This story is the latest installment in our “Contenders” series, where we outline the strengths and weaknesses of the people most likely to run for higher office in the coming years. Want to keep up? Sign up for the weekly Longleaf Politics newsletter.
Why Mark Johnson is a contender
If there’s one thing you need to be the North Carolina governor, it’s education chops. For decades, governors have campaigned on improving schools. Mark Johnson has an opportunity to do just that — one day.
He’s got time. Johnson was elected superintendent of public education statewide at age 33, becoming the second-youngest statewide official in the nation. He is now just two years in to his first term, but already, he’s made waves.
Johnson ousted longtime superintendent June Atkinson and has shaken up a department that had comfortably settled into that administration. He’s made comments that are objectively true, but perhaps impolitic. He’s butted heads with a state board resistant to change.
Now the big question is how he can tell his own success story statewide.
Mark Johnson’s advantages
Background in the classroom. Johnson spent the first two years of his career at West Charlotte High in the Teach for America program. That gives him a good bit of credibility. He’s also the father of a young child who’s just starting in the public education system. That gives him the opportunity to powerfully tie his personal story to his politics. While this isn’t a ton of experience for a state superintend role, it’s a nice wrinkle in a gubernatorial campaign.
Natural executive. Some politicians are great at working within the system, cutting deals and getting things done in the legislature. That doesn’t appear to be Johnson’s strong suit. He is, however, a decisive leader, an ideas guy, and he shows that he’s able to cut through bureaucracy.
Fiscally responsible. Some of his early work at the Department of Public Instruction has been around rooting out inefficiencies and cutting costs. It’s not the sexiest work in the world, but it’s attractive to fiscal conservatives.
Mark Johnson’s disadvantages
Unusual role. The state superintendent is a weird position. Most education decisions get made either at the local school board level or in the General Assembly. Further, the superintendent must share power with the State Board of Education. This limits what Johnson can do and take credit for, and prevents him from building a broader public profile.
Oddly naive politically. Despite winning statewide, Johnson has at times seemed to not quite understand how to navigate rough political waters. He’s frequently sparred with the State Board of Education, and he’s also made some decisions that make sense in a corporate environment but ruffle feathers — like having a staffer set up a website for him at practically no cost.
The teachers union hates Republicans. No matter how much good Johnson does for the state’s education system, the N.C. Association of Educators is going to hammer him and the Republican Party. This muddies the waters and makes it even harder to tell the positive story.
No signature accomplishment. This isn’t a criticism. He’s only two years into his role. But for his career to progress, he’s going to need to deliver on a few big initiatives he can point to on the campaign trail. This is made more difficult by the fact that the state legislature controls most of the strings, but Johnson is much more attractive politically statewide than either House Speaker Tim Moore or Senate president pro tem Phil Berger. Johnson has the opportunity to be the guy out front telling North Carolina’s education story. The legislature has abjectly failed in this.
The crystal ball
Johnson will face a tough re-election bid in 2020, but if he takes it seriously, he can win. I’d expect him to run for superintendent again in 2024, and then look at higher office in 2028. That will give him plenty of time to build a resume. He can start this year by being the chief spokesman for the higher education bond.