Gary Johnson wants to "shout from the rooftops" that Colorado can change the world

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Election day is rapidly approaching and it couldn't be clearer in Colorado where residents are bombarded with nonstop ads and weekly traffic jams due to Obama and Romney rallies. But those two aren't the only presidential candidates showing the state some love. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian pick, stopped here Friday -- and shared with us his predictions for November 6 and his hopes for the state's marijuana amendment.

Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico, is continuing to campaign across the country in the final weeks of the election, even though he has faced significant barriers in getting widespread attention, most recently with his exclusion from the national debates. This sparked some protest and dissent in Denver, setting for the first presidential debate of the season.

As a third-party candidate, much coverage of Johnson's campaign has focused on how he could potentially siphon votes away from the Republican and Democratic candidates, and what that could mean in the key swing states that will decide the election.

Colorado has special significance in these analyses, given that Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, is on the ballot -- and ending marijuana prohibition has been a central part of Johnson's campaign. The stakes are even higher given that a very small margin of voters will decide whether Colorado goes red or blue -- which could arguably play a significant role in who wins the election.

On Friday, we chatted with Johnson on the phone about what kind of impact he expects to have on election day, the future of the Libertarian Party in presidential races, and why he thinks legalizing marijuana could be a game-changer for Colorado.

Westword: We met back in June in Colorado, before the campaign season really kicked into full gear. Now, weeks before election day, is this where you expected you would be in terms of your traction and progress in this race?

Gary Johnson: Well, I was hoping that I'd be in the debates...but I have nothing to complain about. We'll see what happens on election day. Relative to the amount of money that we've [raised]...I think that we will by far show the best bang for the buck...meaning if you do a cost analysis on the outcome, we would be paying the least amount for our votes.

WW: I've written a bit about some of the local Libertarian Party protests of the debate. How frustrating has it been for you personally to be kept out of the debates?

GJ: I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, that's me.... But the Presidential Debate Commission is made up of Democrats and Republicans with absolutely no desire to see a third party on the stage. So it really does not surprise me. We have filed suit, but I don't think anything is going to come out of it.

WW: And what did you think of the debates?

GJ: It was much ado about nothing.... Romney and Obama are debating who is going to spend more money on Medicare, when Medicare has to be slashed.... It's not sustainable in any way, shape or form. If we think we are going to address the national debt without dramatically reforming Medicare, [there's no hope]."

WW: In what areas of the two debates so far have you most wanted to interject your platform? Where do you think you'd offer a perspective that was different from both Obama and Romney?

GJ: I would be advocating a balanced budget now. The two of them are really talking about tax policies -- this deduction, that deduction. Look, I'm advocating eliminating income tax, corporate tax...and abolishing the IRS and replacing all of it with one federal consumption tax. I think that's the answer when it comes to tens of millions of jobs. I constantly wanted to be shouting that during the debates.... And I just find it amazing that in these three debates, not one word addressed drug policy. Not one word. And that's because of me, I think. There is somebody out there that wants to legalize marijuana, so they just want to stay away from the issue completely.... And the...Libya [debate], who said this when...look, we shouldn't have had any personel in the embassy. It's not a show of weakness. It's just a show of being smart. Why put ourselves up as targets in an area that is just looking for targets?

WW: Was it a surprise to you that there was no discussion on drug policy?

GJ: Normally, we would have the "who is going to be tougher on drugs" discussion going on, but not one word...not one word.

WW: At this point in the race, if you had to make your best prediction... what percentage of votes do you think you'll get?

GJ: I hope that at the end of the day, we're recognized for having far exceeded expectations. I could see us potentially far exceeding expectations and [still] getting panned for what is not a good showing.... The best a Libertarian candidate for president has done is 1 percent of the general election vote, which is, I think, surprising.... I just would've thought it to be higher..... It would be a shame if we ended up getting 6 percent and somehow got panned for not showing up. That would be a hit out of the park.

WW: If you don't win, what do you hope you will have accomplished with your campaign?

GJ: If I get over 5 percent of the vote, that makes a big difference for the next cycle for Libertarians. If I were to show at 5 percent, I don't know [how] Libertarians would not be qualified in the ballots in every state next cycle.... If we are recognized as far exceeding expectations and recognized for bringing issues that neither of the other parties are talking about, then potentially the world changes a little bit. Maybe drug policy becomes a political safe ground to talk about. Balancing the budget. Whoever votes for me is shouting a bunch of things -- let's stop with military interventions.... Let's reform our tax system in a really dramatic way.... Let's end the drug wars.

Continue for the rest of our interview with Gary Johnson. WW: What kinds of voters have you been attracting in your campaign? Who do you think will be voting for you on election day?

GJ: I certainly hope that all Ron Paul supporters would end up voting for me.... Most Americans are fiscally responsible and socially tolerant and [in] a broad brush stroke, that's the Libertarian Party.... I think we all passionately care about social issues and we all care about fiscal issues, too.

WW: Do you think you'll take more votes away from Obama or Romney?

GJ: They've actually put it to the test in five states. In Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, I take more votes away from Obama.... In Michigan and North Carolina...more from Romney.

WW: Can you tell me a bit more about how you think you'll influence the race in Colorado?

GJ: I hope to influence the race in a whole bunch of states. When it comes to Colorado, it might partly be due to [Amendment] 64. That may get a lot more voters.... That is certainly a constituency that should be attracted to what I'm saying on drugs and other things.

WW: And do you think voters who come out for Amendment 64 are going to vote for you?

GJ: It's an obvious connection. Whether or not that equates to votes...is a whole 'nother story. We'll wait and see. There is an obvious connection.

WW: How important is this amendment nationally?

GJ: I want to shout from the rooftops that Colorado has an opportunity to change worlds of drug policy, and for the better. Colorado has the chance to change the world by voting yes to regulate marijuana like alcohol. It's a big deal.... Looking at other initiatives like this, I know that they historically pay out in the end. I want to make it really clear to Coloradans that this opportunity does exist.... I think it's really significant. I think bringing an end to marijuana prohibition would make this country a better place to live and Colorado would go down forever as leading it.

WW: What do you think of the arguments of high-profile politicians here who oppose Amendment 64, because they don't want Colorado to be known for marijuana and it could hurt the state's reputation?

GJ: (He laughs). So here's what I'm saying all across the country. What's going to happen in Colorado if Colorado votes yes on this: Everybody in the entire country is gonna get on an airplane and go to Denver and chill out. Everybody else is going to pick up on that, and Colorado won't be the [only state] for long. I would always say this in New Mexico to those that would say, look, we are going to become the drug mecca for the world. You mean the millions of entrepreneurs, scientists, doctors and professionals that would move to New Mexico for legal marijuana? Colorado has that opportunity right now.

WW: So what do you think happens if Amendment 64 fails?

GJ: Whether it's Colorado in the next cycle, California in the next cycle, it's going to happen. It's just a question of when and where. We are at a tipping point. I'd just personally like to see it happen here.... I just think Colorado gets it.

WW: Some have speculated that there is a "perfect storm" in Colorado with your candidacy and Amendment 64, such that you could help push the state to Romney, by attracting left-leaning, pro-pot voters who otherwise voted for Obama. Do you think that's true? Any response to that?

GJ: I think that I take votes away from both of them. My response is I think that as a voter, you've got to vote for the person you most believe in. That's how you change the world. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a wasted vote. Voting for the person you believe is not.

WW: What do you say to folks who worry that a vote for you is a vote for Romney, who could be even tougher on marijuana?

GJ: I don't know. I don't think you could get any worse on pot than Obama. He explicitly promised not to crack down on medical marijuana facilities, and he was talking generically when he was running. Specifically, that's worked out to shutting down facilities in Colorado and California.

WW: Overall, how much do you think there is a desire for a third party? Attacks and political spending have, of course, reached new levels -- do you think people are fed up?

GJ: I do and I don't. It really is a mixed bag. We'll see what happens on election day.... The system is...so against the third party. I'm on the ballot in 49 states...and I'll tell you that it was hard. We were taken to the wall in ten states.... I'm really generalizing here now, but I know that Republicans and Democrats can get on the ballots with thousands of...signatures. Libertarians have to have tens of thousands of signatures. It's just grossly unfair. And I'm not a hypocrite. As governor of New Mexico, I signed legislation making it easier...[for] third parties to get on the ballot.

WW: So how can third parties become more mainstream in future races?

GJ: I do have the opportunity I think to put Libertarians on the map for the next cycle.... Five percent showing would definitely make that happen.

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Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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