Nancy Edmonds Hanson
“We choose to be more.”
That’s the message Mayor Johnathan Judd shared with the Rotary club last week as he talked about the city’s quest to define its identity, its strengths and its challenges. It’s the kind of positive message a mayor of four months’ tenure is going to bring to an audience of well-established community leaders – positive, promising and hinting of great things to come (a more vibrant downtown, a community center, that long-awaited venue for the performing arts).
Just three days later, though, he’s facing an audience of a very different sort. He’s standing in the middle of a roomful of teenagers who face personal hurdles he deeply identifies with. Here’s what the attorney, newly minted civic leader and dyed-in-the-wool family man has to tell them:
“I know what you’re facing. I was right where you are when I was growing up back in Raleigh, North Carolina. It could be rough. I knew how easy it would have been to make the wrong decision. The fact is, it took a combination of luck and circumstance to get past that. I had to work with what I had. So do you. Y’all have to choose to be more.
“Just know that here in Moorhead, you’ve got a whole community standing behind you. You can do it, and I expect you to.”
The mayor – J.J. – is uniquely positioned to tell unvarnished truths to students at the Red River Alternative Learning Center. Surrounded by a couple dozen young men and women whose paths through traditional education has been more than a little rocky, he shares his story of poverty and determination in terms the teens can relate to.
At Rotary, he’s the city’s chief elected official, a first-time officeholder who’s immersed himself in learning about municipal finance and the long and winding road of sometimes-perplexing local, state and federal bureaucracy.
At Moorhead’s alternative high school, though, J.J. becomes one of them himself.
“I grew up the son of a single mother. We had absolutely nothing. If not for my grandparents, I don’t know where I’d be,” he tells them, standing blunt and direct in front of the mostly black-haired group like an unmovable block of granite. “We lived in a decent enough community, but there were plenty of opportunities to do the wrong thing … to get caught up with the wrong folks. It was up to me to say, ‘I think I’ll go home now – catch y’all later.’”
Guided by Grandma and Grandpa – smart people, he says, though they had only sixth and eighth grade educations – he was doing all right. The high school junior was taking advanced-placement English and history (and hating math), playing football, ready to take the helm of his 2,000-student high school’s newspaper, and dreaming of sports journalism. But his course was to take a radical new direction when he made a summer visit to his best friend, who’d moved to Fargo. There were ulterior motives: “My family thought it was time to get me in a better environment,” he recalls. He fell in love with his buddy’s new home. “I met some cool people, and I felt I could succeed here,” he says. So he stayed. When school started that fall, he was living with his friend’s family and tackling senior year at Fargo North High School.
He became a Spartan graduate in 1991, then went on to graduate from North Dakota State University with a degree in political science and American history, the first in his family to complete college. Still honoring their dream, he enrolled in the University of North Dakota Law School in 1997. But after graduation, he still wasn’t sure of what to do next. He delayed taking the bar exam as he explored his options. That journey brought him to Moorhead in 2002, where he’s lived ever since. After several years as Concordia’s director of multicultural studies, he finally took the bar exam. He worked in turn for the Clay County public defender’s office, the county prosecutor and in his own private practice. Today he serves public defense client’s under contract with the state of Minnesota and the Federal District of North Dakota.
During the interim between Concordia and the bar, he also worked as a family advocate for the Moorhead school district. “I know what they may be going through,” he said after his talk at the Vista Center. “I wasn’t one of these students, but I easily could have been. I know what some of their parents face – poverty, always working to get by, no time. I have a passion for helping them make a difference in their own lives.”
Time is precious in J.J.’s present life as well. “I’m juggling something like two full-time jobs, with my legal practice and the mayor,” he says. “Three, if you count my family. I have to be conscientious about sticking to a schedule, and I am trying to be as efficient and effective as I can.” He credits city manager Chris Volkers, office director Carrie Rogers and the rest of the city staff with keeping him organized and filling him in as he tackles new aspects of his role. “I drop our youngest off at Robert Asp School in the morning, and then I’m off to the races.”
The mayorship requires several evening meetings a week as well as its daytime duties. “I couldn’t do it without my wife Tammi Fortney, (a psychologist at Moorhead High School),” he admits. “She’s my rock.” The couple has two children at Horizons Middle School, in addition to the youngest at Asp. They’re involved in all the activities that crowd the calendars of preteens and teens. Between them, they take part in football, choir, orchestra, drama, piano lessons … and all three play lacrosse.
“Before I decided to run, we talked about how it was going to be my responsibility. We agreed this wouldn’t affect the family or limit the opportunities for our kids,” he reflects. Yet there are small adjustments. Widely known for coaching youth football, he expects to step back when it resumes this fall. “My daughter wants me to coach. It’s probably her last year,” he says. “I don’t think I can do as much as I have in the past. I’ll be more like that assistant coach who pops in from time to time.”
A typical Moorhead resident in so many ways, J.J. concedes that his very different background does set him apart – that, and his open, frank way of communicating. “I think people appreciate that I’m an upfront kind of person,” he muses. “If they ask me something, I’m not going to give them a scripted answer or the political kind of thing. I’ll be honest … and if I don’t know the answer, that’s I’m going to tell you. The bottom line is that my main job isn’t to talk. It’s to listen to people and their stories. I genuinely want to hear and understand what they think.”
Back at the alternative high school, that bluntness comes out as he cajoles reluctant students to tell him about their dreams for the future. Like teenagers everywhere, most seem tongue-tied. They’re reluctant to speak up in a roomful of observers, perhaps. Yet the mayor has no intention of letting them off the hook.
“You are going to graduate. You can, and you will,” he says forcefully. “I know it feels hard right now. But don’t go hating on your teachers if they challenge you. That’s what they’re here for. But remember – every one of them has your back.”
Mayor to students
Nancy Edmonds Hanson