In 1999, a year after winning a second and final term as Republican governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson became the most prominent politician in the United States to call for legalizing marijuana. He also said straightforwardly that he had used pot himself in the past. As he explained in a reason interview the following year, the admission was a reaction to Bill Clinton’s infamous statement about never inhaling. “Come on!” Johnson said. “I needed to be honest about this, so it was something that I volunteered.”
In 2010 Johnson is hoping to gain notoriety for a different, though related, reason. At a time of deep and convulsive popular discontent with the economy and the politicians attempting to manage it, Johnson has launched a profile-raising 501(c)4 nonprofit organization called the Our America Initiative, pushing limited-government solutions to economic, environmental, social, and international issues. If in the process he happens to tap into the growing Tea Party sentiment and palpable Republican hunger for new leadership, well, Johnson won’t complain. As Politico reported in December 2009, the former governor “is doing little to knock down the idea that he may be looking toward a 2012 presidential run.” While ending the drug war remains a central concern (Johnson was a featured speaker at the Marijuana Policy Project’s annual dinner in January), the tanned triathlete is hoping to deliver the kind of broad-based critique of big government that proved such an unlikely success in 2008 for the less telegenic Ron Paul.
Johnson, 57, exudes a distinctive Mountain West mix of adventurousness and pragmatism. He’s an avid skier, cyclist, and rock climber who has scaled Mount Everest (losing a chunk of toe from frostbite in the process). He founded a construction company that peaked at 1,000 employees—largely, he claims, on the strength of showing up on time and hitting project deadlines. He has an A-to-Z list of unkind things to say about his New Mexico successor, Bill Richardson; tells amusing stories about his long-ago drug use (Johnson has been alcohol- and drug-free for well over two decades); and is one of the few politicians who brags about how compassionately he fires people. If it’s hard to imagine him heading up the Republican Party in 2012, it’s certainly no crazier than a septuagenarian Austrian-economics aficionado turning out the youth vote in 2008 or a Republican nobody winning Ted Kennedy’s old seat in 2010.
reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch and reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie sat down with Johnson in January. A version of this interview can be seen at reason.tv.
reason: What were your big accomplishments as governor of New Mexico?
Gary Johnson: I think I really did a good job when it came to controlling the growth of state government. I vetoed 750 bills while I was governor of New Mexico. I vetoed thousands of line items as governor of New Mexico, almost more than the other 49 governors in the country combined.
I cut the annual rate of growth in spending in half, from 10 percent to 5 percent. I would have liked to have cut actual spending, but that wasn’t going to happen.
New Mexico is 2-to-1 Democrat. I got elected as a Republican. I think I did a great job of showing people that government doesn’t have to spend money to make you happy, that government really needs to be providing a level playing field.
reason: What was one of the areas that you cut spending or got government out of business altogether?
Johnson: Really, it was across the board. Over an eight-year period in New Mexico while I was governor, the number of state employees, excluding education, went from 13,000 to 12,000, so there was a 1,000-person reduction in state government over an eight-year period. That had never happened before. Since I’ve left office, my successor has taken that number from 12,000 to 16,500. No area of state government has been improved, and yet there have been that many more employees added at a cost of, back of my napkin, a couple hundred million bucks, factoring in benefits.
reason: What’s your message on economic policy?
Johnson: Well, stop the spending. Deficits are out of control, and that’s going to have a major impact on all our lives. Strong dollar rather than weak dollar.
reason: Would you have voted against the TARP bailout?
reason: And the stimulus package?