How the Weld Was Won

Inside the fight to get the Libertarians to double up on Republican governors: Anticipation of money and press overcome a desire to be purist Libertarians.


Judge James P. Gray, the Libertarian Party's vice presidential candidate in 2012 (teamed with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson) was on his way to give a nominating speech at the Libertarian Party's national convention, held over the weekend in Orlando, for his successor: former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.

Matt Welch

"They are the two strongest, most qualified candidates in the race for president," Gray (who made a name for himself in the libertarian world for being a sitting state judge openly against the war on drugs) tells me, and that includes the major parties. There is around the two former governors "not a hint of scandal" and they are "not bullies."

This praise comes out full-throated and sincere, although Gray, who expected until a couple of weeks ago to once again sally forth on the field of electoral battle with Johnson, admits he was "devastated" to be jilted for Weld. That said, he always told Johnson "if you find a better, more experienced choice" willing to run with him, Gray would nobly step aside. "But I didn't expect he would."

But Johnson did find his Weld, who he says over and over exceeded his wildest expectations for a running mate.

Gray isn't the only Libertarian who had feelings of devastation attached to Weld's candidacy.

Richard Lion, a candidate for U.S. Senate from Connecticut for the party (L.P. delegates are very serious about their party and its business; a surprisingly large number of delegates I interviewed at the convention, possibly a majority, had run for some local, state, or federal office with the party) sums up the feelings of many about Johnson himself: "I don't think Gary Johnson is a great libertarian in the sense of a Ron Paul or Harry Browne, but I do think he's in the best position to move the party forward."

General love for Weld was even more muted, pretty much nonexistent. Neither I nor any of my Reason colleagues reporting from the convention found any delegate who wasn't working for the Johnson campaign who had independent enthusiasm or love for Weld as their vice president.

Weld won his very bare majority, 50.5, on a second ballot entirely based on a desire to give Johnson what he wanted, what he almost begged for from them.

A lot of the delegates, including ones who ultimately voted for him, just don't trust the guy. The two reasons I heard the most was his past support for some gun control laws and his backing out of a promise to run for governor of New York on the L.P. ticket in 2006. Weld was a hard man to get face time with if you weren't national TV this weekend, but in one of the chances I had to ask him a question directly, he said he was "as disappointed as anyone else" that it didn't work out in New York in 2006 and that the party had sufficient time to find another nominee.

Alicia Dearn, a lawyer from St. Louis, was presidential vote runner-up Austin Petersen's choice for vice president. Petersen wanted even Johnson fans to get behind her as a unity candidate. Dearn herself, before the first balloting, drew Weld on stage to extract from him a promise to not "betray" the party.

"I'm a Libertarian for life," Weld said, and tried to push the delegates' buttons by saying that the attention that would likely come with him getting the nomination would help not only "getting us elected to the White House" but downticket Libertarian candidates as well. After clarifying that what she meant by "betray" was simply leave the party, Weld said: "Libertarian for life means not going back to any other party."

"I did not expressly ask people to vote for him," Dearn clarified in an IM interview today. "I asked for unity, to support Gov. Johnson, and for everyone to vote their hearts."

After the first ballot, on which Dearn got 29 votes when an extra nine would have given Weld a first-ballot majority, "I did ask the few people who voted for me to vote for Gov. Weld," Dearn said. "I wanted to avoid a fractious, multi-ballot vote because we were getting a lot of national attention."

Dearn says she herself didn't manage to cast a vote. She says she does fully support the party's ticket, and that Johnson's people did not ask her to do any of this directly. Her belief that getting into the polls for the L.P. was more likely with Weld pushed her over to full support.

Right before the first ballot vote for vice president, Johnson addressed the convention assembled. "So many just don't believe that victory can happen," he said. "That was not me in 2012….but the way you deal with setbacks ultimately determines your success. And beyond my wildest dreams Bill Weld is the running mate I would love for you to choose. We have an opportunity to actually take and win the presidency," Johnson said, but only with Weld.

"I don't want to be debating my vice presidential candidate," he said. "With Jim Gray in 2012 we tried desperately to get him in national media, but not one national media hit." But with Weld, merely announcing his intention to seek the job has gotten an unprecedented amount of respectful national media.

"If you want to grow the Party, to reach out to tens of millions of Americans right now, please give me Bill Weld and I'll give you my best efforts. Please, please."

Johnson's "please, please"s to the convention assembled regarding Weld were so heartfelt and yearning one would have had to have a hard heart toward Gary indeed not to give him the vice president he wanted so badly. And yet, a majority of them did not, not on that first ballot.

Larry Sharpe, a management and business motivational consulting with Neo-Sage in New York, won over the crowd with a video laying out a fascinating life of struggle involving drug laws harming his adoptive mother and other personal, family, and business setbacks from which he bounced back, through pluck and free markets.

"Who better to call out the military-industrial complex than a Marine?" Sharpe asked the convention. "Who better to challenge the prison-industrial complex than someone whose family has been destroyed by it?" He felt his personal story of conquering "poverty and total financial destruction" would put a fresher and more compelling face on the Libertarian small-government, self- and communal-help message than would another old white Republican. 

Will Coley, the Muslim convert who ran as running mate with anarchist Darryl Perry, was hyped in a nominating speech from delegate Caryn Harlos as the real key to representing the full range of libertarianism on the ticket, someone whose libertarianism they could trust, and whose colorful story as a Muslim For Liberty in alliance with libertarian activists in the Muslim world would be as mediagenic a story as they could hope for.

Sharpe's appeal was the most resonant, and he came in second on the first ballot behind Weld, with 264 votes, 30.3 percent.

Then came an hour or so of turmoil. Fourth place Derrick Grayson, a motivational speaker for the black community, dropped out. Grayson won 48 votes, 5.5 percent, on the first ballot after being endorsed by antivirus software developer John McAfee, who came in third on the presidential ballot.

McAfee turned his energies after his loss to upbraiding the party for its lack of race and gender balance, and said before the nomination began that of course he would have to put his support behind "the black guy." Grayson threw his support behind Sharpe, the other black guy, for the second ballot and warned the convention about selling their souls to anyone such as Weld who he thought had and would betray the Constitution.

Tiffany Madison, McAfee's campaign manager, right after the first ballot count was announced, was calling McAfee to get him back to the floor to whip the delegates into doing anything other than nominating Weld, who she considers "toxic. I will vote for anyone to keep that guy" away from her beloved party.

Andy Craig, with the Johnson campaign and running for Congress with the L.P. from Wisconsin, told me they were not too worried as the whipping between votes commenced. Weld actually did better first round than they expected, and he considered the existing first ballot Dearn support likely "soft."

Ron Nielson, Johnson's campaign manager, told me of some of the problems with whipping delegates between ballots: a lot of them literally just "walk outside and have lunch and don't come back" so you can lose support that way. They had a system of mass texting their people that hopefully prevented too much loss that way. 

While to most sober outside observers the choice between Weld and his non-professional competitors might have seemed obvious, Nielson says they always had to remember the political truth that "you must respect the voters and their right to make a decision. Your job is to change that decision, and you can't do that unless you understand the reasons they think what they do."

Another source, not Nielson, told me Weld made a special reach-out to the Ohio delegation, mad at him over his support for John Kasich in the GOP race, as Kasich is considered a special villain by them for his efforts against their ballot access.

Michael Cloud, a longtime party activist, worker, and speaker, said between ballots that a commitment he believed in from Weld to help finance ballot access in six figures for the party made him happy to vote for him. The Weld family are "very well-heeled" and he has some faith in Weld's ability to make his personal relationships pay off for the party. He believes Weld's media power has already proven itself even before the convention.

Cloud trusts that the two ex-Republicans will try their best for the Libertarians because they "want to be impact players, they want to sack the quarterback." On at least two occasions at the convention I heard Weld refer to his strong desire to escape or overcome the elements of the GOP he had grown quite contemptuous of, the social conservative end. He does, whether or not he's a hardcore Libertarian, seem to be motivated to rub the Republicans' face in the dirt electorally, which can only help.

On the second ballot, Weld had picked up 15 new votes and was the winner, with a bare 50.5 percent. Sharpe had 46.9.

The hall didn't exactly explode with unalloyed joy at the announcement, as those numbers should indicate. A motion to let Weld speak to them after he won had a lot of loud "no"s. Someone tried to raise the issue that Grayson's nine second-ballot votes shouldn't count as he'd dropped out already. But many votes had already been cast before he did. There was no tricky way around Weld's victory.

Johnson was wobbly with relief. Did he have any doubts, I asked? "I was actually worried, yes, genuinely!" he said. But a little bit later, ever the athlete, Johnson noted that no one thinks about the tiny, tiny sliver of difference that might exist between a gold and silver winner. A win is a win. He had his Weld.

Weld got his minutes to address the convention, victorious. He promised he and Johnson would "do our best to represent the best ideas and ideals of the Libertarian Party. We can offer something meaningful and realistic for the entire country, a third way. Our platform of economic and fiscal responsibility and and social and personal freedom," well, that's something that "does not match the current" stances of either major party. "We will have a lot to talk about in the Fall!"

Is this a matter of the proof that the Big Boys ultimately control and manipulate poor delegates in party politics? No, it was just proof that the delegates who did select Johnson were dedicated enough to him, or at least to the idea of what he could do in terms of credibility, money, and attention, that they were willing, at least slightly over half of them, to swallow someone who almost none of them seemed to think of as particularly libertarian in their sense.

Luckily for the Johnson/Weld campaign, at this point they probably don't have to worry too much about what the over 900 delegates at the Libertarian National Convention in Orlando thought of them. In a press conference with both Libertarian candidates right after Weld won, Johnson said that "outside of this building tens of millions of Americans want to understand what libertarianism is and means. In my opinion this is the best message team going forward to accomplish that."

Or, as Charles Peralo, who sought but did not win the position of chair of the Libertarian National Committee this year said, and many Libertarians who are less than in love with Weld would agree: With Johnson and Weld moving forward, "America finally has a serious ticket in this race for president."