It was a blow to Indian Country.

That's how Democratic state Sen. Jim Bradford of Pine Ridge described the announcement Tuesday by Sen. Tim Johnson that he would retire from politics after his term ends in 2014.

The South Dakota Democrat's senior status on U.S. Senate committees with crucial roles on Native American reservations won't be easy to replace, Bradford said. Neither will the senator's long, friendly relationship with Native people, he said.

"I think this is a real blow to Indian people, a big loss," Bradford said, noting that word of Johnson's coming retirement was spreading across the Pine Ridge Reservation. "Tim's always been real well-received down here, and he was one of our strongest proponents."

Johnson was well supported by Native voters, too. Many believe it was the Native American vote that gave Johnson the crucial edge in defeating Republican John Thune in 2002.

The news of Johnson's retirement also had impacts beyond the reservation boundaries, where some people said the senator was making the right decision.

Former state Sen. Don Frankenfeld of Rapid City, a Republican who challenged and lost to Johnson for the state's lone U.S. House seat in 1990, said Johnson was right in deciding that it was time for him to retire.

"I agree with him, but I don't mean that in a nasty way," Frankenfeld said. "I think he has served us well. He has worked hard. I think he deserves to exit gracefully. If he had run again, it certainly would have been a brutal campaign, and who knows what the outcome would have been?"

As it is, Johnson will leave with a 36-year political record without a defeat. He ran and won four times for the state Legislature, five times for the U.S. House of Representatives and three times for the U.S. Senate.

Johnson was clearly proud of his undefeated record and liked the idea of taking it into retirement.

Frankenfeld said a fourth Senate term would have been difficult for Johnson to win, given that former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds was already months into his Senate campaign and Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem hadn't yet ruled it out.

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"Could he have won?" Frankenfeld said of Johnson. "No. My sense is that either Noem or Rounds could have defeated him."

That's not because people are generally angry with Johnson or don't admire both his service and his courageous recovery from a near-fatal brain hemorrhage in December of 2006, Frankenfeld said. But the impairments of speech and movement continue for the senator, who acknowledged those challenges during his retirement announcement speech at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

Johnson won re-election easily in 2008, even though his speech impairment from the 2006 hemorrhage led him to avoid any public debates with Republican challenger Joel Dykstra. South Dakotans were fine with that then but likely to approach a campaign differently in 2014, Frankenfeld said.

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"I think this time around his physical condition would have been a legitimate issue," he said.

Johnson considers himself a moderate who seeks middle-of-the road positions. And Frankenfeld generally agrees with that self-evaluation by Johnson. But he also noted that the senator's strong support for the agenda of President Barack Obama on some issues would hurt him with a significant percentage of South Dakota voters.

"I think it's wise for him to avoid all that," Frankenfeld said. "And this is graceful. He'll certainly be well-remembered and, I think, well-respected by South Dakotans, including me. And I've disagreed with him more than I've agreed."

Rapid City Democrat Bill Walsh said Johnson's departure at the end of 2014 will mean the South Dakota Democratic Party has lost its leader. It also will have lost a tough, smart, experienced candidate who would have performed well had he chosen another run in 2014, Walsh said.

"I sort of looked forward to him taking on Rounds, because he (Johnson) was a real heavyweight when it came to taking on the leaders in the Republican Party." Walsh said. "I'll miss that competition."

Johnson won his first congressional seat in 1986 by defeating Republican Dale Bell. He took his Senate seat in 1996 with a win over third-term Republican Sen. Larry Pressler. And Johnson surprised many pundits when he held that seat against then U.S. Rep. Thune, who came back in 2004 to defeat Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

Walsh said Johnson's work to protect Ellsworth Air Force Base, fund key water projects and help Native Americans won't soon be matched or forgotten. But he also said Johnson deserves time to relax with family.

"I certainly understand this. I"m sure the physical handicap was very frustrating for him," Walsh said. "The guy deserves a break."

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Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com

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