Editor's note: This article is set to appear in the Las Cruces Sun News and the Las Vegas Optic. I wrote it because there are many who don't remember what Gary Johnson's term as governor was really like.I remember it vividly. I was there.
Former Governor Has Terrible Track Record when it comes to Playing with Others
There’s been much interest in former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate for President, these days especially from those disenchanted by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Recently the focus has been on his “Aleppo” moments—the lack of knowledge of the most war-torn city in Syria and his inability to name even one foreign leader he admired. Regardless, Johnson has hung on to disenchanted voters and millennials who find his unconventional approach refreshing.
For those who know him only for his ardent defense of marijuana legalization or his non-interventionist stance, a glimpse into his history as Governor of New Mexico should be revealing.
I served as a Democratic New Mexico State Senator for six of his eight years as Governor, from 1997-2002. It was a rocky ride, to say the least.
The Republican Governor was in perpetual conflict with the Democratic legislature. He took great pride in his record number of vetoes (742). But the vetoes were only the legal ways he sought to exercise power over the legislative branch. In 1995 he signed casino gambling pacts with many of the state’s tribes—without legislative approval. His controversial action was struck down later that year by the New Mexico Supreme Court, which ruled that he had exceeded his authority. The compacts were later authorized by the legislature in 1997, my first year in Santa Fe.
That was the year when states were charged with enacting their own welfare reform packages to comport with then President Bill Clinton’s new welfare-to-work program. Again, Johnson didn’t wait for legislative authorization. He enacted his own Progress New Mexico program, one of the most restrictive in the nation. When the legislature crafted its own program, sponsored by Rep. J. Paul Taylor, it was immediately vetoed by Johnson, who continued to implement his program. J Paul Taylor, several other legislators and welfare recipients took the Governor to court—and won. In September, the NM Supreme Court struck down Progress NM and ordered Johnson to work with the legislature. He didn’t. He continued to implement Progress NM and in December was held in contempt of court. At that time, Johnson was the only Governor to achieve that distinction.
Johnson was a limited government kind of guy—in the extreme. His major thrust was privatization of government services from prisons to education. He was never successful in enacting a voucher program for public schools, despite repeated attempts. Another lawsuit from a bipartisan group of legislators, tried to halt Johnson’s private prison drive, but in the end, he succeeded (with the help of his arch- rival Sen. Manny Aragon) in getting private prisons in Hobbs, Santa Rosa and Grants. The state is still digging out from problems with the prisons (lawsuits and riots) and one of the prisons recently closed.
Not everything about Gov. Gary Johnson was bad, of course. I was a fan of his solitary battle against the war on drugs—but then, it’s important to remember that his outspoken and courageous stands came only after he had safely secured re-election in 1998. We didn’t hear much about drugs before then, perhaps for obvious reasons.
I understand why some people might not want to remember Gov. Gary Jonson’s era as Governor. To the nation’s newest voters his term is ancient history. But those who lived through it know it was a time of chaos, gridlock, abuse of power and name-calling, even worse than today. Through it all Johnson remained obsessed with marathons, hang-gliding, skiing and his own workout regime, giving it a theater-of-the-absurd quality that rivals even today’s antics.
So if you’re contemplating a protest vote in this year’s election, get serious about the prospect of contempt and chaos. And this time, I’m not talking about the Republican nominee.
Dede Feldman is a former Democratic State Senator from Albuquerque’s North Valley. She is the author of Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.