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Gary Johnson Was a Much Better Governor Than He Seems

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Gary Johnson has become synonymous with embarrassing gaffes on the campaign trail. But his record as Governor tells a different story.

Even as Republicans and Democrats created a third party candidate’s dream by nominating the two most unpopular presidential candidates in American history, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s campaign quickly went downhill after a series of embarrassing mistakes.  First, there was the ‘Aleppo gaffe’ when, during an interview with Mike Barnicle, Johnson had no idea what Barnicle was referring to during his discussion of the Syrian city and epicenter of the refugee crisis.  Then, he was unable to name a single world leader he admired.  And finally, in another interview, it appeared he did not know the name of North Korea’s leader.  So then, if Gary Johnson seemed so clueless on foreign policy, how did he become the two-time libertarian nominee for president?  The answer is simple: Johnson excelled domestically, as one of the greatest governors in the history of New Mexico.

Johnson didn’t initially set out for a career in politics.  He built a multimillion-dollar construction company before throwing his hat into the political arena.  In 1994 Johnson approached the New Mexico Republican Party about running for governor but was discouraged from running because of his inexperience in politics.  Undeterred, Johnson injected $500,000 of his own money and began campaigning on a “common-sense business approach to politics” platform.  After narrowly winning the Republican nomination despite being a major underdog, he handily won the general election, taking 50% of the vote in a three-way race.  He went on to become the first governor of New Mexico ever to serve two four-year terms, garnering even more of the vote in his reelection.  

As governor, Johnson’s top priority was education.  He pushed vigorously for school vouchers.  While vouchers weren’t a new idea, few politicians actually ran on this platform because of the drastic changes their implementation would mean for the current system.  Johnson ultimately failed to pass this agenda because of Democratic opposition in the state legislature.  His efforts were not without dividends however; his advocacy on the the issue brought it back into the national spotlight.  Although he fell short in the fight for school choice, Johnson was able to appropriate nearly half a billion dollars in the budget for education and initiate education reform through his ‘For the Children’s Sake’  plan.  

Before Johnson became governor, over-crowded prisons were a major problem in New Mexico.  The new governor proposed a solution: privatization.  Johnson had two new private prisons built, effectively solving the over-crowding problem.  In the long-term, however, Johnson didn’t think the problem could be solved unless something was done about the so-called “war on drugs.”  Johnson personally believes that it is unjust to imprison people for “bad personal decisions [that] don’t harm anyone else.”  As governor, he supported legalizing marijuana both vocally and through legislation, proposing a bill in New Mexico that would legalize possession of an ounce of marijuana. 

As far as money goes, Johnson was one of the most fiscally conservative governors of his time.  Johnson balanced the budget each year (a requirement under the state Constitution) and left New Mexico with over a billion dollars in surplus by the end of his terms.  Critics point out that the government budget grew by an average of 5% each year; however, holding the budget to only 5% growth is impressive given the Democrat-run legislature.  Johnson was able to trim the budget year after year by using thousands of line item vetoes.  By the end of Johnson’s governorship, not only was there a billion-dollar surplus, but the State General fund was restored to over $222 million after reaching a record low of $28.1 million.

Gary Johnson vetoed 750 bills while in office, or 32% of all that crossed his desk. This was more than all other governors in the country combined from 1995 to 2003.  Johnson cut taxes fourteen times without once raising them, an impressive feat for a governor with a House and Senate who were eager to spend.  Johnson also used his executive powers to sign a highway improvement package that upgraded 500 miles of state roads.

From privatizing prisons to never allowing a tax increase, Governor Gary Johnson was successful in shrinking the scope of government in the state of New Mexico.  He shrunk the size of government by cutting 1,200 public jobs without actually having to fire anyone.  Johnson was also able to decrease the government’s role in healthcare by shifting Medicaid in the state to managed care, which “aligns payment incentives with performance goals” to maximize quality of care and manage costs effectively via managed care organizations (MCOs).

Gary Johnson may have become somewhat of a national meme after the 2016 campaign season, but his embarrassing gaffes are not how he should be remembered.  By all measures, Johnson was a successful two-term governor that accomplished more than most politicians.  Notably, despite his lack of qualifications and experience, he was able to win in a state with nearly a 2:1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans.  Gary Johnson was a self-funded business mogul political outsider with no regard political correctness.  Too bad he changed his approach when he ran for president.

Alex Baltzegar is a student at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. 

Alex Baltzegar is a contributor at Merion West, where he writes about American politics. His columns generally address issues of particular interest to Merion West’s more conservative readers. Originally from California, Alex now lives in North Carolina.

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