SAVANNAH — Eric Johnson's political career was supposed to be winding down five years ago.
The former Savannah state senator told a local business group his long stint in elected office was near its "twilight."
When his fellow Republicans took over the Senate in 2003, they marginalized Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor. Johnson became the de facto — though unpaid — lieutenant governor.
Exhausted after the grueling 2006 legislative session, he said he wasn’t sure he’d seek re-election.
Now he is in the campaign of his life — for governor.
Of course, he did run again in 2006, mostly, he said, because he expected Georgia to elect its first GOP lieutenant governor. He said he’d help that person who turned out to be Casey Cagle with the historic transition.
And so he did, saying he’d run again in 2008 but probably not this year. But when Cagle ran for governor, Johnson reconsidered.
He knew plenty well enough how to be lieutenant governor: Why not go for it? And so he did.
But, in April 2009, Cagle dropped out, saying he’d try to keep his current office, so Johnson reconsidered again.
Now he faces a July 20 Republican primary unlikely to yield any of the seven candidates a majority and the nomination.
He’s scrambling for one of two spots in an expected Aug. 10 runoff.
The other likely will go to the current front-runner, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah was in Young Republicans with Johnson in the early 1980s and says his friend was politically savvy even then.
"He liked the nuts and bolts," Kingston said. "He ran my campaign for state House. No one gave us a chance. But we won and never could have without Eric."
When Kingston moved to Congress in 1992, Johnson won the House seat. He went to the Senate in 1994.
From Day 1 in the Senate, Johnson played hardball with the dominant Democrats.
Lacking votes, he sometimes relied on political theater.
Once he tried to string crime-scene tape around the Senate to protest what he considered high-handed Democratic leadership.
He also removed New York’s flag from the Capitol because at theirs New Yorkers had taken Georgia’s flag down to protest its Confederate design.
And there were the zingers. For example, when actress Jane Fonda opposed legislation to restrict sex education.
"Jane Fonda lecturing the Senate about sex education is like Bill Clinton talking to us about marital fidelity," Johnson said. "They may be familiar with the subject matter, but I don’t want my children to learn it from them."
Johnson had few options, said Sen. Tommie Williams of Lyons, now Senate president pro tem.
"When you have no access, no way to affect bills, you have to fight hard just to be heard," Williams said. "You have to fight all the time. Eric did a good job."
But Johnson, elected Senate GOP leader in 1998, was also building a Republican majority.
He raised and doled out $1 million in campaign cash to fellow candidates. As he does now, he drew heavily on the development industry he’s worked in as an architect and project manager.
When the GOP neared a majority in the Senate in 2002, he helped Gov.-elect Sonny Perdue lobby Democrats to switch.
"He’d tell them, 'If you go with us, these are the committees you might chair," said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah. "'And if you don’t, we’ll beat you next time.’"
When enough senators did switch and Johnson became Senate president pro tem, people began to see some of his other qualities.
"Eric is a policy wonk," Kingston said. "He really knows budgets. He can tell you what’s in paragraph B, page 3,612."
Republican Sen. Jack Hill of Reidsville cites Johnson’s skill and tenacity.
"Legislation is like a stick floating down a river," Hill said. "There’s lots of ways for it to get stuck and just one to keep it moving. Eric knows how to keep it moving."
Hill said Johnson helped set up a budget office that made the Senate an "equal partner" with the House on spending issues.
Hill recalls all-night wrangling with House leaders over major legislation. "They were trying to wear us out," he said. "But Eric hung in. He doesn’t give up."
Johnson has taken political flak, for example, when an ethics panel he chaired used technicalities to reject complaints against two major GOP political figures.
One complaint — against former House Speaker Glenn Richardson, who later quit in the wake of a related scandal — turned out to be valid.
Johnson said both complaints were politically motivated and that the panel merely followed the law.
In June, The Associated Press reported he failed to make required disclosures of $280,000 in state contract income to an engineering firm in which he was a partner.
The candidate, who regularly made disclosures of similar income to the firm, called his omission "inadvertent."
He noted the unreported income was tied to competitive-bid contracts let between 1999 and 2002, when Democrat Roy Barnes was governor.
"It’s not like they wanted to do us any favors," he said.
Recently, GOP governor hopeful Karen Handel criticized Johnson’s support for a law that gave Gulfstream Aerospace a tax break.
Gulfstream later leased two buildings from the company he worked for.
Johnson spokesman Ben Fry said the law also helped other companies and created about 1,500 jobs. Johnson had no role in the lease, which was unrelated to the tax issue and based on competitive bidding, Fry also said.
With barely two weeks left before the primary, Johnson is stressing jobs and tax cuts he says will create them as his key issues.
Fourth in the polls, he must move up to make the runoff. Hes raised more money than any Republican except Oxendine and is pouring it into TV ads.
Rep. Stephens thinks Johnson can close the gap.
"I wouldn’t count Eric out," he said. "He’s pulled off miracles before."