Note from the Editor: On Thursday I was able to do something few have the chance to do: spend the entire day with a Presidential candidate. Two-term Governor of New Mexico and likely Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson came to Minnesota for a fundraiser. What I learned during our time together reinforced the idea that this candidate means it when he claims to represent all Americans.
Gary Johnson doesn’t pander to religious extremists. He also shrugs off the conventional wisdom that associating with religious minorities, such as Pagans, is a bad idea. Back in October, he participated in a Pagan Media Town Hall, at the time when mainstream media most loves to write derogatory fluff articles about Pagans and “real” witches. Johnson was roundly mocked for his participation by the mainstream press. Even after that, he still accepts me, an open Pagan, as his Minnesota host.
I meet Johnson at the airport on Thursday; he’s dressed casually with a backpack slung over one shoulder. It looks natural on him, an avid outdoors man. Paragliding, climbing Mount Everest, ironman triathlons, are all part of his life. His fitness can only help him: his schedule has him running from one event to the next for the next five days, with a schedule that spreads from 4 am to very late at night.
At the baggage claim we talk about safe subjects like weather, the flight, losing your luggage. I can’t help teasing him just a bit. I ask, “So, have you ever been picked up by a crazy cat lady with six cats waiting for you in the car?”
He stops scanning the carousel for his bag and looks at me, “Do you have six cats waiting for me in the car?”
I laugh, assuring him no cats await him in my car. This sparks a discussion of a bill put before him during his time as the Governor of New Mexico. It sought to limit the number of animals a person could own in an attempt to stop animal hoarding. He vetoed the bill because people should be able to have as many pets as they can care for, and if the pets are not cared for, animal welfare addresses that. He notes that animal hoarding is a mental illness; no bill can cure someone of mental illness and this bill would have made that illness a crime. His views on illness extends to drugs. “Drug addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue,” he says. Johnson favors legalizing marijuana and commuting sentences for persons incarcerated on non-violent drug charges.
After grabbing his bag we head to the cat-free car and drive to Hyatt Place South Minneapolis. There, like most everywhere we go, Johnson acts like an average citizen. His unassuming demeanor and lack of entourage grant him anonymity. Also contributing is the 7% to 9% he’s at in the polls, the reason that brings him to Minnesota.
To be eligible for Federal Matching Funds Johnson must raise $500,000 in $250 or less increments in twenty states. So far, he’s raised $600,000 but falls short in the number of donors in four states. Of the four, Minnesota is furthest from the required goal. If he can raise the funds here, his campaign receives $250,000 in federal funds. While a small sum compared to the money that flows to and through better-known candidates, that money can make a difference. The two things that can be deciding factors in a campaign are money and media coverage.
Johnson’s relative anonymity appears to be by design – just not by Johnson’s design. He was excluded from all but two GOP debates, and it appears his exclusion was a boardroom decision. CNN’s criteria for who to include in debates appeared fair. If a candidate polls above a certain percentage, that candidate gets included. Johnson polled higher than Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum. He tied with Herman Cain in the only CNN poll where his name appeared. Yet Huntsman, Santorum, and Cain were included in the CNN debates and Johnson was excluded. When Johnson hit 3% in a gallop poll, he met CNBC’s criteria for its debate, yet CNBC offered no reason for his exclusion. NBC then changed their debate criteria to 4%. Political commentators began calling these sudden standards changes ‘The Gary Johnson Rule.’
Johnson’s exclusion from debate prompted his departure from the GOP, and his bid for the Libertarian Party nomination.
After his party change the press coverage on Johnson increased by what Johnson estimates as approximately 20%. Articles like Theo Anderson’s In These Times headline, “Why Gary Johnson Should Terrify the Democrats” began to appear. The ACLU scores Johnson higher in protecting civil liberties than any other presidential candidate, including President Obama, and that has caught the attention of progressives.
GOP strategists worry Johnson will play spoiler and hand Obama the election. In Thursday’s Public Policy Polling data Johnson scored 7%, stealing votes from both Obama and Romney. 39% of Johnson voters would support Romney if Johnson dropped out, while 18% would support the President.
Chipotle and weddings
Johnson’s schedule today is tight. He has one hour to check into the hotel, eat, and then do a phone interview with a radio station in Ohio. He throws his bags in his room, and we head back out. The area around the airport is a restaurant wasteland, and Johnson’s looking for a salad or something healthy. ”How do you not eat like shit when you’re traveling?” I ask. I discover we share something in common: both of us have Celiacs disease, an auto-immune reaction to gluten found in wheat. While I find avoiding wheat an annoyance, Johnson embraces it. “It’s easy to eat well when you avoid gluten,” he says. He has a point, but out of bitterness at the loss of good pizza, I refuse to agree.
Driven by the need for better food choices, I take him to the Mall of America. We stroll past several restaurants when Johnson spots a Chipotle. “Are you good with this?” he asks. Who doesn’t love Chipotle? We sit with our burrito bowls and chat about his upcoming wedding. I’m secretly gushing inside over the thought of a wedding in the White House. That’s only happened one time in our history. It hits me, how surreal this is. I, a Pagan journalist, am chowing down on Chipotle in the Mall of America with a man who might someday be President. Yes, it’s a long shot, but it’s also a real possibility. When Ross Perot ran for President 40% of voters were open to voting for a 3rd Party candidate and Perot ended up with 19% of the popular vote. At one point, Perot lead the Polls, but his ‘interesting’ theories about the CIA following his daughter eroded his support. Today, 80% of the electorate is open to a third party candidate for President.
And Gary Johnson has a plan to make that happen.
His plan hinges on getting 15% in the pre-debate polls. If a candidate gets 15% in national polls, he or she is invited to join the televised Presidential debates. Johnson would join the stage with President Obama and, presumably, GOP nominee Mitt Romney. If Johnson can achieve that, he says “All bets are off.” He believes if people are exposed to his message and can compare him with the candidates from the two main parties, he has a chance. His open and direct answers will contrast with the carefully worded evasions and changing responses of Romney and Obama.
Lunch finished, his treat, we climb back in the car for the short drive back to his hotel. In route, his radio interview begins. While he talks, I wonder how many times he’s asked the same question, and wonder whether he gets sick of giving repetitive responses. I wonder if he gets tired of being on the road and in a different city each day. His pace is grueling. We pull into the lot of the hotel. I park the car but keep the motor and the air on. His interview has ten more minutes. That’s OK. I brought my Nook.
Several pages of crappy book later, the interview wraps up and Johnson’s ready for the hotel and the next press interviews. He invites me in, saying I’m welcome to hang out with him, but I decline. I need to go home and pick up my husband, then try to do something with my abused-by-humidity hair. I let him know I’ll be back at 5pm.
The media gauntlet begins
The hair is a lost cause, but the trip home proves productive. My husband joins me when I pick Johnson up for the evening fundraiser. This makes me happy: I like being with my husband, and this way I can stick him with the driving. Maybe I can sucker Johnson into navigating.
The fundraiser is at a private home in Eden Prairie, nested in streets that resemble rat warrens. Mapquest makes the directions look easy enough, but I’ve been screwed by Mapquest often enough to be suspicious of “easy” directions. I have worried all day about looking like a fool by not knowing where to go, or much worse, getting into an accident that injures Governor Johnson. Now I can relax. I sit back and prepare for my press interview with Johnson.
We arrive at the hotel in time to introduce Eric Black, political writer for the independent and not-for-profit MinnPost, to Gov. Johnson. I watch the interview from across the hotel lobby; the body language change fascinates me. Black, a seasoned and respected reporter, is clearly skeptical early in the interview: his body language is stiff, closed in on itself. As the interview progresses, Black relaxes. He leans towards Gary and listens more carefully.
That’s typical when people meet Johnson. They aren’t sure who this person is and if they should take him seriously. Is he a “real” candidate? Some may leave disagreeing with certain policies, but they almost always walk away liking him and knowing he’s for real. (You can read Black’s interview on the MinnPost here. ) Black examines Johnson’s policies and offers a memorable quote from Johnson, “I’m the only candidate who can advocate for gay rights and gun rights in the same sentence.”
Now it’s my turn to interview Johnson. I’m less interested in discussing his views on issues of policy and more interested in his reaction to the Pagan Media Town Hall. In mid-October, Johnson agreed to a live press conference via G+ hangout with six representatives of the Pagan media. Media organizations participating in the Q&A included Star Foster of Patheos.com, Devin Hunter of ModernWitch Podcast, David Salisbury of PNC-Washinton DC, Crystal Blanton of PNC-Bay Area, Jason Pitzl-Waters of the Wild Hunt, Ramesh Rao of the Hindu American Foundation, and myself for PNC-Minnesota. The Johnson campaign promoted the Town Hall and people could watch it streamed live or view it later courtesy of Keith Barrett.
As might be expected when a candidate is seen talking with Pagans in mid-October, the mainstream press couldn’t pass up the opportunity for mockery. The Wonkette, New York Magazine, Gawker, and New Mexico newspapers all took shots at him for talking with Pagans.
Wild Hunt Blogger and PNC editor-in-chief Jason Pitzl-Waters summarized in his column for the Washington Post’s On Faith, “When a candidate for national office in the United States is tied to Pagan faiths in any way, it’s either seen as a liability (see Christine O’Donnell’s unfortunate “dabble-gate” fiasco, or the press around New York City Councilman Dan Halloran’s Heathen faith), or used as a target to shore up one’s Christian bona fides (as when Republican politicians like Bob Barr and George W. Bush pushed to limit the free exercise of Pagan faiths on military bases.) Pagans, for the most part are used to either being ignored or being sensationalized. We’re still viewed by many journalists as oddities to be dragged out in late October for “real live Witch” stories, and then quickly forgotten.”
PNC interview with Johnson
With this in mind, I asked Johnson for his feelings about the Pagan Media Town Hall. He said, “It was a very positive experience. I’ve had the good fortune to see a bit of the world and there are other beliefs and the whole notion of doing unto others and you’d have done unto you is not just a Christian idea. That is an idea that is spiritual. The Pagan [Media] Town Hall was a spiritual experience and I enjoyed it.”
Johnson’s ideas on spirituality are far different than other Presidential contenders. While a firm supporter of religious freedom, he does not pander to religious extremists, nor does he make frequent religious references in his speeches. He understands people can have a moral framework without the Christian church. ”I really don’t have any church-going friends. I mean, I do have people I associate with that go to church, but I’m going to make the observation that most people don’t go to church,” Johnson said. ”Does that mean they don’t have beliefs? No, it doesn’t mean they don’t have beliefs. They’re like me. Those beliefs don’t require church to affirm or deny. So I find myself in this very general category of socially liberal and fiscally conservative which includes the notion of tolerance. I think most people fall in that category which is very libertarian. You can do or say whatever you want as long as it doesn’t adversely affect my life.”
His refusal to pay lip service to Christianity while respecting all religious rights are what cause people to doubt his electability. This outlook makes me disappointed in my fellow citizens, but I’m hopeful this is changing.
I then brave asking him about the negative mainstream media coverage of the Q&A session. Surely that gave the Johnson, and his campaign staff, ulcers. He says, “How the mainstream media reacted? There was no consternation within my campaign about any of the feedback that we got on that event. No consternation.”
I watch his face while I ask that question, and while he answers. He looks surprised I thought his campaign should care about the negative press coverage he received after taking part in a Pagan Media event.
He appears to be the rarest of all politicians, someone who means it when he says he represents all Americans, not just the ones that can help him or give him money or make him look good. This is why he’s interviewing with me again, wearing a slightly puzzled expression, paired with a smile for my concern that Pagan support might be damaging his reputation.
Jason Pitzl-Waters says that Johnson’s willingness to talk to religious minority media may have, in part, been driven by a modicum of desperation in getting his message out,” but I don’t believe this after interacting with him for most of the day. I especially don’t believe this after hearing how he met with anyone in New Mexico while he was Governor. One day a month, anyone could meet with Johnson for 5 minutes. A trucker met with Johnson about an underpass that trucks were barred from using because it was deemed too low. With the underpass closed, truckers had to drive 6 hours out of their way. After showing photos of trucks going underneath it safely, Johnson reopened the underpass. Johnson says he would do the same thing as President.
Shaking hands and (not) kissing babies
I’m concerned we’ll be late getting Johnson to the small, informal meet and greet in Eden Prairie if we don’t leave now. It’s raining and it’s rush hour. My questions about the Pagan Town Hall are answered. My husband pulls up the car, and Johnson and I head for the backseat. Johnson is old-fashioned, holding doors open for me, and attempts to insist I sit in the front seat. I’m less polite – I hop in the back seat before he can concoct reasons why he should sit back there. I hand Johnson the Mapquest sheet and gleefully tell him he gets to navigate. My smugness lasts all of 30 seconds as my husband hands the map back to me and reminds me Johnson is a guest, and I should read the map. Damn.
On the drive back, Johnson and my husband talk about immigration. “If illegal immigration is a problem then that’s a sign we have something wrong with our immigration laws,” notes the Governor. He supports making it simple to get a work permit, and scoffs at the idea of building a fence. He’s curious to know how Minnesotans feel about immigration. I can tell he’s feeling my husband and I out to see if he can expect people at the meet and greet to be batshit insane about the issue. It isn’t much of an issue here, we tell him. He appears relieved. I can only imagine the conversations about immigration he’s had.
As we pull into the driveway I see the homeowners, the Rozanski’s, through the glass front door. There are Johnson signs out front and the couple is plainly pleased to meet the Governor. Their home is a perfect specimen of upper middle class respectability, with wood floors and light color fabrics. Johnson’s literature and donation envelopes sit on a table in the entryway. Some supporters are already there and more come in right behind us. We head to the basement, where the party takes place.
The crowd is an interesting mix. Young college kids talk with an elderly man, probably retired. Business suits pepper the crowd of roughly 20 people, but most wear casual clothing. Johnson looks relaxed and professional in a suit minus the tie. He wades into the crowd and sees to it he greets everyone there. This is a talent common to people in politics and sales; not all of them can look as natural at it as Johnson. Some in the group know Johnson’s stances on every issue and they support him enthusiastically, while others are holding back, listening but saying little.
The crowd circulates more with guests nibbling on veggies and drinking pop out of clear plastic cups. They converse about the beautiful weather, the chances of a new stadium for the Vikings, and about Johnson. Mostly they talk about “if.” If he can do it. If he can be in a debate. If people are disgusted enough with the two major parties that they are willing to give Johnson a shot. If he has a chance at being President.
Johnson addresses these “ifs” with self-depreciating humor. He acknowledges his goal of polling 15% so he can be included in the debate is “pie-in-the-sky.” He says he’s a longshot to win. But he promises what the crowd walks away believing: if he does reach the debate he will not let that opportunity go to waste. He is ready to take on the GOP nominee and the President. What he needs from his supporters is help getting to that magic 15%.
Guests fire questions at him, about policy and about a running mate. Johnson answers directly, even when he knows the person is not going to like his answer. He fields a question about Israel. Johnson’s views do not please anyone on a specific side of the Israel/Palestinian question. He believes the US is too willing to tell other countries what they should do, while we are unwilling to practice what we preach.
Norann Dillon, Chair of the Minnesota Republican Liberty Caucus which is attempting to push the GOP towards more libertarian views, asks what he would do if people reviled him after his run siphoned votes away from the GOP candidate and handed Obama the election. All eyes turn to Johnson. ”I don’t buy into that. I think I draw votes away from both parties and the recent PPP poll shows that. My stances on gay marriage, immigration and other social issues will attract voters from left while my economic policies and strong support of gun rights attracts those on the right.”
The biggest question appears almost at the end of the evening. ”What if you don’t get into the debate?” a young male asks. Johnson details his long game. “If the libertarian candidate gets 5% of the national vote, then the Libertarian Party will get $90 million in matching funds from the federal government,” Johnson says. He stresses that money could be a game changer and could help the Libertarian Party have a better chance in the next election. If he can pull that off, he thinks perhaps the Libertarian Party might choose him to run in 2016. Breaking the stranglehold the two major parties have over the US takes money. Lots and lots of money.
That analysis is both sobering and hopeful to the guests. Johnson understands the difficulties, is realistic about the effort involved, and knows how to reach for every advantage possible.
“I’m donating $250 and I challenge others to match me,” says the man that asked about Israel. Guests ask for donation envelopes, and the gathering winds down. Some ask Johnson to sign small posters, while others, myself included, ask to take a photo with him. I knew it was a long day for Johnson and he said yes when I asked if he was ready to leave. He’d been going for 17 hours straight and I assumed he’d want to head back to the hotel and go to bed.
I’m wrong. For a man so laid back, Johnson has boundless energy. He wants to go to dinner, if we are ok with that. We’re agreeable: we haven’t eaten yet, either. It’s my husband’s turn to find a place to eat that’s open, has a gluten-free menu, and is somewhat near the hotel. The dining choices at 9:30 pm are limited and we pin our hopes on Big Bowl. On the way, someone raises the subject of gun rights. Johnson’s support of gun rights is as explicit as his support for gay marriage. We talk about weapons, how the meet and greet went, his next trip to Minnesota in April, and how soon a person needs to be at the airport to catch a flight out of Minneapolis. I reflect on what I didn’t hear all day. I didn’t hear angry denunciations. I didn’t hear homophobic hate speech. I didn’t hear God mentioned a single time, not by Johnson and not by his supporters. I hadn’t realized how pervasive it is in our political discourse until it was absent.
Prior to meeting him in person, I agreed with many, but not all, of Johnson’s political positions. I admire his moral courage in publicly treating Pagans as fellow humans worthy of respect, and I came to like him as a person. He’s funny, sincere, kind, doesn’t try too hard to make you like him, and is intelligent. By the end of the evening, I would choose him to be my friend.
This is what I want in a President: someone I trust to tell me the truth, even when I won’t like it. Someone who does his or her best to act on convictions, rather than serving special interests. Someone who sees people as people: not as black people and as rich people and as gay people and as Muslim people. Someone who has courage to match his intelligence. Someone so ethical and kind that you’re proud of that friendship. That’s the type of person I want for president.