North Texas Daily

Johnson talks council, blessings and upcoming election

Johnson talks council, blessings and upcoming election

Greg Johnson sits at his desk. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Johnson talks council, blessings and upcoming election
April 14
02:25 2016

Dalton LaFerney | News Editor


Greg Johnson can only win this election. Whether he has enough votes is beside the point.

At Johnson’s headquarters, the Verus Real Estate Advisors building, he has a private office with the kind of bank vault door that invites and intimidates.

When you walk inside, the spacious lobby is decorated with gray, alligator-looking chairs and some literature. On the right side of the room there is a grand entrance to a conference room, where at about noon on a recent Friday, Johnson was inside speaking with local Glen Farris and a woman who told him “don’t play the victim” after Johnson asked what kind of an impact an unflattering newspaper article could have on his campaign.

His campaign that week was spat on with reports from blogs, Facebook groups and the city paper with news that his company was named in a property dispute lawsuit.

“I think the timing of somebody bringing that up is a smear tactic,” Johnson said during an interview.

Nonetheless, he took the challenge of defending his reputation head-on, which a faction of people in Denton – according to their posts on social media, comments at council sessions and general campaign rhetoric – perceive as out-of-touch or even greedy.

“Every time you vote on something, you’re going to make somebody mad,” Johnson said.

Call it mad, call it passion, call it activism. Whatever you call it, there is a pit of voters in Denton who see Johnson as a rich guy who is in it for himself and the local business owners and chamber members who recently named Verus small business of the year — for the second year in a row.

A chorus of blogs and Facebook groups slam Johnson. One commenter on “Denton Matters,” for example, snarked he should head a proposed ethics committee. Another commenter, Jennifer Lane, said, “Greg Johnson’s behavior has pushed things” to a new ethical low.

If people in town hold that Johnson is an insider guy, they would not have been convinced otherwise on a recent afternoon when a secretary walked into his office to let him know Joey Hawkins was there to see him.

“Here, give this to him,” Johnson told her, handing over an envelope.

But inside was not a check or the blueprints to a political scheme. Inside was a necklace Johnson’s wife, Leah, made for Hawkins’ wife.

A little while later, Johnson was comfortably answering questions about his credentials and record of service. Farris, who runs the We Denton Do It blog and is vice president of marketing at Verus, popped in to invite Johnson to lunch. Farris and the other guys were off to get Thai, but Johnson wasn’t feeling it.

“We’ll stop by Boardwalk then,” Farris said. “Philly cheese?”


“You the man.”

Sarah Bagheri, the challenger for the place 6 spot on city council, said Johnson has a questionable moral compass. She said the councilman runs with a small group of local business owners who support his campaign. She did not, however, name anybody or any business in this small caucus of businessmen she said empowers Johnson.

“What I have seen while campaigning is a desire [from the voters] to have greater transparency and more citizen involvement,” she said. “Council needs to follow the letter and the spirit of the law.”

Those kinds of statements are why Johnson said he doesn’t like campaigning, but enjoys the satisfaction from it. So in his day-to-day, he strives to take personality squabbles out of the process.

Ethics reform has become a buzzword lately for people following Denton government, and Johnson is partially to blame. Johnson said those people are mad at him because they didn’t get their way in council, not that he has some kind of moral ineptitude.

“I don’t think I should vote on something in order to please a person who is in front of me at a council session,” Johnson said.


When Johnson left Nicholls State University, he carried no student loan debt.

He talks a lot about being blessed, and one notices more when the conversation is about money and being able to afford things, like being his college-aged daughter’s bank.

Johnson’s business vernacular lends itself to a meaning of “blessed” Big Sean might rap about. Though that’s not to say he isn’t humble, because there was a time when there were fewer blessings.

Johnson married his wife, Leah, in 1991 after Johnson finished college and Leah had just finished her sophomore year. He was driving “a crappy car,” a Ford Taurus, living in a Farmer’s Branch apartment, and Leah didn’t want to have student loan debt. So they pinched pennies until they got ahead.

Johnson said they were both blessed with parents who taught financial discipline for a life of stability.

Today, Johnson drives the black Yukon with “VERUS” license plates you might see around town. And he’s not just renting an apartment, he’s making real estate deals and garnering favor with the Denton Chamber of Commerce.

He was recently blessed with an endorsement from the Denton Firefighter’s Association, something he said shines a bright light on his character, because the firemen, he said, are good people with good hearts who desire to serve.

And Johnson has tried to bless others. When asked if he was out of touch or too rich, he opened the books to point to a chapter written in his first term.

For homeless individuals, especially military veterans, Johnson has a lot of sympathy. He reminded people of his involvement in transforming a city animal shelter to a shelter for the homeless.

There are many other projects and deals he’s been a part of. One in particular, the Buc-ee’s deal, brought people to the council floor to fight against big business invasion. Johnson has in no way tried to conceal that he helped recruit Buc-ee’s to Denton.

“A Buc-ee’s is a slot machine for a city,” Johnson said.

The energy people

On the same Facebook groups that routinely slam Johnson, one faction of residents focus on the city’s energy shortcomings.

They are the energy people, the people who helped put Denton on the map as an activist community of anti-frackers and eco-fanatics. This year, their relationship has grown more contentious with the Denton City Council.

“I don’t mind activism, but sometimes it gets too personal,” Johnson said.

The strenuous relationship began to teeter when the council voted to withdraw the city’s ban on urban hydraulic fracturing. Because of House Bill 40 and two lawsuits, the city was pushed into a corner, thus the vote to kill the fracking ban.

This led to outrage and an upcoming recall election for councilman Hawkins. During the voters’ protest to have Hawkins removed, tempers flared, and Johnson unapologetically let his true colors fly high. Long story short, he wished on a Facebook post that the people who wanted to recall Hawkins (and Kevin Roden) would get so upset with the council that they’d leave town.

Since then, flak on Johnson has piled up like snow, and the questions on his morals have fueled Bagheri’s campaign.

When asked about this coalition’s rise against him, Johnson didn’t answer with a bickering comment, but pointed to his working relationship with Adam Briggle, the philosophy professor who has become a figure head for Denton’s urban drilling saga and a lieutenant in the battle against the industry.

“You have to be willing to work with all sorts of people,” Johnson said.

In “A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking: How One Texas Town Stood Up to Big Oil and Gas,” Briggle writes about the underpinnings of technology politics and how advancements (like fracking) affect more than what’s usually intended by engineers. He also writes that people who support fracking do not have to manipulate facts to win support. Rather, they must frame it correctly, with promises of lower rates and economic prosperity.

Today, Johnson is in the middle of a similar framing campaign with the Renewable Denton Plan, which aims to increase the city’s usage of renewable energy, wind and solar, to 70 percent. But a provision to include two natural gas-burning plants has spoiled it for the energy people.

Just as Briggle describes in his book, Johnson reminds people that just because there are two natural gas plants, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad option. Citing the lower rates and energy security, Johnson said the energy people cannot have it both ways, with low rates and no natural gas plants.

Whereas the energy people want a natural gas-free energy plan, local business owners don’t want their rates to go up, Johnson said. This is a prime example of why people cast him as out of touch — “because they are being unrealistic,” he said.

He said a councilman must look out for all people in the community and seek compromise at every possible turn. Johnson often uses Peterbilt as an example, because the brand relocated its headquarters to Denton. And if rates go up for that company, “they’re out of here,” Johnson said.

“For the people who opposed the plan, a loss of jobs is not on their radar,” he said. “If you’re on City Council, that has to be on your radar.”

A cold beer on election night

The May 7 election is right around the corner. There are forums, luncheons and meet-and-greets left to go to — not to mention Johnson’s workload at Verus and his council duties.

There are scheduling conflicts he must overcome. Recently, he was criticized for not attending a candidate forum hosted at UNT, but he said he had a prior engagement to speak at an event. And he insists he’s engaged with the student body at UNT and TWU. He addressed the Student Government Association this semester to rally students to the voting booth.

“The students need to know city council is providing them with safe campuses, jobs, entertainment, houses and apartments,” he said. “So it’s important you get involved.”

What he doesn’t get to do a lot of is spend time with his family, Johnson said. So on a recent weekend when Leah was away on business, he rejoiced in taking time away from work to take care of his kids. He’s got four: one UNT student, another in high school and 7-year-old twins.

If he wins the election, good. If not, he says he’ll be fine, too. He has Verus and his family to look after.

“Spending more time with them won’t be so bad,” Johnson said.

And on election night, Johnson said he won’t host a big party to celebrate the win. He’ll be at home on his couch with this family.

“I think I’ll just have a cold beer,” Johnson said. “That sounds nice right now.”

Featured Image: Greg Johnson sits behind his desk at the Verus Real Estate Advisors building. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

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1 Comment

  1. Christopher Fuhrmann
    Christopher Fuhrmann April 16, 16:24

    I’m glad Mr. Johnson did this extensive interview, and thank you for printing it. I’d still urge all Denton residents to vote for Johnson’s opponent, Sara Bagheri, and for Deb Armintor. These women will do a better job of upholding auditing and ethical standards, controlling the budget, pushing back possible abuses of the gas and oil industry, and generally making Denton a better place as a growing community for young people. Both Sara Bagheri and Deb Armintor are very nice, accessible, and approachable; I urge you to reach out to them if you have questions about the campaign. Finally, unlike some of the men on the council now, Bagheri and Armintor are advocates for the community who don’t have a profit motive for being on the council. We need more people like them in local government, people who will be similar to my great Rep on the council, Keely Briggs, and Kathleen Wazny. Our city needs your vote. Thanks again, NTD, for running pieces like this.

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