Meet DeLena Johnson: Carving out a life on the land




There’s a grainy black-and-white photo on DeLena Johnson’s campaign website. There she is, a tyke at the bottom corner, the smallest scrap of a kid in the of the band of dusty travelers making their way from Oregon to Alaska in 1967.

The family came in a 1947 flatbed pickup, living out the lifelong dream of her father, who had always wanted to live on the Last Frontier. He had sought to come to Palmer to build the Colony in the ’40s, but fate intervened, he ended up working in Panama. With kids and complications of life, the family finally made it when DeLena was three years old.

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-11-01-21-amAbove DeLena in the old photo is the person she calls her hero: Her mom, whom she says is the hardest working, most positive person she has ever known. These are traits DeLena has inherited: Never stop working and always stay positive. And something else about her mom that few know: She was a huge Don Young admirer from 1973, when he made his very first run for US House. Her mom also admired Tom Fink, another Republican, who became speaker of the State House and mayor of Anchorage.

The family wanted to live in Palmer, but the land they could afford was down the Talkeetna Spur Road. That is where she grew up, in the classic Alaska homestead life off the grid, with no electricity, no running water, chopping wood, using kerosene lanterns in the winter, and she has crisp memories of nonstop canning of food from early summer all the way into the crisp days of fall.

“We butchered our moose on the table of our 24 by 24 cabin,” she recalls. “My mom spent the entire summer cooking and canning on an outdoor stove so we’d have food for the winter. We didn’t have much money but we made do. There was a lot of stuff we held together with baling wire.”

Talkeetna was a wintering place for miners back then. There was one lodge and the Fairview Inn, she recalls. It wasn’t until many years later that it was discovered by hippies and mountain climbers. The Talkeetna she remembers is one where hardy people were surviving through winters that were much colder, where folks stopped to pick up others along the road even if they didn’t know them, a place where people liked to be on their own, but there was a camaraderie of helpfulness that was unique.


Although she did not live through the 1964 earthquake, it’s the conversation that dominates her childhood memories. Grownups always talked about it, as it was fresh in their minds — and unforgettable.

DeLena was a listener, and she heard all about Statehood and the earthquake — topics that had everyone’s attention, until explorers struck oil at Prudhoe Bay.

Oil changed everything in Alaska, even in Talkeetna.

“We grew up fast as a state, from being a pretty rustic and rural place to what felt like a statewide man camp,” she remembers.


DeLena graduated from Susistna Valley High School, with a graduating class of 12. She married right out of high school, earned a mathematics degree at the University of Alaska, and an associate degree in electronics. Her brothers are all working men in Alaska. Catskinners, she calls them.

She and her husband grew their own family of five children in Palmer, the place where she became mayor, and the place from which she is now a candidate for State House District 11.


Today, DeLena has already served as mayor for two terms in Palmer, and her record of accomplishment for helping the small business sector and growing infrastructure is impressive.

But she started out as a business woman. With plans to build a commercial building in Palmer, she ran into the local politics of parking, and got a real-world lesson of how government can actually stymie business development by creating a climate of uncertainty. She couldn’t proceed with her building because the parking regulations were in flux.

“I didn’t really want to sit through planning meetings on parking issues, but I knew I had to be involved in the process to hear the nuances of what was going on. I had a piece of property and I was planning on building one way, but when things start changing on you, you can’t proceed while everything is in flux,” she recalls. “I felt I needed to be in those meetings to make sure there was a voice for those of us who were trying to grow businesses.”

Her first-hand knowledge of how government can be an economic drain on the economy has helped her understand how big businesses face the same problem, just on a bigger scale.

“If I can bring some kind of continuity, some stability and predictability to government, that’s what I will do. If we are going to have businesses in Alaska of any size, whether it’s oil or something else, we have to have a business environment that people can count on to make an investment,” she says.

Her philosophy on government spending and our future is quite positive: “I grew up in a time when we just made it work. We are still Alaskans and we still have a lot of resources, and the state has a lot to work with.

“People should have hope and think through this: Let’s think about where we want to be as a state in five or ten years, and then look at the character of Alaska. We can dig down deep and take care of ourselves because Alaskans have more individual spirit and more history of stick-to-itiveness than people in any other state.

“That’s why I believe in the essence of Republicanism. We can get through this, get the budget basics of infrastructure and public safety established. We know that this is about identifying the priorities, funding them, and then working up from there.”

Her roots as a rural Alaskan, building a life from scratch, is why she is not afraid to confront the fiscal challenges of the state budget. She’s not buying into the doom and gloom.

“We’ve watched changes in Alaska. We’ve had huge changes before,” she says. “Alaska is going to be here five and ten years from now. We were here before and we’ll be here afterwards. This is who we are. This is not the end of Alaska as we know it. The hard times will show the character of Alaskans and get us to the next stage of maturing as a state.”