Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson—possibly America's most high-profile third-party candidate since Ross Perot—has made a real effort to reach out to people of color and criminal justice reform advocates by saluting the Black Lives Matter movement and critiquing America's policing and drug policies. But if he actually wants to increase his poll numbers with those constituencies, he's going to have to do a much better job explaining his record as governor of New Mexico.
On Wednesday, Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld attended Fusion's Libertarian Presidential Forum, where they fielded questions from Fusion reporters about their policy positions and vision for the country.
At one point during the forum, Johnson was asked by Fusion's Miriti Murungi about a piece of hate crime legislation he had vetoed as Governor of New Mexico. Johnson later wrote in a book that the bill "literally scared him to death." Murungi asked Johnson if he thought hate crime laws across the country should be abolished. Johnson seemed to imply that the answer was yes:
Look, I am scared to death regarding hate crime legislation. You're talking about me throwing a rock through someone's window. I should be prosecuted on throwing the rock, not my thoughts that motivated me throwing the rock through that window. I foresaw a situation where I got beat up in a parking lot and-'well gee, you're not gay, you're not black, you're not hispanic you're not Jewish, are you sure you want to press charges here? It doesn't seem to be any hate crime.'"
Johnson's hypothetical seems to suggest that he believes the existence of hate crime laws somehow invalidate existing laws against assault, which is categorically not true. Furthermore, his assertion that hate crime legislation constitutes some kind of Orwellian thought policing because of its focus on intent overlooks the fact that traditional criminal law frequently takes into account the intent of the offender. For example, the difference between whether a person is charged with murder or manslaughter hinges on the intent or forethought of the killer.
When Murungi followed up by asking Johnson if he thought that burning a cross on the lawn of a black church should be treated as a regular property crime, Johnson appeared to back away from his original answer.
"So that wasn't the legislation that I was-that I had on my desk," Johnson said. "And I would have been interested to see how that language might have been worded that you could have made that a crime."
Then, in an unconventional move by any campaign's standards, Johnson acknowledged that he did not know what his running mate's position on hate crimes was, and then turned to ask him right then and there. Weld proceeded to disagree with Johnson's position.
"Yeah, I don't know. I think a burning cross on the lawn of a black church-you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know there is an overtone there." Weld responded. The former prosecutor said he believed there was "plenty of room" for additional penalties in the case of hate crimes.
The hate crime legislation was not the only issue from Johnson's past that the candidate struggled to explain. Later in the forum Johnson wrestled with a question from Fusion's Danny Rivero about his support for private prisons and asked him if he would support housing federal inmates in private facilities as president. Johnson again focused on the specifics of his New Mexico policy before insinuating that private prisons might actually be better for drug reform.
If we could actually implement meaningful drug reform it will be a lot easier to empty the private prisons as opposed to the public prisons. And I would just like to point out that in California the number one opposition to legalizing marijuana recreationally was the public prison union, so don't kid yourself about locking people up and private vs. public.
When pressed about the reports of abuse in federal private prison Johnson eventually relented, "If that exists in private prisons we will adjust it. But I'm just going to suggest to you, don't discount that those same abuses exist in public prisons."