Gary Johnson, Libertarian presidential hopeful, on pot, pride and Jon Stewart

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Former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson, who is now running for president as a Libertarian, stopped in Denver yesterday for Pridefest. He took a break from schmoozing with potential voters to chat with Westword about his campaign, the Libertarian Party, marijuana, gay marriage and his ongoing battle to get the mainstream media attention he needs to actually make some waves in the national race.

Earlier in the year, we talked to Johnson, who was formerly a member of the Republican party, about the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act and how he thinks Colorado could be a leader in ending pot prohibition. And yesterday afternoon, he stepped out of the hot sun and his Pride booth on 14th Avenue to sit in the shade with Westword and discuss his hopes to poll above 15 percent, which would allow him to participate in the national debates. If he gets that far, he said he is confident he would be able to take votes away from both Romney and Obama -- maybe even enough to win.

Here's our Q&A: Westword: Do you want to start by telling me how you got into this race under the Libertarian ticket and why you're taking this route?

Gary Johnson: First of all, there's nothing that I'm saying that's any different. The message is unchanged, and speaking with a broad brush, I think the majority of Americans describe themselves as fiscally responsible and socially accepting, and I'm in that category myself. Well, who represents that? I think Democrats, for the most, represent socially accepting, for the most part -- civil liberties. For the most part, I think Republicans have been about representing fiscal responsibility. I don't think either of them do so well in either category, but that's what a Libertarian is. So as a candidate running for president of the United States, I come at Obama hard from the left. Civil liberties...repeal the Patriot Act. I would've never signed the National Defense Authorization Act. I really believe in marriage equality. I really believe in ending the drug war. I'm the only candidate that doesn't want to bomb Iran. I'm the only candidate that wants to get out of Afghanistan immediately. And then, on the other side, Romney. Look, balance the federal budget and do it now, because if we don't do it, I believe that we're going to find ourselves in a monetary collapse and that's going to be horrible, horrible. Life as we know it is going to cease.

WW: What do you think are some of the most misguided assumptions about what you do and what the Libertarian Party offers?

GJ: Gosh, I just think it's been so undefined. You have a lot more people in this country that describe themselves as Libertarian than vote Libertarian. Libertarian is not a moniker that anybody is shying away from.... "Republicans/Libertarian" -- somebody that has that attached to them, they're not shying away from that. Democrats, it's kind of the same thing.... You can be a Republican and have Libertarian leanings or you can be a Democrat and have Libertarian leanings. How about just being a Libertarian? This is the pitch here. This is terribly refreshing to not have to deal with prejudices that exist on both sides. How would a Libertarian president make a difference? How would you work with Congress as a Libertarian president? Well, imagine a Libertarian president challenging Democrats on civil liberties and imagine a Libertarian president challenging Republicans on, really, do what you say you're gonna do. Spend less money, in the context of saving the country.

WW: Why do you think now is a time that your candidacy, and the Libertarian route, is something this country really needs?

GJ: People really do recognize that we're in a heap of doo-doo. And I think people are really frustrated on all those fronts. Marriage equality -- I think there's a lot of frustration. I think there's a lot of frustration when it comes to wars. C'mon, what are we doing? We're killing ourselves....The drug war, I think there's a tremendous amount of, this has got to end. I think the spending. There's a tremendous amount of discontent over the fact that we're going to lose it. We're going to lose it, unless we fix it, and nobody's talking about fixing it. Romney says we need to balance the federal budget, but we need to spend a little bit more money on defense. I hate to use the word "defense," because it's war. But spend more money on defense and hold Medicare harmless. Well, I finished second-grade math. It doesn't add up.

WW: What do you think is going to be your biggest obstacle to polling above 15 percent?

GJ: That is the obstacle. If I poll at 15 percent, and right now, depending on the poll, it's anywhere between 6 and 9. Probably the biggest ingredient to my polling in that range is that I'm simply the third name, which is also really important in all of this, too. There are going to only be three candidates on the ballot in all fifty states. Me, Obama and Romney, which is really significant.... If I'm in the national debates, I could crash and burn.... Or I could actually win the election. That's the possibility that exists, if I'm in the debates. And I've got to be at 15. So the biggest obstacle to the 15 is just being in the polls. They poll constantly without including my name.

WW: So what do you have to do to get that to happen?

GJ: Well, so this article right here reaches more people than I'm going to reach all day long.

WW: Jon Stewart had you on his show recently. Why do you think Jon Stewart has interest in you versus other mainstream media at this point?

GJ: Well, it's interesting that he does. And that [Stephen] Colbert does too. And as [Stewart] said to me before we went on air, "I wanted to have you on".... I think people are genuinely Libertarian-leaning. I think you'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind to not see the differences between me and Obama and Romney. It's one thing to be Santa Claus and say, "Here's what we need to do, and everything's going to be terrific." I think you've got to have a resume to suggest you can do this job.... There's nothing in my resume to suggest that I can't do this, and in fact do a better job.

WW: How important is it to get mainstream media attention at this stage in the game?

GJ: CNN cast this entire thing in stone for me when I was in the Republican primary. They excluded me from their second debate. And they said, "We're excluding you from the debate, because you're not at 2 percent in A, B and C polls".... I wasn't in A, B and C polls. And then, CNN included me in their bi-weekly poll -- this was about ten months ago -- for the first time, and in that poll, I was at two percent, which put me ahead of [Rick] Santorum and [Jon] Huntsman and tied me with [Herman] Cain. After that, they dropped my name from every poll...with no explanation as to why...I have been excluded. It's been a boardroom decision. I can't tell you why. I can come up with 200 guesses as to why -- all of them just as outlandish as what may ultimately be the reason, and I'll never know that.

WW: How frustrating is that for you?

GJ: Well, that's really frustrating. That's really frustrating to not be able to compete. I thought at a minimum, I'd be able to compete.

WW: Does that seem surprising to you?

GJ: This is completely by surprise, totally by surprise. Given the fact that what I'm saying is really identical to what Ron Paul is saying. I think by Ron Paul's own admission, his candidacy has come to an end. It's not come to an end because of the convention in Tampa. But when that goes away, where is the spokesperson for liberty and freedom and what I think is the fastest growing segment of American politics today?.... You, as a young person, have been screwed and it's politicians that are screwing you. It's your parents who are saying that you've got to pay for this. We're not, but you are.

Page down to see more photos of Johnson and read the rest of our interview. WW: Speaking of Ron Paul, you have this event tonight with Ron Paul supporters in Denver. Can you tell me a bit about that?

GJ: So they have one of these meetups in Fort Worth a week ago. And it was packed.... They had been at the Republican convention all day and now they were coming to meet me that evening. It went terrifically. It was as enthusiastic of a group as I've addressed in the last two-and-a-half years.... They do have a voice, and that is key to getting to 15 percent also, is getting that support. And it's amazing to me how many Ron Paul supporters don't even know who I am. It really is amazing.... It's the reality, and that can absolutely be overcome in no time at all, if you would just check me out. That's my pitch.

WW: So you're here in Colorado today. Have voters here been responsive to you?

GJ: Very responsive. This is very important. I think Colorado has the opportunity to change worldwide drug policy with the referendum. And I see that happening. You know how that goes down -- you pass that and implement it and the entire country, New York, Des Moines, Iowa, Houston, Texas, Los Angeles, everybody is getting on an airplane to go to Denver for the weekend to chill out, to hang out. So it's not going to last long. Every state is going to adopt similar measures.

WW: What do you think have been the biggest obstacles to passing this here?

GJ: You know, I really don't view it as an obstacle, but the number one reason why it ultimately will is because more and more people are talking about it. If you can just get people talking about it, people move on the issue. And clearly, there's a trend line on the issue. It's not going backwards. So how long is it going to take before it gets to 70 or 75 percent?.... People and how they deal with the stresses in their lives should be able to have a drink if that helps them out.... If they get that same thing from smoking pot, they ought to be able to smoke pot.

WW: How do you think this issue will get some traction for you?

GJ: It's what I'm known for, but hopefully what it will do...[is] just cause people to take another step and actually look at everything else and see that there's a thread to everything. And the thread is, you've seen the pro-choice buttons that we're handing out: "Pro-choice," it says, then underneath it says, "on everything." And choices, as long as you're not doing any harm to anyone else...does government have a role in that ever? I don't think so. Government has a role when we are threatened...or in fact harmed.

WW: Do you think that the Regulate act here is on its way to being passed?

GJ: I do. You know, growing up in New Mexico, it has never occurred to me that there would always be polls that came out that said that, on a per capita basis, Coloradans smoke more marijuana than any other state. So Colorado is the place to have this happen. I visited Colorado more than any other state, because we're border states. My passion is skiing.

WW: How important is Colorado in this upcoming election?

GJ: There's a real opportunity, I think, because having been governor in New Mexico. Arizona did a poll...9 percent of Arizonans are gonna vote for me. Eighty percent of Arizonans don't know who I am. Of the 20 percent that know who I am, when it comes to Obama, Romney and me, half of them are going to vote for me. So it's probably the same in Colorado. Eighty percent of Coloradans don't know who I am, but those that do, you know what, it's a pretty darn good percentage of those that know, that are inclined to say yeah.

WW: So why'd you want to come here today for Pridefest? How are LGBT issues important to you?

GJ: Well, back to the thread...I am socially accepting. I accept other people's lifestyles. I think most Americans fall in that category and we do have a Constitution of the United States, which I think, gay rights, marriage equality is a constitutionally guaranteed right on par with the civli rights of the '60s and no discrimination.... When you have an event like today, I think what it says is, America is saying, enough with the bigotry. Enough with the phobia. Our kids are gay. Our friends are gay. Our business associates are gay. They are terrific genuine human beings.... There's no difference. We are all equal.

WW: What's your take on Obama's same-sex marriage announcement?

GJ: It was really much ado about nothing. He wants to leave it to the states. I think 41 states have passed laws that say marriage is between a man and a woman. So if he leaves it to the states, it's not going to happen. And I do believe that federal government has a primary role in enforcing the United States Constitution -- not the state constitutions, but the United States Constitution. So this is a primary responsibility of the federal government to say...that marriage equality is something that is guaranteed, that you can't discriminate in any state.... If the federal government didn't step in and pass federal civil rights legislation [in the 1960s], would there still be segregated bathrooms in the south today? I think there would be.

WW: How do you think the issue of marriage equality is going to play out in the presidential race?

WW: If you took everyone that supports marriage equality, which is the majority of Americans, and they were just to vote that issue, I would be the best on that issue. And I think if you take all these issues that I'm the best, I think, on all these issues.... It's one thing to correctly point out the issues and the solutions to the problems, but you've got to have a resume.

WW: So it's obviously an uphill battle for you. Do you really believe that you can win this race?

GJ: Yes, but the scenario to do that is getting in the debates. Under no other scenario is it possible to win.... [In that scenario], there is a third choice and it's way different than the other two. Back to don't bomb Iran, marriage equality, to drug wars, our military conflicts, balancing the federal budget.... That is the pie-in-the-sky scenario of being in a position where anything could happen, including crashing and burning -- spectacularly.

More from our Politics archive: "Photos: Mitt Romney backers bash Obama at campaign HQ opening"

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