June 4, 2016

Naked candidates, frosty delegates and choosing a candidate: The quest for the White House

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Gary Johnson speaks with a supporter during the election at the 2016 Libertarian National Convention

It’s Thursday afternoon and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson just arrived in Orlando for the Libertarian National Convention. In a makeshift campaign office, he’s shaking hands and listening to concerned Libertarians. Having arrived on the scene about 12 hours before Johnson, I’ve already scoped out the area.

This is part two of a two-part story. Read part one here

To see all of Andy Lyman’s reporting about the Libertarian National Convention, see our full series.

I’ve made the 30 minute walk between my hotel and the convention twice and am already tired. As I listen in on conversations between Johnson and delegates, I start to realize this may not be a sure thing for Johnson. One delegate tells Johnson he agrees with the two-term, former Republican governor about 96 percent of the time.

“Fair enough,” Johnson replies.

Johnson poster outside his campaign office

Andy Lyman

Johnson poster outside his campaign office

Who loves liberty the most?

Gary Johnson and the others were there for one specific reason: to become the Libertarian Party nominee for president.

Throughout much of the weekend, Johnson and others spent their time shaking hands and discussing platforms in an attempt to collect delegate tokens. Under the Libertarian Party Convention Rules, tokens determine who is invited to debates and who ends up on the ballot. Along with Johnson, the three highest-profile candidates were John McAfee, an eccentric antivirus software mogul, and Austin Petersen, a media entrepreneur and Ron Paul disciple.

Anarchist Darryl Perry and anesthesiologist Marc Allan Feldman, who wanted Kanye West to be his running mate, rounded up the presidential candidates. From an outsider’s perspective, Johnson might have seemed like a shoo-in to win the nomination, especially since he won the nomination in 2012 and received nearly one percent of the vote nationwide, a significant accomplishment for the party.

But to the Libertarian Party, Johnson and his vice presidential pick, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld Weld, were seen by many as two establishment Republicans infiltrating the party of liberty.

This led to a divide seen in many parties: On one side, those who wanted a purist candidate when it comes to ideology and on the other, those who wanted a candidate that could best represent the party on a national stage.

David Valente, a delegate originally from Albuquerque but now part of the Virginia delegation told me this was pretty much how things go.

“Traditionally the Libertarian Party has been kind of a pissing contest, It’s like, ‘I’m the most libertarian here,’” Valente said. “We’ve got to get passed the idea of being a libertarian think tank that really just debates philosophy.”

Running mates

There was no shortage of debates, both onstage and off, throughout the convention. Just ahead of the presidential debate on Saturday, I walked into the makeshift Johnson campaign office in a convention salons to see Steven Nielson, a delegate from Washington state confronting Johnson for picking Weld. Nielson, who is running as a Libertarian for Commissioner of Public Lands in his home state, was recounting a run-in with Weld sometime earlier.

“He told me not to get frosty, and I told him, ‘I’m a Libertarian, I’m already frosty,’” Nielson told Johnson, standing only inches from the former Republican governor. “What do you do with a frosty mug? You put beer in it, you don’t tell me not to get frosty.”

Nielson pleaded with Johnson for an explanation for endorsing Weld.

Gary Johnson and Steven Nielson discuss Bill Weld as Johnson's VP pick

Andy Lyman

Gary Johnson and Steven Nielson discuss Bill Weld as Johnson’s VP pick

“Gary, I need confidence and I don’t have confidence in the Johnson-Weld ticket,” he said.

Nielson intended to speak with Gary in private, but his intensity attracted everyone’s attention, including me and my recorder.

“I know the camera’s are on, I didn’t want to do this,” Nielson said, motioning to me and the news cameras and documentary film crew in the room.

“If based on what I have done to this point isn’t sale enough,” Johnson started.

Nielson interrupted: “It’s sale for you.”

He left visibly frustrated, both because he didn’t seem to get an acceptable answer from Johnson but also because his private conversation with Johnson was now documented.

I ran into Nielson a few hours later and asked if he would talk to me about what transpired.

“Sure, I’ll tell you everything that happened,” Nielson said. “And I don’t even have a beer in me yet.”

I suggested that we get a beer, hoping maybe he would divulge a little more.

In the hotel bar, Nielson said he tried to reach out to Weld but was not successful in having what he called a real conversation with him. Nielson told me that not only did Weld lose a vote, but Johnson did as well. Nielson said he couldn’t reconcile a ticket with Weld and that Johnson was unable to sell him.

When I checked in with Nielson at the end of the weekend, and he told me he didn’t waver in his protest and did not vote for either Johnson or Weld.

Since the vice president nomination is separate from the presidential nomination, there is always a possibility of two candidates who disagree with each other on issues getting paired up together. This hypothetical seemed to be of some concern to Johnson throughout the convention. He repeated a phrase almost verbatim every time he was questioned about other possible vice presidential candidates.

“This whole thing gets handicapped by 50 percent if it is not Bill Weld,” Johnson would say to media and delegates alike.

Johnson was careful not to speak ill of any other vice president candidates, and would always add a disclaimer by saying “that is not to take away from any other candidates,” but stood strong in his support of Weld.

“Whether you like it or not, he’s really, really well-liked,” Johnson told me after a pre-convention debate.

“Well-liked” is a subjective term and idea, and no one made that more obvious than Johnson challenger Petersen.

Austin Petersen

Andy Lyman

Austin Petersen

“This is a guy who thinks the Second Amendment was about hunting,” Petersen told me just ahead of a debate early on in the convention. “I like to joke, ‘It was about hunting, yeah, hunting tyrants.’”

Randy McGlenn told me that after hearing Weld speak in his first debate of the weekend, he asked Johnson what might happen if someone other than Weld gets nominated.

“My concern is, are we going to be able match up a pair of candidates that are going to win the election? And that’s why I wanted Gary Johnson’s thoughts on that,” McGlenn said.

Johnson’s answer to McGlenn, me and anyone else who wondered was always the same: he would be unable to make it to the White House without Weld.

Larry Sharpe, a business owner and the vice president candidate who would go on to narrowly lose to Weld, spoke highly of Johnson early on. He told a debate audience that he was inspired to join the Libertarian Party after hearing Johnson speak in 2012. I asked Sharpe if, in a different world, he would consider running with Johnson.

“Different world?” Sharpe asked me. “Did you see the two posters together?”

Larry Sharpe and Gary Johnson

Andy Lyman

Campaign posters for Gary Johnson and Larry Sharpe

Both Sharpe and Johnson’s campaign booths were next to each other in the exhibition hall.  “How about this world?”

Sharpe told me he thought Johnson and Weld were too similar to each other and that Johnson made the mistake of “hiring himself.”

“I understand it, I still love him, I think it was an error, I want to fix it,” Sharpe told me.

Voting

By the last day of the conference, the debates were done and it was time to start voting. This meant candidates pushed harder to convince delegates they were the best candidate to vote for. Campaign workers were handing out signs at the door to anyone that would take one. The same campaign signs were displayed by supporters who paced back and forth on the convention floor, hoping that just showing their candidate’s name would sway undecided delegates. Upstairs Johnson and Weld were rallying their supporters and thanking them for their time and energy trying to get the duo through the nomination process.

Back on the floor candidates made their rounds while dueling crowds shouted “Johnson!” and “Petersen!” back and forth. It was clear who the two favorites were after the long weekend of campaigning. Most of the candidates seemed calm and collected while their supporters battled to make the most noise.

Johnson ultimately won on the second ballot. There wasn’t much suspense; he received nearly fifty percent on the ballot and had to convince just a handful of delegates to flip in order to win.

After Johnson locked down the presidential nomination, things got more intense. Up until this point, Johnson’s pick for vice president was Bill Weld. The problem was that Weld wasn’t popular among a sizeable number of delegates. Besides what many perceived to be a soft record on the Second Amendment and gun rights, Weld joined the party less than two weeks before the convention.

Weld, like Johnson had to endure two rounds of voting. The first round of votes showed Weld well in the lead, but still short votes to secure the nomination. The time between the two votes was spent, by some of the other factions, rallying support for anybody but Weld.

Chants of, “Anybody but Gary, Austin, McAfee, Perry,” continued and I started to see a flurry of action from those who did support Weld.

At one point, I saw vice presidential candidate Larry Sharpe from New York speaking with Darryl Perry, who lost to Johnson in an attempt to be the presidential nominee. The two were joined by William Coley, Perry’s pick for running mate. I couldn’t get to them in time to hear what was being said, but it appeared that Perry was trying to broker a deal of some sort. I saw Sharpe look at the two anarchists and heard him say, “I’m cool with it, if you’re cool with it.”

We found out what he was cool with: all but Sharpe dropped out of the race and each former candidate urged their supporters to back someone else. Coley asked his supporters to back Sharpe. With only Weld and Sharpe left in the race, it seemed to be anyone’s guess what would happen next. Johnson and his team seemed unfazed by the whole event, confident that he would still win.

To put things in context, Perry often says he represents the Libertarian wing of the Libertarian Party. Here was a candidate who spent the weekend preaching about how the party needed to get back to its roots. In his concession speech after losing to Johnson, Perry compared the Libertarian Party to the almost defunct Reform Party.

“I have seen the future, because I have seen the past,” Perry said.

He went on to say the party was headed down the easiest possible path towards a cliff. Now this anarchist was pushing for a candidate who saw Johnson as a role model.

Party chairs

The time waiting for the results was mostly spent on party business, which at this point meant hearing from candidates running for the national party chair. Enter James Weeks, who was about to be a viral star.

For the most part, I witnessed Weeks yelling in opposition to the Johnson-Weld ticket, with a glass of beer in hand. At one point, a New Mexico delegate chastised Weeks for booing Johnson during the nominee’s plea to elect Weld. Weeks also threw his hat in the ring to become the next party chair. As he took the stage to speak to the audience, he placed his phone by the microphone and started to play music. First Weeks took off his delegate lanyard and started to dance. Next came his shirt, then his pants. The almost naked Weeks was met by groans and awkward laughter.

Weeks ended his “speech” by quietly stating he was withdrawing his name as a candidate and that his dance routine was a dare.

From that point on, Weeks would serve as one of the secondary headlines of the weekend.

The sentiment from delegates was that Weeks had done his job in shaming a party that was striving for mainstream recognition and to be taken seriously by the rest of the country. One candidate later told me, he was disappointed by the display and hoped it would be forgotten in a few days. Unfortunately, the event was almost entirely captured by C-SPAN and still lives on the internet. While waiting for election results, delegates debated whether Weeks should be censured or not.

The votes were tallied, Weld hit the fifty percent mark, and Johnson got his preferred running mate. Most of the party, even Johnson detractors, got behind the ticket as a way to support the party going forward.

What’s next

I spoke with Johnson just before the presidential banquet and he told me the next few weeks would be spent doing media appearances and campaigning. He told me he wasn’t sure what kind of rallies might be held in New Mexico, but that his time would be best spent in New York where he could reach more people through the power of television. I asked him whether he might open a campaign office in New Mexico.

“The campaign office is kind of being out-modeled,” Johnson said. “For a national campaign, it’s kind of yesterday.”

He told me he and Weld would makes stops all over the country throughout the summer.

I asked him about his thoughts on winning.

“I couldn’t be more elated,” Johnson said. “We set the table and we’re going to show up for dinner.”

Later that night, Johnson and his team went to Denny’s to celebrate.