Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson says he has empathy for immigrants who enter the United States without proper documentation.
“The jobs exist, but you can’t get across the border legally to take those jobs, so they come across without documentation — and you and I would be doing the same thing if we were in that situation, to feed our families,” Johnson said in an interview with NMPolitics.net.
Johnson’s stance on immigration illustrates well his let-the-market-regulate-itself approach to government: He believes the federal government should lift quotas on work visas for immigrants and let economic conditions decide how many people come to the United States to work.
Lifting those quotas, improving the legal immigration system, and letting the estimated 11 million people living here without legal status obtain work visas after passing background checks are among Johnson’s proposals to reform the immigration system.
“All of this talk of deporting 11 million undocumented workers really has a basis in untruth and misunderstanding,” he said. “We are getting the cream of the crop when it comes to workers from Mexico.”
Building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump proposes, is an idea Johnson called “insane” — another way to try to artificially regulate immigration instead of letting economics take over.
Johnson speaks often about ending “crony capitalism” — government picking winners and losers through regulations and laws. Democrats and Republicans both have special interests that gain when the party they support is in office, he says.
Johnson said he worked to level the playing field when he was New Mexico governor from 1995-2002 by rejecting special-interest influence and opening the door to everyone.
“Government doesn’t create jobs, the private sector does, but I do believe that I contributed mightily to this notion of equal opportunity,” he said. “That is something government can provide.”
In other words, free-market capitalism helps improve people’s lives, Johnson believes.
His efforts to create a competitive environment for New Mexico’s Native American tribes and pueblos when they were opening their first Las Vegas-style casinos is a good example, Johnson said.
A 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way for states to allow Native American casinos. Then-N.M. Gov. Bruce King appointed a task force in 1990 to negotiate gaming compacts with two tribes, but King decided not to sign those compacts.
Johnson restarted the process when he became governor. During his tenure the state entered into identical agreements with more than a dozen tribes and pueblos that allowed them to open casinos.
While some states limit the hours casinos can operate, the types of games that can be offered, and the size of bets, Johnson said he wanted to let the tribes and pueblos compete with each other and gaming operations in other states to find their own best practices. He said his focus was on working to “dot the I’s and cross the t’s” in a way that would ensure a level and competitive playing field.
That’s allowed Native communities in New Mexico to create top-notch gaming operations and improve their economies, Johnson said.
“I think that New Mexico casinos are head and shoulders above others in Indian gaming, and I think I’m directly responsible for that,” Johnson said.
Criminal justice issues
Given his belief that economics should drive society, it’s no surprise that Johnson is a fan of privatizing government services whenever possible. As governor, he expanded private prisons in New Mexico. His campaign for president comes as the U.S. Department of Justice is planning to stop housing inmates in private prisons, saying they aren’t as safe or effective as government-run prisons. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is considering making the same switch.
When Johnson became governor, the federal government was overseeing the state’s prisons because of the 1980 riot at the State Penitentiary outside Santa Fe that left 33 inmates dead. An inquiry into the riot found overcrowding, mismanagement, poorly trained and underpaid guards, and a host of other problems.
In other words, the state hadn’t managed its own prisons well. And when Johnson took office about 800 of New Mexico’s inmates were being housed in other states.
Johnson said he had to do something. Enter private prisons, which he defends today as helping New Mexico “offer the same services and goods as the public prison services at two-thirds the cost.”
That’s basic good government, Johnson said. “You should opt to do that every single time, because that’s money out of your and my pockets,” he said.
While Johnson’s stance on private prisons irks some liberals, many agree with his long-held support for the legalization of marijuana. Johnson has been promoting that idea since he was governor, and long before it became popular. Today 24 states, including New Mexico, allow marijuana use for medical purposes. The District of Columbia and four states — not including New Mexico — allow it for recreational use. Johnson said it’s only a matter of time before marijuana is legal nationwide.
He ties his support for legalizing marijuana with his views on criminal justice reform. He believes the United States imprisons too many people for drug crimes, and said he wants to see “an end to the war on drugs.”
“We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and I refuse to believe we are any less law abiding than any other nation,” Johnson said.
He also opposes mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses and other crimes, saying judges should have discretion to make choices in individual cases. “Isn’t that why we appoint judges, why we elect judges?” he asked.
Johnson’s rebuke of mandatory sentencing laws and the war on drugs is part of a wider critique of the nation’s criminal justice system. Recently, inmates in a number of states began a widespread prison strike. They’re protesting what some say amounts to slave labor. Federal prisoners are paid between 12 and 40 cents an hour for their work. Some states pay inmates more than that, while some pay less. In several states, inmates aren’t paid at all.
The latter is wrong, and encourages recidivism, Johnson said.
“Being able to let them make money and bank money while they’re in prison, that makes sense,” he said. “But free labor while they’re in prison, that doesn’t make sense. How do you get a fresh start in prison if you don’t have a bank account?”
‘It’s a rigged game’
Johnson is quick to point out Americans’ frustration with the two-party system. He says his fiscally conservative and socially liberally values, including his views on immigration and criminal-justice reform, line up well with most Americans’ views.
“I think most New Mexicans are in the same boat as most Americans, and that is that 60 percent of us find the two choices not acceptable,” he said.
Though Johnson may be the most successful third-party or independent presidential candidate in nearly a quarter century, he’s still struggling to gain traction with voters. He complained about the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has excluded him from all three debates between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. He says he’s in the race to win, but acknowledged that it’s “really tough when you’re not in the presidential debates.”
“It’s a rigged game. It’s a process that is dictated by Republicans and Democrats,” he said.
Johnson predicted that his campaign will also help the Libertarian Party “grow by leaps and bounds.” Third parties face ballot-access hurdles in New Mexico and elsewhere. If Johnson wins at least 5 percent of the vote in New Mexico, the Libertarian Party will gain major-party status and its candidates will have an easier time joining races with Democrats and Republicans in the next election.
Johnson said he will focus in the final weeks of the race on several states where polls show his support the highest — New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Alaska, Minnesota, Maine and New Hampshire. He held a campaign rally in Santa Fe on Saturday.
“It just makes sense to concentrate on those states where you are the highest, and New Mexico is where we are the highest,” Johnson said. “It would be terrific to win New Mexico.”
Two polls conducted last month gave differing pictures of the state of the presidential race in New Mexico. One, conducted Sept. 27-29 for the Albuquerque Journal, had Clinton at 35 percent, Trump at 31 percent, and Johnson at 24 percent. Another, conducted Sept. 28-Oct. 2 for KOB-TV, had Clinton at 46 percent, Trump at 33 percent, and Johnson at 14 percent.
A Republican source with knowledge of polling conducted last week said Trump’s support was falling in New Mexico following the release of a 2005 video that showed him making lewd comments about women. While some of that support was going to Johnson, the source said, more of it was going to Clinton.
And in Utah, Johnson doesn’t appear to be the choice of voters who reject Clinton and Trump. Three polls released in recent days have independent candidate Evan McMullin surging, with the latest putting McMullin in a statistical three-way tie with Trump and Clinton. That poll had Johnson’s support in Utah dropping to 5 percent.
‘Maybe I could actually win’ NM
Johnson, 63, is an avid athlete, and he’s said if he loses the presidential race he plans to bike the Continental Divide from Banff, Canada, to Antelope Wells, N.M. After he left the governor’s office, Johnson built what he calls his “dream home” north of Taos. He said he skis there 100 days a year.
In addition to that home, Johnson shares a second house with his fiancé Kate Prusak in Santa Fe. He said they are both athletic and into health and wellness. “I have a wonderful relationship with her,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s two children, Erik and Seah, are now grown. Seah lives in New Mexico, Johnson said. Erik lives in Denver, and he and his wife have a daughter.
But Johnson hasn’t yet settled into the idea that he’ll be spending his time outdoors after Nov. 8. His message for New Mexico voters, he said, is that he was bold and on the front lines of important issues as governor. He mentioned his opposition to the war on drugs, his support for letting parents choose where their children attend school, and his efforts to rebuild the state’s highways.
“I think I was really successful. I think it started with being honest, being transparent, telling the truth,” Johnson said. “…If people in New Mexico would reflect on that, maybe I could actually win the State of New Mexico.”