SANTA FE, N.M. — For state lawmakers here who used to work with Gary Johnson, something is familiar about the former governor’s baffled looks, which have turned into an embarrassment for his third-party presidential campaign.
Longtime state Sen. Stuart Ingle (R) recalled how Johnson, soon after taking office in 1995, mostly shrugged and stared during their first meeting together. As Ingle asked Johnson questions about his agenda, Ingle said, Johnson’s most common refrain was, “I don’t know.”
At the end of the meeting, Ingle said, Johnson revealed the one position on which he would hold firm: The state’s budget should not grow. And if legislation to do so passed, the new governor added, “I will veto it.”
Over the next eight years, New Mexico lawmakers would struggle to work with a governor who paid little attention to details. Those who worked closely with Johnson, then a Republican elected as a political novice vowing to shake up the established order, recall a chief executive who would speed through meetings and often preferred to discuss his fitness routine than focus on the minutiae of policymaking.
Today, people here are not surprised that Johnson’s lack of interest in the fine points of governing has led to some high-profile stumbles in his Libertarian candidacy for president, such as his inability to name his favorite foreign leader, or when a question about the war-ravaged city at the center of the Syrian refugee crisis prompted him to ask, “What is Aleppo?”
Johnson dismisses the notion that a president must be immersed in the particulars.
“It’s amazing that somehow because you dot the i’s and cross the t’s that somehow you’re immune,” Johnson told The Washington Post in a recent interview, “and judgments are being made on me that I’m not qualified because I didn’t know something that could be answered in five seconds on an iPad.”
In a year of widespread discontent with the major-party contenders, Johnson pitches himself as a logical alternative who can bridge divisions by embracing conservative fiscal policy and left-leaning social policy.
That pitch has proved attractive to a small but significant sliver of voters, particularly young people, peeling support away from Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Both campaigns fret that Johnson’s presence on the ballot could tilt a tight race.
At the center of Johnson’s candidacy is his tenure in Santa Fe, where he was quick to use his veto pen and argued that government should provide only the most basic of services, such as building highways.
But Johnson ended up unnerving lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who complained that he rarely took their ideas seriously.
When the vetoes started to pile up that first year, legislators tried to make amends by inviting him to participate in discussions about how they should spend money, according to legislative notes in the state Capitol. Johnson’s reply, again, was “no.”
“It is easy to make simple decisions when you don’t spend time learning about the nuances of policy,” said state Sen. Mimi Stewart (D), who joined the legislature in 1995, when Johnson was elected.
Stewart said Johnson was never vindictive or mean, but he just did not focus when she sought to talk with him about policies such as improving education. Knowing that Johnson was a triathlete and extreme-sports enthusiast, Stewart hoped to build a rapport with him through running. Twice, she participated in the same local marathon as the governor and hoped she would slip in some talk about the job. It was fruitless.
“He would just nod his head and change the subject,” Stewart said. “If I saw him in the halls, he’d ask, ‘How’s the running?’ ”
Johnson’s seemingly dismissive approach garnered him the nickname “Governor No.” In his first year in office, he vetoed 47 percent of the bills the legislature passed. Lawmakers took Johnson to court at least three times for overstepping his bounds — and won.
“A know-it-all dictator,” is how the late state representative Jerry Lee Alwin, a conservative Republican, described Johnson to the news media at the time. “He just doesn’t listen.”
Johnson shrugged off the criticism. He said that any lawmaker was able to come speak with him during his “Open Door After Four” sessions, which offered any member of the public — not just politicians — a chance to make an appointment.
Those sessions were held once a month. Meetings lasted no longer than five minutes — a sufficient amount of time, Johnson said, for him to grasp the issues.
“I can figure things out; I have good instincts,” he told The Post. “I think I was born with an overdose of common sense.”
Johnson, 63, the son of a public school teacher and a government worker who built a construction company that made him a millionaire, jumped into politics largely as an experiment, say people who worked with him at the time.
The question he told friends he wanted to answer: Could an honest man enter politics and remain honest?
So one night in 1994, he drove his Datsun 280Z to the Albuquerque home of Kelly Ward, a 26-year-old entrepreneur Johnson had met at a banquet. He told Ward he wanted to run for governor — and he wanted him to be his campaign manager.
“I don’t know anything about government,” Ward recalled saying.
“That makes us perfect for it,” Johnson said, Ward said.
Johnson spent about $500,000 on his campaign. In a one-day blitz, he bought advertising on the sides of all the buses in Albuquerque with a close-up of his face and the words “JOHNSON” to build name recognition. Then came radio and television. His slogan was “People Before Politics.” He promised to run government like a business, pulling a checkbook out of his pocket during campaign appearances and telling voters, “You’ll have a lot more money in here if you vote for me.”
As governor, he imposed schedule discipline. His Cabinet would meet precisely at 8 a.m. every Monday, power bars and water at the table. Each member had only two minutes to deliver a report.
“If you can’t explain it in two minutes, it doesn’t need to be done,” said Diane Kinderwater, Johnson’s former communications director.
The approach was a stark difference from that of the previous governor, a cowboy-boot-wearing, backslapping Democrat who loved to linger. Some lawmakers appreciated it.
“With [Johnson], it was always, ‘Yes,’ ‘No’ or ‘I’ll think about it,’ ” said Ingle, the state senator. “It would take five or six minutes. He had an agenda and he knew what he wanted to figure out.”
The first time the legislature sent a budget to Johnson’s desk, Ingle said, lawmakers thought they had done well by allotting only “a couple hundred-thousand dollars” more than Johnson’s goal of $2.8 billion.
Johnson vetoed it.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Ingle said. “But I said, at least he told us what he was going to do. This man is honest.”
Annual summaries compiled by nonpartisan legislative aides during that time describe Johnson’s relationship with the legislature as “rocky” and “strained.” Over eight years, he vetoed more than 700 bills.
Steven Neville was a Republican county commissioner in rural San Juan County, in the state’s upper northwest corner, when the legislature agreed to spend $1 million in preparation for a national rodeo competition being held there. Johnson vetoed the measure. As a result, the county had to find money on its own.
“We actually did what we needed to do to have a good rodeo,” said Neville, now a state senator. “It was annoying, but he was fair.”
An examination of eight years of legislation showed that Johnson vetoed a bill to create specialized license plates because he thought it was too costly. He vetoed the formation of an African American affairs committee and a task force examining how to get equal pay for women because he thought they were a waste of time and money.
Although he describes himself as a social liberal, Johnson angered many on the left when he ended collective bargaining for state employees and cut off Medicaid funding for abortions that doctors deemed medically necessary. Johnson now says he regrets the Medicaid decision.
In his second term, Johnson became more comfortable with the limits of his executive power, his staff members said. And the legislature got accustomed to his frequent vetoes, state Rep. Larry Larrañaga (R) said.
But Johnson alienated his fellow Republicans with a push to legalize marijuana use. He referred to the war on drugs as a “miserable failure.”
It was a rare break from tradition for Johnson.
Rather than simply issuing directives, he had to work with the legislature to try to get his way. He could not get legalization through the legislature, but persuaded lawmakers to increase funding for drug treatment. He also won approval for a measure that allowed the release of nonviolent, low-level drug offenders if prisons became overcrowded.
By the end, Johnson praised himself for delivering a tax cut worth at least $60 million, expanding the highway system and repealing a gas tax. He left with a $1 billion state surplus and, according to the Albuquerque Journal, a 45 percent approval rating.
Johnson is now armed with endorsements last week from the Detroit News and the Chicago Tribune, but his New Mexico record remains his biggest boast. Looking back, he seems to have satisfied his big question about how an honest man could fare in politics.
“I was really naive. I didn’t realize politics would be so partisan,” he said.
“But I don’t think you would find anyone who would say I wasn’t thoughtful about every decision I made,” he added. “I gave a reason, I had logic and a process. Would I be any different as president? No.”
Alice Crites and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.