Libertarians Set To Nominate Gary Johnson

Delegates listen to speeches in the main hall at the National Libertarian Party Convention, Friday, May 27, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.
AP Photo/John Raoux

Libertarians are holding a five-day nominating convention in Orlando this Memorial Day weekend, and are expected to nominate former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson for President and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld as his Vice Presidential candidate running mate.

The Libertarians nominate their candidates slightly earlier than the major parties, as they must petition to get on the ballot in some states where they have not yet won permanent ballot status, and must have the candidates’ names on petitions. Since 1980 the Libertarians have usually been on all 50 state ballots. As of yesterday the LP had completed filing for 32 state ballots, with 18 and the District of Columbia to go.

The convention is being held at the north end – the posh end – of Orlando’s verdant, tree lined International Drive, at the Rosen Centre, a cluster of hotels and a giant convention center. The Libertarians are sharing the space with a comic con convention that features William Shatner. People dressed as comic book superheroes or Japanese anime characters occasionally wander through the Libertarian convention space, where C-Span, the Washington Post, MSNBC, reason magazine, and The Huffington Post have been interviewing delegates and candidates since Wednesday night.

More than 900 delegates and 300 alternates are expected by Sunday morning, when the vote will be taken to determine who will be the party’s nominees, but by Friday morning, when votes were being taken on bylaws and platforms, less than half had arrived.

The longer convention has created a Hillary Clinton-type problem for Governor Johnson, the front runner, and the party’s 2012 nominee, as a debate among the dozen or more Libertarians seeking the nomination is sponsored by one caucus or another almost daily. Johnson’s image is somewhat diminished by appearing on stage to debate Libertarian opponents like Marc Allen Feldman, a Cleveland Clinic medical doctor who has never held political office. If Johnson refused to appear, then like Hillary, he would look evasive and like he can’t handle questions.

Johnson seems favored to win, but there is much grumbling about his refusal to study up on policy issues, and prepare well crafted answers to likely media questions. As one long time Libertarian maven supporting Johnson told me at a Thursday night opening reception sponsored by long time major LP donors Chris and Melodie Rufer: “Gary Johnson is a jock. He’s always been a jock. He doesn’t want to study he wants to go surfing.” Johnson is famously a triathelete and mountain climber.

Others have complained that Johnson does not like fundraising. Some say this is part of why Johnson asked former Governor William Weld, who has noted fundraising skills, as a VP candidate. But this pick too has caused some discomfort, as some of Johnson’s own supporters complain that Weld is not libertarian enough.

Weld has some previously unreported history with the Libertarian Party, going back to his days as Governor of Massachusetts in the 1990s. While Governor, Weld had as a chief staffer Laura Weller, whose resume included being the main paid campaign staffer for John Northrup, the 1982 Libertarian candidate in the New York gubernatorial race. Weller is the wife of Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who has been campaigning for Weld in his columns.

The Johnson team hopes talking Weld into running will help pull in Republican and independent voters and donors. One sign that it may be working was the appearance of former FreedomWorks director Matt Kibbe Friday night, who until very recently has preached on the irrelevance of third parties. When I asked him about this, Kibbe said he’s changed his mind.

Concern about the Johnson-Weld ticket has given a boost to Austin Petersen, a former FOX News producer seeking the LP presidential nod. Petersen has been endorsed by new Libertarian/former Republican strategist Mary Matalin, and also quasi-endorsed by media diva Glenn Beck, who says Austin is “my guy.” Austin supporters criticize Johnson-Weld for being “Republican lite,” while simultaneously claiming that Petersen, as the only pro-life contender, is best positioned to appeal to conservative Republicans disaffected with Donald Trump.

Petersen has not named a VP running mate, though a variety of people are running against Weld for that spot, including Alicia Dearn, a ballot access lawyer who worked on Johnson’s 2012 campaign, Kerry Douglas McKennon, the chairman of the gay LP caucus Outright Libertarians, and Larry Sharpe, a photogenic African American libertarian. Johnson’s 2012 VP candidate, federal Judge James Gray, is at the convention as a California delegate. Weld, Sharpe, Dearn and other VP contenders debated Friday night. Johnson then introduced Weld to delegates at a cash bar reception, where British actor Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series) attended. When asked if he was a libertarian Felton answered he was there with a friend.

Libertarians have a history of running “firsts” for VP since 1972, when vice presidential candidate Tonie Nathan was the first woman and the first Jewish American to receive an Electoral College vote (cast by dissident anti-Nixon Elector Roger McBride) and presidential candidate John Hospers was the first, and only, openly gay person to receive a vote from the Electoral College.