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Gary Johnson was governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003. He made a name for himself by vetoing 750 bills that didn’t meet his standards for thrift. Before that, Johnson made a fortune in construction, starting as a solo Albuquerque handyman in 1974 and selling his 1,000-employee company, Big J Enterprises, for $10 million in 1999. Johnson likes to ski, hike, and cycle. He has completed 75 triathlons and climbed Mt. Everest while healing from a broken leg. Also, he is running for president.
While Representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.) carried the Libertarian flame all the way to the Republican convention this summer, it’s Johnson, not Paul, who’s on the ballot as the Libertarian candidate in 47 states—and making his case in courts to get on in the remaining three. (According to Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, Pennsylvania is likely, Michigan a maybe, Oklahoma almost impossible.) “No other third party is going to come close to that,” Johnson says.
Johnson began the race as a Republican. His antiwar, pro-gay marriage, pro-marijuana legalization message could not get traction in a primary race led, at one time or another in the polls, by every other candidate—except Paul. “I thought it was going to be hard to marginalize two people talking about the same thing,” says Johnson. “I just got excluded.” (During a Fox News (NWSA) debate he did manage to get into, Johnson drew applause when he said, “My next-door neighbors’ two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration.”) So Johnson became a Libertarian. While the party has no one in national office, it’s good at getting on ballots. “They know how hard ballot access is, and they’ve got people who have been doing it for years,” says Micah Sifry, author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America.
Photograph by Adam Golfer for Bloomberg Businessweek
In a recent CNN (TWX) poll—one of only a few that have taken Johnson into account—4 percent of registered voters backed him. Still, he might get enough votes to affect the outcome in Colorado, a hotly contested state with a marijuana-legalization ballot initiative. The Denver Post showed him with 3 percent of the vote and Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama 45 to 44 on Sept. 14. Johnson says he draws votes from both candidates, and from those that “wouldn’t have voted in the first place.” But if playing spoiler helps him get attention, he’ll be happy for it: “It’s a beautiful notion.”
On Sept. 18, New York University’s student Libertarian group invited Johnson to campus, a big stop for the campaign. In addition to the reporter from the Libertarian monthly Reason, who’s been shadowing Johnson since May and calls himself “the Johnson press corps,” he had interviews with NPR and Vice magazine. A camera crew filmed him for a Penn & Teller television special.
Former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who ran as a third-party candidate, had been enlisted to help warm up the crowd. After railing against the Transportation Security Administration (whose pat downs the former professional wrestler called “sexual assault”), the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on political contributions, the war on drugs, and electronic voting machines, Ventura finally made his pitch for Johnson. “If I see light on the horizon with Gary Johnson, then in 2016 you might get Jesse Ventura,” he said, before bolting to take the train back to Minnesota.
The bottom line: Gary Johnson, a handyman turned governor, drew 4 percent in a recent CNN poll—one of very few that included him.