In a room with about 100 people—a mix of students and older adults—Gary Johnson signs pocket constitutions, takes selfies with young people and literally kisses the cheek of at least one child.
Johnson just finished an hour-long forum at the University of New Mexico hosted by the Young Americans for Liberty. Some of the older people in the crowd ask about his family and reminisce about his tenure as the governor of New Mexico in the mid to late 1990s.
“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.
This piece also appeared in the April 20 edition of the ABQ Free Press.
While many New Mexican’s 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 first became governor.
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 told 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 in the evening and emphasizes that the United States should only take action 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.
With celebrity fans such as comedian Drew Carey and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, Johnson is getting more attention than he did in the last presidential election, when he first ran as a Libertarian Party candidate for president. 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 in a time of political infighting. It’s close to how he ultimately got his start in politics.
Twenty-two years ago, this scene would have been completely different. In 1994, Johnson was a relative unknown who won election to New Mexico’s top office as a Republican.
That year, three-term New Mexico Governor Bruce King vied for a fourth term in the capital. It would have been the Democrat’s second consecutive term, the first of such allowed in New Mexico after a change to the state constitution. King was starting to lose favor at the time, even within his party.
To former Democratic state Senator Dede Feldman, King was “looking kind of lackluster.”
But before taking on King, Johnson had to win a contested Republican primary.
The Republican side saw familiar faces in former Gov. David Cargo, Santa Fe politico John Dendahl and former state representative Richard Cheney. Rounding out the flock was Johnson, the owner of a construction company and a triathlete. Feldman described Johnson as a “fresh face” who had never been involved in local politics, let alone run for public office.
Longtime Santa Fe journalist Lorene Mills helped her late husband Ernie Mills cover politics at the time.
“He was really unknown,” Lorene Mills said of Johnson, “He really came out of the blue.”
Whether or not his political outsider status was the push that Johnson needed to win that election, even Democrats say it was part of a perfect storm.
Johnson barely won the Republican primary that year, beating Cheney by just one percentage point. He went on to beat King by a 10 percent margin.
Political divisions among Democrats may have given Johnson the boost he needed to win in the general election, 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.
“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 the 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.
After successfully running the campaign, Ward joined Johnson’s administration and remained on staff until Johnson’s second term.
Johnson hired many young staffers who shared his vision of running government as a business. But Sanchez attributes at least part of Johnson’s initial success to staffers who know more about running a state than Johnson did.
“He didn’t know much about state government, but surrounded himself with a couple of people who did to pretty much run the show,” Sanchez said.
Ward denies that he knew anymore about government than Johnson—but did point to Lou Gallegos, a Republican heavy hitter, as the savior of Johnson’s first term.
“We hired Lou as chief of staff,” Ward said. “He knew everyone and certainly had been down the road.”
Gallegos previously worked as the chief of staff for former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici and later was a cabinet secretary in the Garrey Carruthers administration.
Ward said Gallegos was able to impart his wisdom while also letting Johnson maintain his autonomy.
“He allowed Gary to be himself and it worked extremely well,” Ward said.
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.
A shift in parties
New Mexico’s current governor Susana Martinez often tells the story of how she, once a Democrat, had an epiphany that her political views were actually closer aligned with Republican ideals. The well-worn story always ends the same way during her stump speeches—Martinez got in her car after a lunch with Republicans and told her husband, “I’ll be damned, we’re Republicans.”
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.
“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.
Johnson ended up running for governor as a Republican and served two terms, but to many, his true ideological colors shined through.
Matt Welch, the 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 modal 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.”
Welch said part of of Johnson’s appeal to libertarians during his first run for president was that he ran almost as a moderate libertarian.
“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 in a phone interview.
Still, Johnson’s first run for president came as a Republican. Johnson failed to make the stage on most Republican presidential debates—so he dropped out of the race and instead sought the Libertarian Party nomination.
He won the nomination and eventually received more than 1.2 million votes, a little less than one percent of the total vote.
Now, in his second run for president, Johnson may have a challenge getting the Libertarian Party nomination for a second time. In addition to Johnson, the other apparent frontrunners are Austin Petersen, a businessman who is against abortion rights, and John McAfee, a famous software developer and cyber security advocate.
A recent televised Libertarian Party debate highlighted some of the differences between Johnson and the others. When the conversation shifted into religious discrimination and 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.
It’s these moderate—for libertarians, anyway—answers that could cause problems for Johnson among staunch libertarians, according to Welch.
“You’re seeing a lot more skepticism,” Welch said referring to Johnson’s answers in debates.
The question is whether the Libertarian Party will nominate Johnson or someone with more hard-nosed views in May.
“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.”
The ‘Veto vato’
Johnson made headlines as governor almost immediately.
New Mexico lawmakers soon started to refer to Johnson as “Governor No” for his high number of legislative vetoes. Former state Senator 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 often a point of pride for Johnson and part of his stump speech. In fact, Johnson told NM Political Report he didn’t do enough.
“In retrospect I should have vetoed more bills than I did,” Johnson said.
Mills remembers how her late husband’s workload changed after Johnson became governor.
“We changed our way of business after Governor No,” Mills said.
“Because Ernie, for years, had what was called the case report. We put out a daily newsletter that analyzed every bill,” Mills said. “But he vetoed so many bills there might be two thousand bills and he would veto 1800 of them.”
It wasn’t just his vetoes that were causing problems. Feldman, a senator during the latter years of Johnson’s time as governor, said tribal gambling in the state became an “albatross around him.”
Shortly after taking office, Johnson approved gaming compacts with Native American groups without legislative approval—which made them illegal in the eyes of the federal government.
“He had illegally signed compacts and encouraged the tribes to go forward without legislative authorization which finally came,” Feldman said. “But it was a very hot time in the old town tonight with that one.”
Feldman said Johnson “was always in court because of his disdain for the legislature.”
To this day, Johnson still maintains there were no surprises under his administration.
“I’ll keep an open mind,” Johnson said of proposed legislation. “But I never, ever, mislead anybody. Ever.”
Lorene Mills agreed. She told NM Political Report that Johnson rarely, if ever, made his intentions unclear.
“You know where he stands and he’s not going to stand somewhere else,” she said.
For now, Johnson is still pushing to cut government spending and legalize marijuana.
It was Johnson’s second-term push to legalize marijuana that pushed him into the national spotlight for the first time.
“I’d always thought that you can’t lock people up for making personal choices,” Johnson said.
He lost at least one cabinet secretary because of it.
Darren White, who headed up Johnson’s Department of Public Safety and later became the Bernalillo County Sheriff, left Johnson’s administration after the governor announced his feelings on ending the drug war through legalization. White recently announced that he is a medical cannabis patient and is involved in a medical dispensary in Albuquerque.
Matt Welch of Reason pointed out that Johnson’s stance seems less controversial now than it did at the time.
“It sounds totally passe now,” Welch said. “At the time it was really kind of galvanizing and thrilling for the Libertarians.”
President Gary Johnson?
Johnson still has another month before he heads to Orlando, Florida for the Libertarian National Convention to seek a second consecutive nomination.
During his event at UNM, Johnson said his children started asking him if he’s truly ready to be president, because he “might actually become president.”
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, his former staffer Kelly Ward 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.”
Selected related stories
- Bitcoins, marijuana and Kanye West: A look at the Libertarian candidates
- Johnson explains his party switch on Democracy Now!
- Libertarian eyes a third-party presidential chance
- Poll: Johnson at 11% when against Trump and Clinton
- Gary Johnson, again: ‘Trump’s a p***y’
Correction: A quote from Matt Welch originally referred to the “model Libertarian,” when it should have said “modal Libertarian.” This was changed during the editing process. We regret the error.