The former construction company owner, mountaineer and competitive triathlete, governed New Mexico for two terms as a Republican. One of the few unqualified gubernatorial success stories for the Republican Party over the last couple of decades, his entry into politics was a low-key affair, driven mainly by a core of loyal backers. The then politically-inexperienced Johnson was hardly given a chance in the run up to the New Mexico gubernatorial race of 1994, especially after being rebuffed by state Republican leaders who ‘suggested’ that he should instead seek a seat in the State Legislature first.
However, his convictions and doggedness saw him scrapping past his Republican challenger in the primary, Richard P. Cheney, by a mere 1%, securing 34% of the ballots. The win was all the more impressive considering his campaign was funded almost entirely from his own $500,000 contribution. In the general election, with the Republican Party machinery firmly behind him, Johnson soundly, although very surprisingly, defeated the incumbent Governor, Democrat Bruce King, by an impressive 10 points. He repeated the feat four years later by beating Democrat Albert Chavez by another comprehensive ten-point margin to win reelection – impressive feats in a state with an over 40% Latino population.
His time in office was typified by aggressive cost cutting measures aimed at eliminating the state’s budget deficit and spending growth. Johnson, armed with the lessons learned building his construction firm, was known to be a decisive, yet collaborative operator who is most often remembered as the Governor who never increased taxes during his tenure.
In 2012, Johnson joined the Libertarian Party after severing his ties with the GOP.