Johnson, veteran of Obama campaign, joins McKenna Long

Tharon Johnson is that rarest of Georgian: A Democrat with a major winning streak.

Now the Atlanta native, who ran President Barack Obama’s re-election bid across the South including the key state of Florida, has parlayed his success into a major job with the powerhouse law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge.

Johnson, 34, has signed on as a managing director and will work in the firm’s national governmental affairs unit, lobbying and consulting at the state and federal level.

He was Obama’s 2012 national southern regional director and led the campaign to a narrow win in Florida and a close loss in the other battleground state of North Carolina. Both states were decided by fewer than a million votes.

Before working for Obama, Johnson was a lobbyist with Piedmont Public Affairs after leading Kasim Reed’s successful bid for Atlanta mayor. Johnson also ran winning campaigns for U.S. Reps. John Lewis and John Barrow and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. He served on Lewis and Barrow’s staff.

That experience allows the firm to meet specific needs at the local, state or federal level, said Eric Tanenblatt, who leads its governmental affairs unit.

Johnson, whose first involvement in politics was as a 4-year-old at his mother’s side as she helped Democrats in Athens, said he had to choose between the public and private sectors.

“It was tough,” Johnson said. “I had a lot of offers. I just right now want to continue to build on my long career in governmental affairs and in the public sector while in a private entity. I made the decision right now that I can best serve Georgia and the (Obama) administration by continuing to be one of these people who are not in the administration but can support them.”

At McKenna Long, Johnson joins a bipartisan roster of heavy hitters including Democrats Gordon Giffin, former U.S. ambassador to Canada; former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, and former Georgia attorney general Thurbert Baker; as well as Republicans like former Georgia Speaker of the House Mark Burkhalter, R-Johns Creek and Tanenblatt, a national finance committee co-chairman of the Mitt Romney campaign.

McKenna has long sought to bolster its ranks on both sides of the political aisle, said Tanenblatt, who was recruited after the 2000 presidential race. Tanenblatt had chaired George W. Bush’s Georgia campaign while firm partner Keith Mason led Vice President Al Gore’s operation here.

After Bush won, Mason asked Tanenblatt to come aboard. Georgia politics at the time were still dominated by Democrats. Mason, Tanenblatt said, knew the Democratic-aligned firm needed strong GOP representation with Bush’s rise.

Now the political tide in Georgia has shifted to the right even as Obama was re-elected. Tanenblatt said Johnson will help the firm continue to work effectively in Washington and in Atlanta.

His new job will allow Johnson to have a presence in both cities, something he said was a key for him.

“I had to be in D.C.,” he said. “If you’re going to be a national player you have to have a presence in D.C. But my love and work in Atlanta — I didn’t want to lose that either.”

Reed, for whom Johnson also served in city government, thinks his former aide made the right move.

“After you make the kind of personal and financial sacrifices he’s made the last two years it’s the appropriate decision to go and rebuild the treasury, if you will, and get some experience in a firm that is best in class in the city and state,” Reed said.

The mayor, however, might still call on Johnson’s services for his own re-election bid this year.

“I gotta believe if I was in the teeth of the campaign they might loan him to me for a little while,” Reed said. “I think his fees might be higher.”