Republican Congressman Dusty Johnson, surrounded by an auditorium audience of Girls State delegates, was asked Tuesday evening if there came a time when he knew that, someday, he would like a job like the one he has now – helping people by crafting legislation.
He thought for a moment and told the young women of a time during his childhood when he wasn’t expecting much, but was greatly surprised.
“I was in first grade and living in Fort Pierre,” Johnson said, “and we were a large family; there were seven of us, two parents and five kids and for the month of December, my dad had been in an in-patient alcoholic treatment center, so I wasn’t really expecting much of a Christmas.”
His father was unemployed, his mother, Johnson said, was raising five children on her own “and as the oldest, I kind of knew there wasn’t going to be much for Christmas and I was okay with that. I understood the situation. My dad was going to come back soon, and that was going to be good.”
Johnson was surprised when three carloads of Shriners and Masons from Pierre and Fort Pierre pulled up outside of his family’s home.
“They filled our house up with presents,” he said. “I had never seen any of these people before. When you want to talk about a selfless action … what did they ever think they were ever going to get from this poor 7 year old in Fort Pierre?
“This was only about helping someone else,” Johnson said. “And that made me feel 10 feet tall, that they were willing to care, that there was a human connection there. I compared that sense of empowerment to the veritable shame I felt growing up as a child on welfare.”
The Congressman quickly added that he knows a safety net like food assistance and welfare is needed for those struggling with poverty.
“But I never felt empowered by buying groceries at the grocery store with food stamps,” he said. “So I’ve been fascinated about what is the right role of government in people’s lives and when does government do so many things that perhaps it strips some of that human connection out of our experience.
“Can’t we find a sweet spot where government holds people accountability, makes them better, provides a safety net without building dependence?” Johnson asked.
He said the growing negative nature of national politics pushed him to finally seek to be elected to the U.S. House.
He urged the delegates to not take their experiences at Girls State for granted, nor the investment their parents and their community has made in their futures.
“This is one of the finest leadership development programs that I have ever been a part of,” Johnson said. “These lessons will serve you incredibly well.”
Earlier in his conversation with the young women, he talked about people’s tendency to forget to be grateful.
“All too often we want to focus on the negativity,” Johnson said. “We prefer sometimes to think of ourselves as victims and we sometimes feel better being down. But here’s the thing: you’ve won the cosmic lottery.”
He explained that if you’ve got food in your refrigerator, clothes on your back and a roof over your head, “you literally are richer than 75 percent of the world. If you have any money in a bank account at all, you are among the richest 80 percent of the people on this planet.”
U.S. citizens, Johnson added, enjoy freedoms that 3 billion people do not have.
“Sometimes, you don’t think you are the luckiest people on the planet,” he said.
Johnson told the delegates to remember they are additionally blessed because besides enjoying security and freedom, they are also Girl States delegates.