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Gary Johnson Makes Second Run for the White House

Gary Johnson Makes Second Run for the White House

Johnson is positioning himself as a fresh option. A recent poll pegged his support at 11 percent when pitted against Trump and Clinton – similar to how he got his start in politics when he was a relative unknown running for governor in 1994.

Johnson May Face a Challenge Getting the Libertarian Party Nomination

BY ANDY LYMAN

NM POLITICAL REPORT

In a room filled with about 100 people, a mix of students and older adults, Gary Johnson signs pocket U.S. Constitutions, takes selfies with young people and kisses the cheek of at least one child.

Johnson just finished an hour-long forum at the University of New Mexico hosted by Young Americans for Liberty. Some of the older people in the crowd ask about his family and reminisce about his tenure as governor of New Mexico.

“There were no pizza parties,” one woman says, smugly referring to an event in Santa Fe involving beer bottles thrown off a hotel balcony and a possibly intoxicated Gov. Susana Martinez calling 911.

While many New Mexicans over the age of 30 probably have some recollection of Johnson’s two-term flurry of vetoes and budget cuts, a fair portion of this crowd was not alive when Johnson became governor in 1995.

Questions from students ranged from Johnson’s stance on transgender rights to how long Social Security will last, all of which he answers with what he calls free-market solutions.

The younger attendees are more concerned with peppering the former governor and current third-party presidential hopeful with questions on foreign policy, immigration and free speech.

Questions from students ranged from Johnson’s stance on transgender rights to how long Social Security will last, all of which he answers with what he calls free-market solutions.

One student who tells Johnson he has been studying foreign policy in relation to ISIS insists a do-nothing approach will only strengthen international terrorist groups. Johnson reiterates a point he made earlier and emphasizes that the United States should take action only when its residents are personally threatened.

“If we’re attacked, we’re going to attack back,” Johnson said in a previous question and answer session. “It’s that simple.”

He compared ISIS to the mythical creature Hydra and insisted that “if we cut off the head of ISIS,” a new faction of terrorists will grow out of it.

A recent poll pegged Johnson’s support at 11 percent when pitted against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Johnson is positioning himself as a fresh option. It’s similar to how he got his start in politics when he was a relative unknown running for governor in 1994.

Political outsider

That year, three-term New Mexico Gov. Bruce King vied for a fourth term, but King was starting to lose favor among his party. To former Democratic state Sen. Dede Feldman, King was “looking kind of lackluster.”

But before taking on King, Johnson had to win a contested Republican primary against former Gov. David Cargo, Santa Fe politico John Dendahl and former state Rep. Richard Cheney. Johnson, the owner of a construction company and a triathlete, was what Feldman described as a “fresh face” who had never been involved in local politics, let alone run for public office.

Longtime Santa Fe journalist Lorene Mills, who helped her late husband, Ernie Mills, cover politics at the time, said Johnson “really came out of the blue” and beat Cheney by one percentage point in June. In November, he went on to beat King by a 10 percent margin.

Two decades later, amid the rise of Trump, it’s easy to forget how much of an outsider Johnson was at the time.

Political divisions among Democrats may have given Johnson a boost, according to former Speaker of the House Raymond Sanchez.

“He happened to be very lucky at the time because there was a pretty deep rift in the Democratic Party between [former Lt. Gov.] Casey Luna, Bruce King and [Green Party candidate] Roberto Mondragon,” Sanchez said. “And so that certainly helped Gary squeeze through that election to defeat Bruce King.”

Two decades later, amid the rise of Trump, it’s easy to forget how much of an outsider Johnson was at the time.

“He was kind of doing it on his own, and he was an unknown in the beginning, except that Big J construction, his company, which he and his wife, Dee, ran, was one of the big contractors that built some of the private prisons,” Feldman said.

Even Johnson’s first campaign manager was a political newcomer. Johnson recruited Kelly Ward – now the administrator for the Village of Los Ranchos – himself. Johnson knew of Ward through a mutual friend and went to his house to personally sell the idea of Ward running his campaign.

“Gary comes driving up in his little [Datsun] 280Z, and we sat on the back porch for about an hour,” Ward recalled. Johnson explained to Ward “that he was testing a hypothesis of, ‘Can an honest man run for elected office, get elected and still remain an honest man?’”

“We are proof that that could actually happen,” Johnson said.

Johnson hired many young staffers who shared his vision of running government as a business.

“He didn’t know much about state government, but surrounded himself with a couple of people who did pretty much run the show,” Sanchez said.

Johnson explained to Ward “that he was testing a hypothesis of, ‘Can an honest man run for elected office, get elected and still remain an honest man?’”

Now Johnson is trying, again, to be himself and see if an outsider trying to run as an “honest man” can succeed on a national level.

Shift in parties

Johnson flirted with becoming a Libertarian decades before running for governor. After college – around 1972 in his memory – Johnson came across literature that described the ideals of the Libertarian Party. He even briefly considered running for office as a Libertarian Party candidate in New Mexico.

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson speaks to a gathering at UNM recently on why he should be the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president. (Photo Credit: Andy Lyman)

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson speaks to a gathering at UNM recently on why he should be the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president. (Photo Credit: Andy Lyman)

“I was really deciding which party to run for, and I went and visited the Libertarian Party of New Mexico, and in a very, very short amount of time, maybe 45 seconds, I realized there was no way that I was going to be able to actually win if I ran as a Libertarian,” Johnson told NM Political Report.

Matt Welch, editor in chief of the Libertarian magazine Reason, told NM Political Report that Johnson was on the radar of libertarian-minded people even before he ran for president.

“If you asked the model Libertarian in 2003 to name the most plausible politician they could imagine, they would like to see running, it would be Gary Johnson,” Welch said. “That’s because he was the first major elected official in this country to come out against the war on drugs and the criminalization of marijuana.”

“Here’s a guy who was, as far as we could tell, a plausible popular governor saying at least some of the crazy, radical things Libertarians like to hear, that maybe we could take home to Mom,” Welch said.

Still, Johnson’s first run for president in 2012 came as a Republican. He failed to make the stage on most televised Republican presidential debates. He dropped out of the race and instead sought the Libertarian Party nomination, which he won. He eventually received more than 1.2 million votes, a little less than 1 percent of the total vote.

Now, in his second run for president, Johnson may have a challenge getting the Libertarian Party nomination. In addition to Johnson, the other apparent frontrunners are Austin Petersen, a businessman who is against abortion rights, and John McAfee, a software developer and cyber security advocate.

“He’s never been the pure puritan of Libertarian. He’s just way more Libertarian than just about any politician you can name. – Matt Welch

A recent televised Libertarian Party debate highlighted some of the differences between Johnson and the others. When the conversation shifted to religious discrimination, Johnson was asked whether a Jewish baker should be forced to bake a “Nazi wedding cake.”

“That would be my contention, yes,” Johnson replied.

Petersen brought up the issue after Johnson said bakeries should not be allowed to refuse service to homosexual couples. Both Petersen and McAfee took the more traditional Libertarian stance that government should not regulate how businesses are run.

“He’s never been the pure puritan of Libertarians,” Welch said. “He’s just way more Libertarian than just about any politician you can name.”

‘Veto vato’

As governor, Johnson made headlines almost immediately, and New Mexico lawmakers soon started to refer to Johnson as “Governor No” for his high number of legislative vetoes.

Former state Sen. Manny Aragon said he had another colorful nickname for Johnson.

“We called him the ‘Veto Vato,’” Aragon told NM Political Report. His record number of vetoes is a point of pride for Johnson. In fact, he told NM Political Report that he believes he didn’t do enough.

“In retrospect, I should have vetoed more bills than I did,” he said.

“You know where he stands, and he’s not going to stand somewhere else,” – Lorene Mills

Feldman said Johnson “was always in court because of his disdain for the Legislature,” which he said resided in “la-la land,” and he derided the New Mexico Supreme Court’s logic in overruling his Indian gaming compact as voodoo “chicken bone” reasoning.

To this day, Johnson maintains there were no surprises under his administration.

“I’ll keep an open mind,” Johnson said of proposed legislation. “But I never, ever, misled anybody. Ever.”

Lorene Mills agreed. “You know where he stands, and he’s not going to stand somewhere else,” she said.

Marijuana

Johnson is still pushing to cut government spending and legalize marijuana. It was his second-term push to legalize marijuana that shoved him into the national spotlight for the first time.

Welch, of Reason magazine, pointed out that Johnson’s marijuana decriminalization stance seems less controversial now than it did at the time.

“It sounds totally passé now,” Welch said. “At the time, it was really kind of galvanizing and thrilling for the Libertarians.”

In Santa Fe, Johnson lost at least one cabinet secretary because of it. Darren White, who headed up Johnson’s Department of Public Safety and later became Bernalillo County sheriff, left Johnson’s administration after the governor announced his feelings on ending the drug war through legalization. Ironically, White recently announced that he is a medical cannabis patient and is involved in a medical dispensary in Albuquerque.

Johnson still has another month before he heads to Orlando for the Libertarian National Convention to seek a second consecutive nomination.

Earlier this year, Johnson publicly called Trump a “pussy.” While some have labeled his words as non-presidential, Ward, his former staffer, said it’s just part of Johnson.

Given the current political climate between the Republicans and the Democrats, many wonder how much of a chance Johnson has to make it all the way to the White House. Others still just hope Johnson fares well enough to make a significant impact as a third party candidate. Even with missteps in debates, people are not counting him out yet.

Earlier this year, Johnson publicly called Trump a “pussy.” While some have labeled his words as non-presidential, Ward, his former staffer, said it’s just part of Johnson.

“That’s who he is,” Ward said. “That’s part of him being honest. It’s part of him staying true to who he is.”

Andy Lyman is a reporter with NM Political Report, an online news agency.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.