For John­son, un­pre­dictable is the pitch for U.S. Se­nate race

For­mer GOP gov­er­nor, now Lib­er­tar­ian, says send­ing him to Wash­ing­ton will up­end pol­i­tics as usual

The Taos News - - ELECTION 2018 - By An­drew Ox­ford aox­ford@sfnewmex­i­can.com This story first pub­lished in the Santa Fe New Mex­i­can, a sib­ling pub­li­ca­tion of The Taos News.

AL­BU­QUERQUE — Gary John­son is just get­ting warmed up. “I mean, what does the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity even do?” the for­mer gov­er­nor asks a re­porter apro­pos of noth­ing as he sits around his new, sparsely fur­nished cam­paign of­fice in down­town Al­bu­querque, wait­ing for a news con­fer­ence to start.

The en­su­ing rant is clas­sic John­son, as he calls into ques­tion the very ex­is­tence of a fed­eral agency, chal­lenges the govern­ment’s ap­proach to na­tional se­cu­rity post-2001 and gen­er­ally be­moans the has­sle of the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion. John­son is back. Nearly two years have passed since he last ran for pres­i­dent. The Lib­er­tar­ian can­di­date, he won 9 per­cent of the vote in his home state as the choice, among other things, for many who were dis­en­chanted with the un­pop­u­lar can­di­dates of the two ma­jor par­ties.

Now, it is mid-Septem­ber 2018 and John­son is at full throt­tle yet again, step­ping in to fill the Lib­er­tar­ian Party’s spot in the race for U.S. Se­nate against Demo­crat Mar­tin Hein­rich.

John­son’s re-emer­gence is roil­ing what had been a quiet race.

Hein­rich’s Repub­li­can chal­lenger, Mick Rich, is a po­lit­i­cal novice who has been strug­gling to raise money.

John­son brings cash and na­tional at­ten­tion to the con­test.

If Hein­rich is shrewd and de­lib­er­ate, John­son of­fers some­thing else that may up­end the race: his ten­dency to say what he thinks pretty much all of the time.

That is his big­gest sell­ing point. It is not that John­son is ask­ing vot­ers to agree with him on ev­ery­thing, or even most things. In­stead, he is ask­ing them to em­brace the tell-it-likeit-is style of a can­di­date who would wreck the usual par­ti­san bi­nary in Congress.

“What you see is who he is,” says Di­ane Kin­der­wa­ter, John­son’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor when he was gov­er­nor. “He just says what’s on his mind.”

But it’s more than that. Gary John­son doesn’t cam­paign on agen­das so much as he bat­tles for a way, his way, of look­ing at pol­i­tics.

His pitch to vot­ers is not merely that he would sup­port all the poli­cies you would ex­pect from the Lib­er­tar­ian Party’s con­tem­po­rary stan­dard-bearer: cut­ting taxes, slash­ing govern­ment spend­ing, le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana and pulling the troops out of, well, just about ev­ery­where.

His ar­gu­ment is that he would be a swing vote in what will likely still be a closely di­vided Se­nate, be­holden to nei­ther the Repub­li­cans nor the Democrats. New Mex­ico’s sen­a­tor would sud­denly be­come the one to watch.

In turn, John­son ar­gues he could break through the dead­lock that has come to epit­o­mize what many hate about pol­i­tics to­day.

In his own telling, John­son is a log­i­cal choice for a state where more and more vot­ers are reg­is­ter­ing as in­de­pen­dents. But this is also a state that de­pends on the fed­eral govern­ment in many ways, from pub­lic lands and na­tional labs to Medi­care, Med­i­caid and So­cial Se­cu­rity.

He has called for cut­ting or at least over­haul­ing all of that. So, are New Mex­i­cans re­ally Lib­er­tar­ian enough for John­son?

“No­body’s out there with my voice,” he says.

Closet Lib­er­tar­ian

Born in Minot, North Dakota, John­son grew up in Al­bu­querque, where his fa­ther taught spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion and his mother worked for the Bureau of In­dian Af­fairs. John­son grad­u­ated from San­dia High School and stud­ied po­lit­i­cal science at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico, earn­ing his de­gree in 1975.

A few years later, he mar­ried Dee Simms, the daugh­ter of a prom­i­nent Al­bu­querque den­tist (they di­vorced in 2006). Mean­while, John­son’s handy­man busi­ness he had started as a stu­dent grew into a busy con­struc­tion com­pany, Big J En­ter­prises.

John­son was a po­lit­i­cal new­comer when he ran for gov­er­nor as a Repub­li­can in 1994.

He un­seated a gi­ant of state pol­i­tics, Demo­cratic Gov. Bruce King.

John­son ran on a plat­form of fis­cal con­ser­vatism and his out­sider sta­tus. Plus, his abil­ity to com­mand po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing in a way that King couldn’t was no doubt a help as vot­ers soured on a gaso­line tax in­crease and the in­cum­bent King.

But Democrats still con­trolled the Leg­is­la­ture, and he reg­u­larly sparred with law­mak­ers as he pushed for tight bud­gets and ad­vo­cated for poli­cies that pointed to his Lib­er­tar­ian bent. He backed school vouch­ers, for ex­am­ple, signed a gam­bling com­pact for In­dian-owned casi­nos, ex­panded use of pri­vate pris­ons and signed a re­peal of a state law against Sun­day liquor sales.

And to­ward the end of his sec­ond term, he came out in sup­port of le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana, ar­gu­ing the fed­eral govern­ment’s war on drugs was prov­ing to be an ex­pen­sive bust.

Over time, though, crit­ics came to call John­son “Gov­er­nor No,” as he ve­toed more than 750 bills – more than any of his pre­de­ces­sors or any of his suc­ces­sors.

Af­ter leav­ing of­fice in 2003 af­ter a show­down with the Leg­is­la­ture that he ef­fec­tively lost, John­son stayed out of pol­i­tics for a while – go­ing back to busi­ness, climb­ing moun­tains and com­pet­ing in triathlons. An ath­lete, he has not had a drink in

31 years.

Then, when John­son tried to make a come­back by seek­ing the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent in 2012, some­thing did not quite fit. The tea party had washed through the GOP, and John­son’s so­cially lib­eral views on im­mi­gra­tion and drugs were at odds with many in the party.

So, John­son switched par­ties in 2011, join­ing the Lib­er­tar­i­ans and run­ning un­der its ban­ner in

2012 and again in 2016.

Last time around, he seemed to have the per­fect race on his hands.

Both ma­jor par­ties had nom­i­nated un­pop­u­lar can­di­dates. Plenty of Repub­li­cans were grow­ing dis­af­fected with the di­rec­tion of their party as John­son had years ear­lier. It seemed like a mar­ket on which he could cap­i­tal­ize.

John­son also cul­ti­vated an im­age as an ec­cen­tric al­ter­na­tive – an ad­ven­turer who was open about his use of mar­i­juana and said what he meant while also be­ing prone to vi­ral gaffes.

John­son net­ted nearly 4.5 mil­lion votes, or 3.2 per­cent

He told New Mex­ico Po­lit­i­cal Re­port that would be the end of his ca­reer as a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date. He got into the mar­i­juana in­dus­try and was liv­ing near Taos Ski Val­ley. Still, his show­ing had won the Lib­er­tar­ian Party space on the bal­lot in 2018.

And two years later, it looked like Hein­rich would walk to re-elec­tion.

Ma­jor play­ers in the Repub­li­can Party stayed out of the race, ex­pect­ing this elec­tion year to go against them. Only one can­di­date sought the party’s nom­i­na­tion, Al­bu­querque con­trac­tor

Rich, who had never run for of­fice be­fore.

Polls give Hein­rich an edge, and na­tional pun­dits, such as Char­lie Cook and Larry Sa­bato, view the seat as safe for Democrats with three can­di­dates in the run­ning.

But with John­son en­joy­ing a cer­tain celebrity sta­tus in New Mex­ico and more vot­ers reg­is­ter­ing as in­de­pen­dents, he ar­gues there is an open­ing for a can­di­date like him.

“With 55 per­cent of peo­ple reg­is­ter­ing to vote as in­de­pen­dents, that is not a group to be blown off,” John­son says.

‘A hand gre­nade into the mid­dle of all of this’

Yes, John­son is run­ning as a Lib­er­tar­ian. But his pitch is that the cur­rent Demo­crat­icRepub­li­can split in Congress does not work for those who fall out­side the ma­jor par­ties. Elect­ing him would make an in­de­pen­dent-minded sen­a­tor the de­cid­ing vote on some big is­sues, he con­tends, up­end­ing con­gres­sional pol­i­tics as we know it.

He op­poses build­ing a wall on the Mex­i­can border and has said that while there should be se­cu­rity, the govern­ment should also make it eas­ier to get prod­ucts and peo­ple through check­points and ports.

What about cli­mate change? John­son says he is not smart enough to speak to the science of the is­sue.

“Should we clean things up? Sure,” he says. But the free mar­ket will be able to re­spond to en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues faster than the govern­ment, he adds.

Le­gal­ize mar­i­juana. End mil­i­tary de­ploy­ments over­seas.

Abol­ish the U.S. De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. And do not just cut taxes, as Trump has done, but slash govern­ment spend­ing, too.

If it seems like John­son is all over the place, it is al­most as if that is the point.

John­son says Hein­rich lines up with the Democrats; the Repub­li­can Party is mov­ing to the right. John­son is just mov­ing.

“Elect­ing me to the U.S. Se­nate,” Gary John­son says, in a way only Gary John­son can say it, “is throw­ing a hand gre­nade into the mid­dle of all of this.”

Rick Ro­mancito

U.S. Se­nate can­di­date Gary John­son

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