Rep. Timothy Johnson is keeping in touch with his current 15th district while introducing himself to a brand-new swath of voters in the new district he will run in next year.
He has perfected his routine to a science, greeting constituents with an affable banter that manages to sound at once formulaic and unscripted.
"Ms. Cloverline?" he asked, on a typical call to a woman in Monticello, Ill., in his current district. "Oh, hi, Ms. Cloverline. This is Tim Johnson calling you, Congressman Tim Johnson, how are you?"
A short pause.
"You're going to have to remind me ... Oh sure, absolutely! So Marguerite is Lynn's mother right? ... Oh yeah, and your sister lives in Philo? ... Well I'll be darned, small world isn't it?"
When asked after hanging up if he had phoned an acquaintance, he smiled slyly and replied, "Well, she knew me."
Interactions like this are not uncommon for the rail-thin 65-year-old Congressman, who estimates he has dialed more than a half-million constituents over his 12 years in office and thousands more during his two decades in the Illinois state Legislature.
A poll commissioned by his office years ago found that 52 percent of his constituents think they know him personally.
That is about to change.
Redistricting has dramatically reshaped his district, drawing the region away from Eastern Illinois so that it juts southwest nearly to St. Louis.
The changed demographics are expected to give Johnson his first competitive election since he entered Congress. And for the first time in years, voters do not know his name.
Greene County State's Attorney Matt Goetten, who initially declined to run, changed his mind this week and will seek the Democratic nomination for the seat, setting up a primary with David Gill. The general election is expected to be competitive.
As a result, Johnson has added a new element to his calling ritual: He has slowed calls to constituents he will no longer represent and has taken to calling areas that will be part of the new district, hoping an onslaught of calls will prevent the phones from going dark permanently.
A typical call will now go something like this:
"Hi, Ms. Jackson? My name is Tim Johnson, Timothy Johnson. It's kind of an unusual call, but I'm not soliciting anything," he said, calling a woman in a small southwestern Illinois town. "I'm the United States Congressman, Mrs. Jackson, for Champaign-Urbana and Decatur, but because the Legislature has recently changed the lines, real quickly here, I am going to be hopefully representing Jerseyville. So I just wanted to call and say hello to you and let you know who I am one-on-one, rather than through those answering devices or prerecorded phone calls.
"I'm hitting my stride," Johnson said with a touch of irony after the call. "Name recognition is the name of the game. In areas that are quite a bit removed, many people don't know who I am, so part of what I have to do is introduce myself."
He laments, he said, having to leave behind so many people he has represented for more than a decade but said he is ready for a campaign.
"It's challenging, and it's invigorating," he said. "In some ways, it's like you graduated from the law school of government and politics and then all of a sudden you're back in undergrad."
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