterans’ benefits or Social Security.
When Bill Steenblock, 79, answered, he began to gently criticize the congressman for his support of an ethanol tax credit.
“I understand your point. And I asked you, you didn’t ask me. So I’m listening to you, Mr. Steenblock,” Johnson said.
But Mr. Steenblock wasn’t done. Johnson was silent, listening.
“Don’t you think — don’t you think it’s more important, though, to develop alternatives to an endless need to import oil from the Middle East?” Johnson said.
That took more than six minutes — a lot of time when you’ve got 300,000 calls to make, but nowhere near his record of 90 minutes. Johnson said goodbye and circled “T.” In Decatur, Steenblock hung up happy.
“I disagree with Tim. But I admire him for, you know, seeing what people think,” Steenblock said in a telephone interview later. “I always vote for him.”
Historians could think of no other lawmaker who had tried something like this. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter allow modern congressmen to mass-produce intimacy: A few chatty tweets, and people feel as if they know you.
Johnson has never tweeted.
“That’s carrying constituency relations to an almost pathological extreme,” Thomas Mann, a scholar of Congress at the Brookings Institution, said when told of Johnson’s approach. Mann said the founding fathers expected lawmakers to be more independent than that: “James Madison would not approve.”
Johnson says he’s proud of his work on the Hill, where he has sponsored 36 pieces of legislation — and seen only three minor measures passed. He chairs a House subcommittee and helped start the Center Aisle Caucus to press for civil debate.
His worry this year is not Madison but the Democratic-controlled Illinois legislature. During redistricting this year, it drastically reshaped Johnson’s district; the plan awaits the approval of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D).
The best guess is that only about 30 percent of his current constituents will be in the district come 2013. Which means about 500,000 new people to call.
Johnson had a moment of despair when he heard this. But just a moment. Now, he says he’s looking forward to it: “I’ll be walking out here in the park and calling people in Hardin, Illinois, rather than Danville, Illinois.”
The shift was good news for at least one constituent. When Johnson calls Virginia Lewis at her home in Oblong, she never lets him get past the “Congressman Tim Johnson” part.
“He’d start the spiel, and I would just hang up,” Lewis said. “Say I’m in the middle of dinner and he calls and I’ve got to answer the phone? Well, I don’t want to sit there and listen to him while my dinner’s getting cold.”
The way the districts are drawn now, Lewis will have a new representative in 2013. But she’ll be on Johnson’s call list for another year at least.
“I don’t think he has my cellphone,” Lewis said. “I hope.”