The Concord Monitor is launching its Environmental Reporting Lab, a long-term effort to better inform the community about the New Hampshire environment. To launch phase 1 of this effort, we need your help. The money raised will go toward hiring a full-time environmental reporter.

Please consider donating to this effort.


'Low profile, high goals'

Last modified: 9/2/2011 12:00:00 AM
Cindi Brown and her hot-pink ponytail rolled into Castro's Backroom in downtown Concord one sunny August afternoon, a cigarette and a campaign flier pinched between her fingers. She squinted through the cigar shop's dim, smoky light, locked eyes with a gangly man in a gray suit and started asking questions.

It would be difficult to find an odder-looking pair. She's a 23-year-old janitor studying English at NHTI and, on that day, wore a blue T-shirt, cutoff jeans and neon canvas sneakers. He's Gary Johnson, a Republican presidential candidate who served two terms as the governor of New Mexico and gained international attention when he used that office to advocate for legalizing marijuana as a cure for border violence, swelling prison populations and other societal ills.

Overnight, he became the darling of libertarian activists and a favorite among cable talk show hosts, but all that was more than a decade ago. Now, he spends his days working to be considered a legitimate voice in the Republican Party. One moment, he'll rage against what he perceives as snubs by the GOP and the national media. The next, he'll calmly discuss the government's role in our lives with voters like Brown.

She supported President Obama in 2008 but is disillusioned by the economy and the wars abroad. So when a friend told her about Johnson, she decided to check him out.

"It's like we're running on a system made for the '50s, the '30s," Brown said later. "We have to rethink how everything is done. The world is changing. We need to evolve."

For 15 minutes, Johnson answered her questions, leaning against a Coke cooler and practically ignoring everyone else in the shop. He's banking on people like Brown - young, curious and a little frustrated - to ignite a campaign that's struggling to be noticed. Although he's made 15 trips to New Hampshire, most voters have never heard of him. He's been permitted in just one televised debate and, with $6,000 cash on hand at the end of the last fundraising period, can't afford much advertising.

In stump speeches, Johnson darts from topic to topic, telling voters he wants to pull American troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan "tomorrow," cut federal spending by 43 percent, and give states more control over education, welfare and health care. He'll say that it should be easier for legal immigrants to obtain work visas, that early-term abortions should be permitted and the Patriot Act should be allowed to expire. And then, at some point, he'll turn to the subject of drugs.

"I'm going to make it safer for politicians to talk about this issue," he said during an interview last week. "The notion here is to win, the notion here is to govern, but it's about the ideas, too."

His ideas are unorthodox, but so is Johnson, especially when compared with others in the Republican field. He grew up in Albuquerque where, according to a 1994 profile in the Santa Fe New Mexican, his high school classmates remember him as a smart guy, a dedicated runner and the last person they expected to seek public office. He studied political science at the University of New Mexico, worked as a ski instructor and started a handyman business that eventually made him a millionaire.

Johnson's political experience starts and ends at the New Mexico state house, where he served eight years as governor. His tenure was marked by an acrimonious relationship with the legislature and by debates over school vouchers and gambling. But it's most notable for what happened in the summer of 1999, when Johnson - a lame duck because of term limits - suggested legalizing marijuana to shrink prison populations and reduce violence along the Mexican border.

His stance was wildly unpopular in New Mexico, evoking protests from Republican state leaders, middle- school cheerleaders and law enforcement agencies. But it also laid the groundwork for his presidential campaign, catapulting him into the national spotlight and earning admiration from libertarian-minded activists, including many of the people now working on his behalf.

"It's an attention getter," he said.

What remains unclear is whether that kind of attention is good or bad.

 Word gets out

The news leaked sooner than he'd planned.

One Monday toward the end of June 1999, then-Gov. Johnson met with a small group of New Mexico's top Republicans to discuss his growing frustration with drug enforcement practices. He wasn't exactly asking for the GOP's permission, but he says he wanted help organizing a rational debate.

"I had no idea where that was going to lead," he said. "I genuinely wanted their input."

That night, a reporter called him about the meeting. The next day, a headline in the Albuquerque Tribune proclaimed, "Johnson takes look at easing drug-use penalty." In the weeks that followed, similar stories were published in local and a national papers. Johnson's approval rating dropped 30 points to 28 percent. Cable news anchors and talk radio hosts wanted him on their shows. The Libertarian Party wanted him on their 2000 presidential ticket. The New Mexico GOP wanted him to talk about something, anything, else.

"It's a lousy election issue," Ted Hobbs, the House Republican leader at the time, told the Associated Press in July 1999. "It's the wrong issue to raise."

That Johnson would so anger members of his own party wasn't a surprise.

Until that summer, Johnson had been known primarily as "Governor Veto," a nickname he'd earned for jettisoning nearly half the bills that had landed on his desk during his first six months in office. He had little patience for anything he deemed too costly or too intrusive in people's private lives, and says that he and state lawmakers had "probably as contentious a relationship as any other governor has ever had with any other legislature."

 'Just say K-N-O-W'

By the fall of 1999, Johnson had gone from organizing a discussion about drug policy to advocating the legalization of marijuana. In interviews and at community forums, he repurposed a familiar anti-drug slogan.

"Just say know," he'd declare. "K-N-O-W. Know the facts."

Those facts, according to Johnson, go something like this: Federal drug policy has made "a lot of dangerous people and organizations very rich and very powerful," he says on his website, contributing to border violence and crime. He says it's "insane to arrest roughly 800,000 people a year for choosing to use a natural substance that is . . . less harmful than alcohol" and calls marijuana "our nation's No. 1 cash crop."

He advocates for legal marijuana that is taxed and regulated. Minors shouldn't be able to buy it, he says, and driving while stoned should be treated like driving while drunk. Other drugs, particularly those administered intravenously, should be treated as threats to public health, not crimes. Jail, he says, is not an effective treatment option for addicts.

"It's a huge issue," he said. "It's gigantic."

Johnson's personal relationship with drugs is nuanced. During his first campaign for governor in 1994, he admitted to using marijuana and cocaine in college. He says he smoked pot again for medicinal purposes to relieve pain after a serious paragliding accident in 2005 but insists he doesn't use drugs recreationally. He also eschews alcohol, tobacco and caffeine because they hurt his athletic performance. The closest he came to junk food on one recent trip to Concord was the strawberry smoothie he sipped outside the Panera on Fort Eddy Road.

As governor, Johnson says he received hundreds of emails supporting his legalization efforts, but public opposition was widespread. In October 1999, the Albuquerque Journal reported that 11 middle-school cheerleaders would boycott a neighborhood beautification project sponsored by Johnson. (The local FBI office sent the girls a thank-you note and a box of teddy bears dressed in anti-drug T-shirts.) A parent in another community tried to take out a restraining order to bar Johnson from visiting a student assembly. Republican leaders issued a letter saying any state that decriminalized marijuana risked "becoming a haven for addicts."

Johnson didn't seem to care. The Santa Fe New Mexican described him as "more interested in climbing Mount Everest than in climbing the political ladder" - and that assessment proved true. In 2000, he declined an invitation from the Libertarian Party to run for president and, when his term as governor expired at the beginning of 2003, he set a new goal: reaching the highest peak on every continent.

 'Stereo speakers'

In the last decade, Johnson, 58, has focused more on extreme athletic feats than on politics, climbing mountains, running ultra-marathons, competing in triathlons and embarking on grueling bike trips. He sold his construction company while still in office, and, after moving back to Taos, got involved in a couple of business ventures in which he says he neither made nor lost money.

He and his wife, Dee, divorced in 2005. In 2008, he began dating real estate agent Kate Prusack, now his fiancee. That same year, he re-emerged on the national political scene when he endorsed Ron Paul for president. Pretty soon, he started mulling a campaign of his own, launching a PAC called "Our American Initiative" and traveling to early primary states.

Johnson shares many of Paul's small-government philosophies and believes their campaigns are complimentary, not conflicting.

"Stereo speakers have a better chance of reaching an audience," he said.

In recent months, as Johnson has struggled for legitimacy among mainstream Republicans, speculation has grown online that he might join the Libertarian Party before the general election. When asked about his party affiliation last month, Johnson stressed that the rumors are untrue.

"I'm a Republican, period," he said.

On the campaign trail, his fondness for endurance tests is paying off. Last month, he spent nearly two weeks in New Hampshire and held events in every county. Most of the crowds were small, but he says he doesn't mind as long as he has plenty of time to answer questions. He plans to return soon and to resume a tour of college campuses, where he's been well-received by student groups advocating legalized marijuana. Johnson does talk about drugs on those trips, but he also explains bigger, more abstract issues.

"I'm nearing retirement age, I'm going to get my health care paid for the rest of my life, and I'm going to hand this bill over to kids in college right now," he said. "That's really unfair. Kids in college are really being handed a bill of goods right now. If they wake up and take to the streets, we might be able to fix some of this."

While speaking to Brown inside the cigar shop, Johnson did talk about drug policy, but he focused much more on the economy, national security and the "fair tax," a measure supported by some economists that would abolish the federal income tax and replace it with a sales tax. The plan, he told Brown before he left, was worth taking the time to read.

"Cindi," Johnson said, smiling as he strode away from the store. "Keep it up."

"Fairtax.org," she replied. "I'll look it up."

(Meg Heckman can be reached at 369-3313 or mheckman@cmonitor.com.)


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Concord Monitor, recently named the best paper of its size in New England.

Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301


© 2021 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy