On Tuesday I had the opportunity to interview Jen Johnson, one of the four candidates seeking to hold the State Representative seat from which Carlos Henriquez was ousted by vote of the House.

Johnson and I met at an eatery in Uphams Corner, which for me is the central crossroads of a district that grab-bags several neighborhoods of Boston that don’t get much attention from the powers that be or from the media — including stretches of Blue Hill Avenue, the north side of Dudley Street, the Stanwood Street area along Columbia Road, and Bowdoin-Geneva. Johnson sees the district in pretty much those terms and vows that she will be a voice for a district that needs just about everything.

One thing, the district already has : diversity. This, Johnson likes. “The diversity, I find wonderful,” she says. “we have to find a way to maintain it.” First priority ? “Public safety,” she says. “So many people living in poverty. 40 percent of the district’s families.”

And how to change that, as a State Representative ? “I look to bring my   training programs and entrepreneurship,” Johnson says. “More training programs; it supports jobs. We n  a liveable wage. So many people in the 5th hold three and four jobs right now just to make ends meet. And no, no separate wage for teenagers. Many teenagers in my district are already hears of families.”

Johnson supports the minimum wage increase legislation — to $ 11.00 an hour by 2016 — that now awaits House action. She also wants it to apply to tipped workers — waiters and waitresses and such — whose minimum wage is now $ 2.63 an hour (and who often have to bring a Labor Board complaint to get paid even that.) She also supports senator Elizabeth warren’s legislation to bar employers from accessing job applicants’ credit histories and using it as an employment criterion. “we need to do something similar here on the State level,” she says.

CORI reform and sentencing reform are also high on her list of things to voice at the State House. “Too many kids in my district have a couple of years in a gang and then end up in jail and now have a CORI,’ she says. “Yes, sociopaths need to be off the street, but most kids who pass in and out of a gang aren’t that. Prison should be the last resort.”

Johnson is no stranger to prisoner issues. “rom 2002 to 2005 I helped co-ordinate a Pen New England program for prisoners. It was eye opening to see how many of these (foster home) young men ended up in prison. One young man i knew was in 55 foster homes between ages 9 and 15.”

On public school funding, Johnson supports a policy that’s been pushed for at least three decades but has never been fully implemented : school pupil spending equity. “We spend 16,000 per pupil here in Boston, but in places like Wellesley and Needham it’s 23,000. So of course their schools do better. we should be treating all children the same.”

But school funding in Massachusetts has a long, long history of total local control. So how would Johnson reach her pupil spending equity goal ? “Take the money we save by sentencing reform and use it for schools,” she says. I point out to her that the State budget can’t be flexed that simply. She admits that it’;s a difficult problem but insists that a way must be found. “Teachers tell me all the time about the money they have to pay out of their own pocket for necessary supplies like books,” says Johnson. “We just HAVE to figure out a way to get prison money over to the school system !”

Johnson grew up in Saint Tammany Parish, Louisiana, on the north bank of lake Pontchartrain. She came to Massachusetts 25 years ago and almost immediately became an activist. She worked for Mass PIRG, then Share Group. More recently she’s done sales for venerable medical book publisher John Wiley and Sons but is campaigning full time now.

Johnson supported Felix G. Arroyo in last year’s mayor election and has the support, this time, of ward 15’s Judy Meredith, a key and longtime social justice and labor issues activist who also supported Arroyo. Johnson also has a full time campaign manager and a full campaign schedule.

If elected, Johnson would like to be assigned to the Committee on business and economic Development, also Judiciary and the committee that oversees Public health and welfare. Climate change also engages her time. After all, her District, albeit hilly, is part of Boston, a city in which much of the Downtown core will be under water if predictions come true. “There is going to be tremendous dislocation,” Johnson says. “How are we going to be prepared when 25 to 30 percent of Boston will be under water ; will we make Boston like Venice ?”

Johnson is making the rounds of community meetings and plans to take part in the First Parish candidates’ Forum to be held on Sunday, March 23d. The Primary takes place just nine days later.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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