Known for stance on pot, former NM Gov. Johnson readies presidential bid

This is the sixth in a series of profiles on GOP presidential contenders.

When Gary Johnson was governor of New Mexico, he vetoed 750 bills during his eight years in office — more vetoes than of all the nation’s other governors combined. 

That, he says, makes him a forbearer of sorts for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who’s risen to political stardom thanks to his tough vetoes and bellicose approach to the state budget.

“This is what I was doing before it was politically en vogue,” Johnson, 58, said in an interview with The Hill.

Being politically en vogue isn’t exactly Johnson’s mantra. 

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He’s running for the Republican presidential nomination on a platform that calls for withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq — a position that’s anathema to the party’s ruling class. He also supports abortion rights and, most controversially, favors legalizing marijuana. 

Johnson hasn’t formally announced his 2012 intentions — he’s scheduled to do so Thursday on the steps of the New Hampshire State Capitol in Concord — but he’s gotten a lot of media attention, mainly because of his stance on pot.

Last year, he teamed up with singer Melissa Etheridge and actor Danny Glover for a Hollywood rally in favor of Proposition 19 — an initiative that would have legalized marijuana in California.

He also spoke at Cannabis Revival 2010, joined comedy duo Cheech and Chong at a gala for the Marijuana Policy Project and admitted to smoking medicinal marijuana for three years.

Johnson was in a near-fatal paragliding accident in 2005, in which he broke his back and some of his ribs along with blowing out his knees. He used marijuana for pain control from 2005 to 2008.

“It is what it is,” he said of his stance on the issue. “From the context of ‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes,’ I’m the only politician that’s saying the emperor is wearing no clothes. That’s not such a bad deal.”

His argument is that the U.S. spends far too much on its war on marijuana — both in terms of real and human capital — to justify continued prohibition. Johnson urges Republicans to apply a simple cost-benefit analysis to the issue.

“Half of what we’re spending on law enforcement, the courts and prison is drug-related, and to what end?” he says.

The big question is how this, and the rest of Johnson’s platform, will play in the GOP primary. 

Johnson’s strain of libertarianism often looks much like Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas). Even though Paul has a devoted following, he rarely hits double digits in polling and isn’t considered a serious threat for the nomination.

Johnson, though, thinks he can mount a more credible effort.

“Ron Paul, last go-around, got 9 percent of the Republican vote, and I was one of those 9 percent. But it’s gotta grow way beyond that [to win the nomination].” 

But what Johnson won’t answer is how his message is any more palatable to the party than Paul’s.

“I’ll leave that completely to your analysis,” he says.

He claims the biggest threat to U.S. security is the nation’s debt, and to show how serious he is about fighting it, he says Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposed budget actually isn’t serious enough.

“It takes too long, and only get us a quarter of where we should be many years down the road,” he said.

That puts Johnson to the economic right of his other 2012 rivals, but he’s to their left on social issues, which could give him trouble in the Iowa and South Carolina primaries, where there is a heavy evangelical voter base.

“For those that view social issues as the prime reason that they vote, I don’t get that vote,” he says. “In New Mexico, I didn’t get that vote in the primaries. I think I got that vote in the general election. And I think that would be the situation here.”

Johnson was a political neophyte when he ran for governor in 1994. He served two terms in a state where Democrats held a 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration.

He barely won the Republican nomination that year, but defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Bruce King by 10 percent. He easily won reelection and was term-limited out of office.

Since 2009, Johnson has been gauging reaction to his message through his Our America Initiative, a committee he formed to speak out on issues such as spending, the debt and the drug war. Because it’s classified as a 501(c)(4), Johnson is unable to use any money raised by the committee for a presidential campaign.

He admits his fundraising ability is “one of the questions out there,” but is hopeful the positive reception he’s received across the country will translate to political contributions for a bid. 

Before entering politics, Johnson started his own construction business in the 1970s and grew it into a multimillion-dollar corporation.

He’s an avid triathlete who’s finished the Hawaii Iron Man five times. He’s also climbed Mount Everest.