On the first Friday morning in August, in the University Club some 38 floors above downtown Tampa, a former Republican governor with presidential aspirations is speaking to a small group of lawyers and lawmakers, lamenting the Obama administration's spending and calling for major tax cuts to reboot the economy.
But unlike Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin, this possible 2012 candidate isn't solely focused on bread-and-butter issues. Gary Johnson, 57, who served as New Mexico's governor from 1994 to 2002, became known nationally a decade ago as an iconoclastic Republican for his outspoken criticism on the war on drugs — and in particular, marijuana.
Although the term "Libertarian" gets thrown around frequently, Johnson seems to fully qualify. His concerns about the economy sound like those of any garden-variety Republican or Tea Party member, but he also wants government to do less when it comes to international affairs.
Johnson (sounding a little like GOP gubernatorial insurgent Rick Scott) says he evaluates everything on a cost-benefit analysis. "What are we spending, what are we getting?" are the questions he says he always asked himself on any issue when he was governor, such as securing the borders. As for the idea of stationing the National Guard across 1,600 miles of border with Mexico, he says "the cost of that would absolutely dwarf the benefit."
Johnson can speak with some real cred about illegal immigration, having led one of only four states that actually sit on the Mexican border. He says he would have vetoed SB1070, Arizona's illegal immigration bill, claiming it will lead to racial profiling.
"I think that 75 percent of the problem goes away overnight if you just make it easy for immigrants to get a work visa," he says, emphasizing, "It's a work visa. It's not a pathway to citizenship."
Legalization of marijuana ties into the illegal immigration issue, he says, because that move alone would make 75 percent of border issues go away.
It was his stance on pot a decade ago that first brought Johnson onto the national stage. With California citizens in November about to vote on legalizing the weed, he considers this moment to be a tipping point for the rest of the country. "Legalize it. Control it. Regulate it. Tax it," he says, stressing that it won't be legal for kids to smoke pot.
The Tampa law firm of GrayRobinson sponsored Johnson's speech. In a brief interview with CL before his address, Johnson stressed that he wasn't running for office, but that's because legally, at the moment, he can't. That's because he's part of a 501(c)(4) political advocacy committee called OUR America Initiative whose primary focus by law cannot be political campaigning; if he does decide to announce as a presidential candidate, he would have to sever ties with the PAC.
Johnson was invited to speak in Tampa by Jason Unger, an attorney in GrayRobinson's Tallahassee office, who got to know Johnson when he lived in New Mexico. He said he likes Johnson's positions on fiscal discipline and his support for legal immigration. And he says he hopes he'll run for president.
Most pundits don't think he has a chance — unless he builds a coalition of Libertarians and moderate Republicans. In a blog post on the Atlantic magazine's website entitled "Why Gary Johnson Isn't Taken Seriously," journalist Marc Ambinder wrote that it "is within Gary Johnson's power to become a top-tier presidential candidate. Statements and press releases won't do."
Ambinder also writes that the one thing that Johnson is best known for — legalizing weed — could be a stigma that will be hard for him to transcend.
But at a time when the country seems to be screaming for something different in their leaders, Johnson brings proven government experience with an out-of-the-box approach on some critical issues. Perhaps he shouldn't be written off just yet.