Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is the Rodney Dangerfield of this year's GOP presidential field — he gets no respect, despite a strong conservative record, a stint as governor of a key state, and a colorful background in the public and private sectors.
In a year when voters seem tired of what is seen as wasteful spending and regulatory overreach in Washington, Mr. Johnson said he is surprised he is not getting the attention of other governors who have served fewer years, or whose campaigns are sputtering, or who aren't even in the race.
"I really would have thought that there would be more focus on just me being in the race and being credible because I do have a resume that suggests that I am very credible," Mr. Johnson said in an interview with The Washington Times blocks from the White House.
Mr. Johnson has a tough path to the GOP nomination, and some pundits already call him a goner.
Out of politics since 2003, a big problem is that voters don't know him.
"I don't know how seriously Gov. Johnson has been taken at this point," said Patrick Griffin, senior fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. "Certainly, the evidence is not necessarily there of a serious campaign."
Others suggest that Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is gobbling up some of the libertarian-leaning support that the pro-choice, pro-civil unions Mr. Johnson otherwise might get. The potential candidacy of another Southwesterner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, isn't helping either.
Whatever the case, Mr. Johnson's fundraising totals have amounted to a drop in the bucket compared with those of most others in the field, and he has struggled in the polls.
He is left out of the Ames straw poll in Iowa this week, and CNN didn't invite him to the New Hampshire debate in June. "I never thought I would be excluded from the debate table, given my resume and service," he told The Times, still livid over the CNN snub.
The deck, he said, also was stacked against him in 1994 when he won a long-shot race for governor. During his two terms, he built a strong conservative record by cutting 1,200 state jobs, blocking every tax increase to come across his desk and vetoing more than 700 bills.
"I'm kind of a popular guy for being a penny-pincher," he said. "Businesses in New Mexico went to bed at night knowing the business environment was not going to get any worse because of legislation — because I had the ability to veto it."
Unlike other governors in the GOP field, Mr. Johnson doesn't take credit for creating one job as governor, which he notes is ironic, given the fact that during his time in office the employment rate grew 13.7 percent while national employment during the same period grew 12 percent according to seasonally adjusted employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those statistics put him on firmer ground than much of the rest of the field, including former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, whose state's overall job growth inched up about 1.2 percent, while national employment grew by more than 5 percent.
"I loathe politicians who talk about creating jobs when they don't create any jobs," he said.
Asked why his record hasn't won more headlines, he said, "Maybe, it is because I have talked about legalizing marijuana and that makes me a fringe candidate.
"I would argue just the opposite," he said. "Here is somebody who is willing to take on the status quo regardless what the topic is and there is a consistency to taking it on, and that includes our drug policy. That's what I would argue."
Mr. Johnson — who smoked marijuana between 2005 and 2008 for medicinal purposes — argues that the cost of the war on drugs, by adding to prison populations and fomenting violence along the U.S.-Mexican border, far outweighs any benefit.
States, he said, should have the option of legalizing marijuana, a move that could save $10 billion annually in law-enforcement costs and generate $10 billion in revenue each year in the United States.
He cites such examples as Portugal, which has reduced drug use through decriminalization. "This is a prohibition phenomenon," he said, shifting the conversation to border violence tied to the drug trade. "Legalize marijuana and arguably 75 percent of the border violence of Mexico goes away."
Mr. Johnson also has called for ending "nation-building" in Iraq and Afghanistan, a balanced-budget amendment and a 43 percent cut in federal spending, including defense. He also proposes to replace federal income taxes with a 23 percent consumption-based levy.
On immigration, he said the solution is twofold: reform the nation's welfare state so people can't collect the same amount of money for sitting at home as they could working low-wage jobs, and make it easier for immigrants to obtain work visas.
"Building a fence across 2,000 miles of border, putting the National Guard arm in arm across the border, that's a whole lot of money spent and no benefit whatsoever," he said, adding that he would have vetoed the immigration law that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed into law last year.
Immigrants became scapegoats, the former governor said, for Arizona's economic woes.
"In a nutshell, that is a reason for all our ills," he said. "Politicians that stand up and say, 'I'm going to save you from the illegal alien, I'm going to save you from ... drugs and I'm going to make sure you have great health care, and I'm going to save you against the terrorist.' "
Too many politicians, he said, promise too much.
"That's what has us in the position we are in," he said.
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