SANTA FE, N.M. — At times, it's hard to know whether New Mexicans elected a conservative young governor or a Man of Steel.
Republican Gov. Gary Johnson has raised education spending by more than $300 million in his first term, privatized the state Medicaid system, and cut welfare rolls, all without raising a single tax.
He has also become the first governor to complete the Ironman Triathlon, leapt off a perfectly good 10,000-foot mountain in the World Hang-gliding Championships, and commemorated the Bataan Death March by running 25 miles in the desert wearing army boots, fatigues, and a 35-pound backpack.
But for Governor Johnson, politics seems to be a marathon by other means. Legislators say he applies the same grit and determination to governing as he applies to his grueling fitness regime. And oftentimes, that mentality has left him to wage his ideological wars almost single-handed.
Indeed, to his foes, Johnson is an enigma, an uncompromising loner who runs government like a business - his business. To his friends, Johnson is a determined fighter for his principles. And to the voters and the nation, Johnson is largely seen as a breath of fresh air - a Jesse Ventura with a more conventional past.
Even as he begins his second term - he is the only New Mexico governor ever elected to consecutive terms - he casts himself as an outsider more interested in making policy than playing party politics. For Johnson, it's just part of a small-government philosophy that's worth fighting for.
Last week's special legislative session is just one example. Johnson vetoed not one, but two state budgets this year because they didn't allow for one of his top-priority education reforms - vouchers that enable parents to use state money toward private schooling for their children.
"All I have done when it comes to education is put ... more and more and more money into an educational system that by all measurements continues to do just a little bit worse each year," says Johnson, speaking from his spacious office with a panoramic view of the adobe-colored homes of Santa Fe. "I have come to understand that money is not the answer."
Too heavy a branch?
Experts say Johnson's "stand by your guns" approach meshes well with New Mexico's desire for a balance of power in state government. He is getting his message out to voters, they add, but he may be able to push his renegade image only so far.
"The best poll is an election," says Brian Sanderoff, director of Research & Polling Inc. in Santa Fe, noting that 54 percent of New Mexicans voted for Johnson. "But it's also true that people here like for all branches of government to work together. Rightly or wrongly, Johnson is seen as strong-willed in pursuing his views. When he reaches a head-butting phase, he's almost proud of it."
Despite his success, though, school vouchers were not a significant issue during the election, and so far have not been a significant issue for voters nationwide.
"Vouchers are a non-issue in most areas of the state, because rural areas don't have private schools where kids could go," says Gilbert St. Clair, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The strongest support for vouchers comes from fundamentalist Christians in the eastern part of the state, he says. "The rest of the public are confused and ambivalent."
So why does the governor push so hard? Johnson says 30 percent of all ninth-graders in New Mexico drop out of school. "What is it that we need to reverse that trend?" he asks. "I would profess to you that school vouchers will do that."
It's a tenacity that Johnson applies equally to his politics and his craze for fitness, which manifests itself in daily two-hour, crack-of-dawn running sessions. And this is not leisurely jogging, says Tim Walsh, a Johnson adviser. He met Johnson 10 years ago when both were preparing for the Leadville Race, a monster 100-mile trek that includes six mountain passes and requires 30 hours of solid running.
But in the round state capitol, it is exactly that tenacity that has some state legislators feeling like Johnson has them running in circles. Some complain that the governor doesn't listen to his own staff, that deals cut with Johnson advisers often end up vetoed.
Others say he just has a disdain for the politics. "When he was first elected, he used hundreds of vetoes. He was just letting us know who's boss," says Rep. Danice Picraux, Democratic majority whip. "He might change his tactics, but he doesn't change his mind."
'He doesn't need a team'
House Speaker Raymond Sanchez (D) of Albuquerque says Johnson "would have made a great character in an Ayn Rand novel, one ... who is up against the rest of the world." He pauses. "I've never dealt with anyone like him before.... He's not a team player. He doesn't need a team. He goes it alone."
Within his own party, Johnson receives mixed praise.
"He brings a fresh look and part of that frustrates politicians," says Rep. Ted Hobbs, Republican House minority leader. But Mr. Hobbs says it wasn't so much Johnson's ideas as his reluctance to play the political game that unnerved his fellow party members the most. "Eventually we asked him, 'Do you want to be a party leader in the state? Are you will to campaign for what you believe in?' He said he was. It took about four years, but he became more political, in the positive sense."
With the voucher vote past him (legislators rejected his plan this week), and the special session largely resolved, Johnson can now focus on the issues ahead of him, even if one of them - vouchers - is a tad familiar. But if Johnson is a man of his word, legislators won't have Johnson kicking them around much longer.
"I think people should get involved, make a contribution, and then leave," says Johnson, adding that the current term will be his last. "I think the longer you are involved, the less you accomplish."
As for party politics, he's just as doubtful as ever. "Republicans have just as many bad ideas as Democrats, and I include myself in that group, and if everyone were to just vote their conscience, this system would work a whole lot better."