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Lofty Goals

Gov. Gary Johnson Image

Former Gov. Gary Johnson (R-NM) spoke with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION on Sept. 13, 2010 in the lobby at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC one day after his speech at the 9/12 rally, where he received a decidedly mixed reaction when he addressed the subject of legalizing marijuana.  The interview picks up with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION asking him about why he so often raises that topic, then goes into the proper role of government, a few questions on his time as governor, the question of whether politics or Washington is broken, a fair bit on his 2003 climb of Mt. Everest, some early memories and college, his construction business, his current activities including the OUR America Initiative, and concluding with some lofty goals he has for the future.

Democracy in Action: ...but should that [legalizing marijuana] be such a front and central part of your message?

Johnson: Not at all, and I hope it's not.  I don't mean to make it such.  What I mean to make front and center is the cost-benefit on everything it is that we're doing.  That we do need to slash spending, that cutting taxes really is a good thing as opposed to spending going up across the board, and taxes going up across the board.

Democracy in Action: It seems to me for me at least that that [marijuana legalization] is such a peripheral issue—there's so many more [important] issues—that it shouldn't even really get to the point where you put it in the central part of your speech, maybe at the end or one sentence, but—?

Johnson: I didn't want anyone to walk away from what happened yesterday [thinking] "Wow, that guy was just fabulous on spending; I mean this guy's the best guy I've every heard on spending."  [Speaking in another voice] "You know that's the guy that wants to legalize pot."  Well I didn't want that to happen either.  I wanted them to hear that from the horse's mouth that there is a connection here.  If you understand the marijuana issue, I think it ties to dozens of other issues, the whole liberty and freedom and personal responsibility—

Democracy in Action: For me personally it's way over there [i.e. not a key issue].

Johnson: And I get that criticism a lot.  And I'll call it criticism or advice.  "Don't make it central."  Look I'm not making it central, but it's the attention getter, and you can't back away from—I mean I can't back down or step away from the attention getter, and like it or not it is an attention getter.  My feeling is if I don't address it, if somehow I leave it out because it's not all that important, well then at some point that person that you talk about picks it up and then they cut me off at that point, but at some point they find out and it might as well be right up front.

Democracy in Action: How do you describe your political philosophy?

Johnson: I'm a Republican.  I've been a Republican my entire life and continue to be one, and that would be based on believing that a Republican first and last is somebody who really cares about the checkbook, balances the checkbook, and so as governor of New Mexico really everything was about economics, everything was about what are we spending and what are we getting.

Democracy in Action: There are different kinds of Republicans; what are the adjectives you'd put in front?  Are you a common sense conservative Republican?  Are you a Reagan Republican?

Johnson: You know I have never applied labels to myself.  Others have said that this is a libertarian Republican.  I think that's—I don't have any issue with that.  I take that as a compliment, but I don't describe myself as such.

Democracy in Action: Let's talk about the proper role of government, starting with local.  Here in DC we have a plastic bag tax [fee] where you have to pay 5 cents.  It's cut plastic bag use by some huge percentage.  There are also local laws on [such things as] drainage runoff.  Do you have any objections to those kinds of laws, and then what if you extended that to the state, and you had a state plastic bag law or a state law governing runoff, and then federal?

Johnson: Well the proper role of government is that it should and needs to function at the local level.  And people then can cuss and discuss or walk with their feet when it comes to where they're going to live as a result of what gets legislated in their city or their state.  So the further removed from me as a resident of Washington, DC, the further removed that that decision making gets away from me the worse it is.  So living in Taos, New Mexico, for the federal government to dictate anything to me living in Taos is fundamentally, that's wrong.

Democracy in Action: How about that plastic bag law at a state level; would you have signed such a law if it came to your desk?

Johnson: Probably not.  No, I would not have signed a plastic bag law, understanding that it reduced plastic bag use.  I think there's an awareness when it comes to plastic bags, that plastic bags are going to be a thing of the past in not too long a period of time.  The notion that we should have reusable bags, I mean come on!  It just makes sense.  You have a bunch of those in your car and you take them into the grocery store every time.  It's a much cleaner process. 

Democracy in Action: Some people haven't got that yet.

Johnson: But that's one of those issues that's really gaining momentum.  Is it going to be a law that gets passed or is it going to be just awareness and that's what everybody does because it's the smart thing to do...

Democracy in Action: In your eight years as governor, were there one or two decisions that were particularly difficult for you in terms of discerning the proper role of government?

Johnson: You say difficult.  I mean that was the process.  Nothing sticks out as having been a difficult decision, but there were dozens of issues, dozens of issues where I wanted to be as informed as I possibly could, and by the way this is what made the job so enjoyable.  I mean it was really, it was really kind of blood boiling to be able to have people come in on both sides of an issue and I get to be the ultimate arbiter.  And I would say that for me politics was tenth on the ten consideration list when it came to issues.  Issues were first.  Understand the issues, and then what's the best decision ultimately when it came to the citizens of the state of New Mexico  That was always my criteria, always.  And it was a fun process, it really was.  I mean it was wow. 

Democracy in Action: Was there a most difficult time as governor, when you really got bogged down?

Johnson: Well I made some mistakes yeah. 

Democracy in Action: What were one or two learning mistakes?

Johnson: Politically my staff apparently is out saying that I am going to sign a prison population—basically it was a prison release bill.  Basically they're sending all sorts of signals to the legislature that I'm going to sign this bill.  And in retrospect this was my fault.  But my own staff was out kind of doing their own thing, and it passed the legislature and Republicans in the House and the Senate voted for the bill.  Well I vetoed the bill.  And the Republicans were just outraged, rightfully so, that they wouldn't have voted for the bill but did because they were sent signals that I wanted to sign it.  Well that was my fault, and you know what?  It never happened again, that kind of communication error never happened again.  Nobody with my staff went out and made promises that they should have never been out seeking any way.  I thought that it was a pretty big deal at the time, and I like to think that my standing up to it, saying that it was a mistake, that I take full responsibility for the mistake and we'll just let the chips lay—.

Democracy in Action: There's a notion that politics is broken, Washington, DC is broken, and there are many theories advanced—too many lobbyists, too much money, talk radio is polarizing things...  Do you agree with this notion that politics is broken or Washington, DC is broken?

Johnson: No.  No.  I would more say that there's a real lack of leadership, that there's just no leadership, that leadership is sorely lacking.  People are just outraged over the fact that spending is out of control, that taxes are going up across the board.  People are outraged about the fact that we're bankrupt.  So there are a number of solutions, and the solutions lie in actually slashing that spending. 

So how do you do that?  Well when you start talking about particulars, when you start talking people want change, but when you start talking about real change, people are "not that change, not that change."  And so what's wrong with politics today is is you have elected people that mirror this hypocrisy, if you will, over we want change, but not that kind of change.  We want leadership, but not that kind of leadership.  So that's what's broken.  It's just  a prescription to do nothing, to not change, to maintain my office because I like holding office as opposed to I got elected to actually try and make a difference, to try and actually bring about what it is that people really want. 

Democracy in Action: Do you think there are some reforms to our process that do need to be made?  There are all sorts of—term limits, campaign finance reform...

Johnson: You know of all of them term limits is right at the top of my list.  I think we're well served when term limits are in place, and I think politicians do good things as a result of being term limited, as opposed to doing things that keep them in office, and to the detriment of you and I because hard decisions don't get made.  They get—well, hard decisions might mean I won't get re-elected.  I mean I think that's the reality. 

Campaign finance reform?  I'm on the side that virtually all campaign finance reform that I've seen really limits somebody from me like ever having gotten elected.  That campaign finance reform is always about incumbent protection.  It's incumbency bills.  I got a name in politics and d--n everybody else.

Democracy in Action: Well one part of campaign finance reform that I think is important is transparency.

Johnson: Exactly.  If I were to point out the only thing that's needed with regard to campaign finance reform it is transparency.  That an individual would be allowed to donate money for the RNC when it would be earmarked from the very beginning that they're giving money to the RNC but the RNC's going to turn around and give it to Gov. Johnson in New Mexico, never making the connection between that individual and me, but having it come from the RNC.  That's wrong, that's what's wrong.  Make it completely transparent.  Sign legislation that you have to, as a member of Congress, wear a jacket with the logos of all the companies that have given you money, that the jacket would display that.

Democracy in Action: You were governor for eight years, so you attended a lot of NGA meetings.  Any of those governors who you particularly admired?  This guy's really on the ball?  Can you think of a Democrat and a Republican?

Johnson: You know I made a lot of really good friends.  I was really impressed by a lot of different Republicans that I really did think were on the ball and became good friends with these people, but overall this was a disillusioning process for me.  Leaders that I had grown up reading about, and now I was rubbing shoulders with them, I found out to a large extent that they were, that they were vacant when it came to ideas, that what I was witnessing were robotic individuals that were so concerned about re-election and so concerned about not taking a position on anything so that they wouldn't actually have to make a decision.

Democracy in Action: Surely over eight years there must have been a few you can say "that guy did a pretty good job."

Johnson: Well I thought that Mike Leavitt out of Utah, I thought that he was a remarkable, what's the word, he was remarkable at bringing people together.  So he held an environmental summit over several days to try and describe a new environmental process.  I forget the name that he called it.  [ed. "enlibra"]  But you know what?  It was spot on; it was just spot on.  Neither side is going to get what they want.  So, but from the very beginning let's just try and set a goal here to get to the middle which advances both causes...

Democracy in Action: I've read a lot of Everest books.  When was that video [in which you talked about your Everest climb] filmed?

Johnson: It would have been in 2003 that I went to Everest and did Everest.  And the slide show presentation, I would have made that in 2003.  Now what you saw on the Internet wouldn't have been authorized by me; what you saw on the Internet was me having made that in 2003...

Democracy in Action: It's interesting on the web version they show where you talk and then at the end they have the [frostbitten] toe, kind of like an appendix, added on.  In some of the books that I've read there's all sorts of interpersonal troubles [on the climbs].  Have you read a lot of those?

Johnson: Oh yeah I've grown up reading all of it, yeah.

Democracy in Action: There's [also] the commercialization.  Did you run into any of that?  Your presentation, this video, was pretty upbeat.

Johnson: No, none of it.  None of it.  It was a wonderful experience.  There was no, there was no, what's the word, divergent opinions within our ex—we were all together.  We were very good friends before we went over there and we were best of friends after it was all over with, and there was never a discouraging word; there was never any animosity in any way.  We all pulled together all the time.

Democracy in Action: Maybe because it was smaller?

Johnson: Yeah, maybe.  Maybe.  I've watched things on television or have read things where what you're talking about occurred, and I can't relate.  And I would also point out that in my life wherever—you know I've watched some things on television with regard to Everest or climbing where you have two climbers that are out there near a fist-fight.  To me that can't work.  That's a recipe for disaster, and it's a recipe for disaster in life too.  So, no, I never had any of that and wouldn't have expected it beforehand, and [it] didn't happen, and if it would have happened, boy, that's a recipe for disaster, that's a recipe for something going wrong.

Democracy in Action: So what was the most difficult part of it for you?  You mention [on the video] that the most dangerous part is going through that ice fall.

Johnson: Yeah.  Well the most difficult part was—.  We left for Lukla on March 26th, so we took 11 days to get to base camp.  Which was very text book, you know, long time to get acclimatized, get to base camp.  I had had a broken leg, so, hey, taking our time to get there, fine.  My leg is healing; let's take as long as we want.  But from April 7th until the time we summited, May 30th, almost seven weeks of going up and down—six times.  So what was really hard, and yet you knew that you had to do it, was going up to Lhotse Face, camping out for a couple of days and then coming all the way back down.  Doing that six times.  Going up.  Going down.  Going up a little bit higher.  Staying a little bit longer.  Coming back down.  Going up a little bit higher, saying a little bit longer, coming—but doing that six times.  That was hard.  I mean just.  Wow.  We're going up here, and we're going to be doing this three more times.  Why don't we just go to the top?  I mean I knew that that was—there was never a hidden agenda, that was prescribed from the very beginning so it was just part of the process, but it was—

Democracy in Action:It was interesting, you also mentioned [in the video] when you were coming down you were really tired, you realized that your oxygen was off.

Johnson: Yeah.  How could I have forgotten to turn my oxygen—  I mean come on, that ought to—you've read all those books.  How could you forget to turn you oxygen on?

Democracy in Action: How about going back to your early life, did your parents' political views affect your own?

Johnson: No, they were very non-political.  They could not have been more unpolitical.

Democracy in Action: Do you have a first political memory, like when you were growing up you saw the Watergate hearings on television or—  What's your first political memory going way back?

Johnson: In the 4th grade, there was a vote taken by everyone in the class, as to who would be President, who in the class could be President of the United States, and I was just—it kind of caught me off guard.  I mean what was this all about?  The vote comes back and I'm the one that's going to be President of the United States, you know, in the 4th grade.  So politically that was maybe the first.  I don't know where that came from, but sounds good.  I like that.  I like that.  I mean I like the fact that people would consider me to be the—

And then, not to get off on a tangent, but there were other things.  Who in the class, in sociology, who in the class would you want to be stuck with on a desert island for the rest of your life.  In this class.  At the beginning I thought it was the most handsome guy in the class that had that distinction, and then at the end of the class because you see we're going to have a re-vote at the end of the year, and at the end of the year they had that re-vote, and I wasn't expecting it, but I'm the guy at the end of the year.  So that wasn't political—

Democracy in Action: But how about in terms of contemporary politics? 

Johnson: I think probably the Kennedy assassination was really a, wow.

Democracy in Action: How old were you then?

 Johnson: I was in the 5th grade so that would have been what 11.  It was '64?  Kennedy assassination was '63, so yeah it would be 10.

Democracy in Action: Is there a person or two who has particularly influenced you, like a role model or a professor who really had an impact or in your business?

Johnson: So going back, Kennedy assassination, and my 6th grade teacher really had a big political influence over me.  We held monthly elections in the classroom and he was very, here's how government works, and at that time I would have been the Barry Goldwater spokesman.  I did a debate in the 6th grade; I was Barry Goldwater.  And I got killed in the debate.  I didn't even know who Barry Goldwater was, and I was pretending to be—  

Democracy in Action: [laughs]

Johnson: I didn't.  And that was a real awakening.  I mean it was just some big, wide slaps across the face. 

So, books.  Ayn Rand; I really am an Ayn Rand fan, and I feel myself to be well-read.

Democracy in Action: How about in your early business career or when you were in university, were there any professors or business people?

Johnson: Not really.  Not really.  I was just a number at the university, and I kind of, in retrospect, in retrospect I resent that.  At the time it just seemed like a lot of people were numbers.  But I was just a number.  And my college experience was so dictated by the fact that I paid for my own college, so I had a full-time job all the time on top of going to school, and there was girls and there was beer and there was all this to go along with it, and I'm not saying I was out of bounds on any of this.  But there was just a lot going on and school wasn't necessarily the first priority.  Although if I had it to do all over again, maybe I'd try to do everything I could to have gotten student loans and not had to have worked to pay for all that. 

Democracy in Action: You might still be having to pay off those student loans.

Johnson: And right, and then who's to say I have been successful in business as a result of that experience.  So I can't complain about my own experience in any way, I just can't.

Democracy in Action: Can you talk about your business experience?  What was the most challenging part of building up that business?

Johnson: Well very specifically it was at the point that I reached 60 employees, and I was still doing everything.  I was in the construction business, so at 60 employees I was doing estimating, I was actually doing the work, I was going collecting the bills, I was doing the accounting, I was doing everything, and it just about killed me.  And then I made the decision that I needed to delegate this to the people that were working for me, and when I did that everything went wrong.  Everything.  The profitability—all of the sudden I am losing money on jobs; because I'm not associated with the job, I'm losing money.  My estimating was off because I wasn't on the job making that estimate happen.  And I chose to stick with it—I'm going to either be bankrupt or this is going to work, and it ended up working.  And it wasn't for lack of communication with the people that are working for me.  Look, were going to be—I'm going to be bankrupt, I'm going to be out of this business if you guys don't make x, y, z happen.  And they did.  But it was empowering others to do what you hoped they would be able to do and at the beginning lacking that ability to bring about that communication, and so that was a difficult period, but I survived it.

Democracy in Action: Are you saying that some of the folks you delegated to, they had a learning curve?

Johnson: Well they had a learning curve, and some of them weren't—I understand the Peter Principle.  You know you do well at your job, and because you do well at that job ultimately you get moved to a job that you can't do, and that's where you end up staying.  So I feel like I understand the Peter Principle.  I understand that in the private sector, you hire to the best of your ability and you delegate to the best of your ability.  Well the difference between success and failure ends up to be determining who's not performing and addressing that situation as quickly as possible.  The longer you let that be wrong, you can be out of business because of that.  I had as many as 1,000 employees in 1994 and I was Governor of New Mexico.  I really have a good knack of hiring good people, but I have a really good knack of determining whether they're actually doing what it was that I hired them to do, and cutting that period as short as possible if they're not the right person.

Democracy in Action: You formed the OUR America Initiative.  You're mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.  Many of these folks have leadership PACs.  Why did you decide to establish a 501(c)(4)?

Johnson: I just didn't think there were that many like-minded candidates out there to form a PAC, which would have been raising money and giving money to like-minded candidates.  I thought it would be better to be an issues based; the 501(c)(4) is issues based, issues advocacy, and I just thought it was a better fit.

Democracy in Action: That's a pretty small organization?  Do you have three or four people?

Johnson: It's probably more like ten; probably more like ten. 

Democracy in Action: How has your fundraising gone?  Have you met your expectations?

Johnson: It's growing, and [I] can't complain.  I mean it is a process.  I can't complain.  I'm not getting paid; all my expenses are getting paid.  But they're not small.  I mean I don't travel first class; I watch the money that I spend.

Democracy in Action: You have a book coming out?

Johnson: Yeah, yeah.  7 Principles of Good Government.

Democracy in Action: Did you dictate that or do you type it up or do you have somebody, a co-author?

Johnson: We sit down—co-author.  It's not done yet and it should have been done a long time ago, but it's not done.  At the start of it I thought thees is going to be a really long process and then it just went so swimmingly if you will and then now we're getting pictures, to do the illustration, and me being on the road—I've been to 27 states, I'm doing interviews.  Thank you very much for doing this interview by the way.  But [exasperated sigh] I'm giving you excuses for why it's not done.

Democracy in Action: Are you getting close?

Johnson: I hope so.  I'm not working on it; others are working on it right now.  And it's not big either.  It's really small, really small.

Democracy in Action: Do you have any thoughts about the process by which we elect our presidents?  You've probably studied it.  We have the long primaries, and you have to raise so much money.  Is that process something that you look at and say, oh, we could do this better.

Johnson: I don't have suggestions for doing it better; you know it is what it is, and that's the way I've always looked at it.  I mean I haven't looked at it from a reform standpoint.  If you look at it from a reform standpoint, if you were to change it, I think you give advantage to incumbents, I think you give advantage to well-known individuals as opposed to individuals that might in fact have the best ideas and work harder than others to emerge from the process if you will

Democracy in Action: Do you have a timeline for making a decision on whether you want to do that or not?

Johnson: No.  Well again I don't want to get crossways with the 501(c)(4).  As part of the 501(c)(4) I can't be making forward statements on political aspirations.

Democracy in Action: So what's on your schedule?  What do you do when you're in Washington?

Johnson: I did the event yesterday.  I just met with pro-choice people here, met with the Log Cabin Republicans, had a briefing this morning on China, and another four or five meetings yet today.  So I have had foreign policy meetings while in Washington.  Meeting with different people.  I'll be headed out tomorrow to Cleveland, Ohio, and I'm on the road right now for the next three weeks.

Democracy in Action: What's in Cleveland?<

Johnson: Let's see, the State Policy Initiative Network [ed. State Policy Network].  They're there and of course then we schedule things in Cleveland...

Democracy in Action: International [experience?]—  Probably as governor you did some trade missions overseas?

Johnson: No, no I didn't because I just viewed them as bogus.  Come on, you're going to go overseas and promote trade?  Really.  I see government providing this level playing field when it comes to economics for businesses to thrive and that was the tack that I always took.  I just have always viewed as governor going to a foreign country as a junket.

Democracy in Action: But... you have a world view.

Johnson: Certainly.  I feel like I've gotten to travel to a good part of the world and that I do have, I do have a sense of our standing in the world if you will, having done the travel that I've done.  And intend to do more of that.  I have a goal to climb the highest mountain on each continent.

Democracy in Action: How is that going?

Johnson: Well I have three to go.

Democracy in Action: Oh, really.  You've done some since Everest?

Johnson: Since Everest I would have done Elbrus and Kilimanjaro.

Democracy in Action: How was Elberus; where is that?

Johnson: Elbrus, that's in Russia, and that's the highest mountain in Europe.  And a couple of years ago, like right now, my kids and my wife-to-be, we went and did Kilimanjaro, which, I'd been to South Africa, but Kenya and Tanzania that was interesting.

Democracy in Action: But how was Elbrus?

Johnson: It was good; no complaints, no issues.

Democracy in Action: Which three do you have left?

Johnson: Aconcagua in South America, Vincent, Antarctica and Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea, Australasia...

Democracy in Action: So the South American one would probably be the most difficult of the remaining ones?

Johnson: No, I think of the remaining ones, Vincent is going to be the most difficult because of the logistics to get to Antarctica and do that.

Democracy in Action: Right-y-o, thank you very much.

Johnson: Thank you very much.