For decades, Versailles Restaurant has been a traditional stop for political candidates of all stripes to hold court, mingle with Cuban-American diners and drink a cafecito.
But that’s not the way it went down Thursday morning for Gary Johnson: The former New Mexico governor and current Libertarian presidential candidate had to take his show outside.
The kerfuffle began after Johnson entered Versailles, and the media followed him in — routine for candidates putting in an appearance at the iconic restaurant.
Johnson introduced himself to a diner who didn’t recognize him, shook hands and then sat down at a circular table near the door, not in a side room that is typically reserved for politicians holding events. Surrounded by TV cameras and reporters, Johnson began to do a radio interview. That’s when a manager asked the media to leave.
Johnson followed suit — and a political rite-of-passage was relegated to the parking lot.
“I didn’t get authorization,” a manager who gave his first name as Reinaldo told a Miami Herald reporter when asked if Johnson had permission to schedule a campaign stop inside.
Johnson took the incident in stride. He walked outside the restaurant and continued to talk with reporters and voters.
“You know, I’ll just walk outside,” Johnson said when asked why he left the restaurant. “I have no idea and it doesn’t bother me. They said, ‘We want you to sign a disclosure.’ … Fine, we’ll just go outside.”
Versailles management said the incident was a misunderstanding, because they had been expecting Johnson on Wednesday. The manager who had been told of Johnson’s impending visit wasn’t on duty Thursday morning.
“The new manager wasn’t aware of the situation and since we typically require authorization if there are film crews inside the restaurant, he thought he was doing the right thing,” said Nicole Valls, vice president for the company that runs Versailles. “We have always and will continue to welcome all candidates to Versailles.”
Johnson showed up at Versailles 10 minutes ahead of schedule Thursday in a seersucker jacket covering a blue traditional Cuban guayabera shirt and jeans. He began by taking questions from reporters outside the restaurant, including the ubiquitous topic for all politicians in Miami: Cuba.
“I applaud Obama for what he’s done,” Johnson, a former Republican, said about the president’s decision to lift some sanctions against the island. “I’m looking forward to visiting Cuba and I think it’s long overdue. Free trade is really how we bring the world together.”
Johnson reiterated his excitement about recent polls that show his support inching towards the 15 percent threshold — which would get him on the debate stage with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He believes there is more than a 50-50 chance it will happen.
“The only chance I have to win the presidency is to be in the presidential debates,” Johnson said. “Anything is possible given just how crazy politics is right now.”
A supporter then handed Johnson a cafecito in the midst of the scrum from the outside counter. He was overcome with emotion.
“Oh my goodness, whoa,” Johnson exclaimed after his first sip of the Miami staple. “Boy, this is one of life’s greatest pleasures right here. If I lived here this would have to be part of the routine, oh my gosh.”
He then took his coffee inside — where the interruption occurred — and resumed answering questions about foreign policy in the parking lot.
Johnson cautioned that America could be headed in the same direction as Venezuela, which is undergoing a political and financial crisis. “This is kind of the path that we’re going down,” he said, a sentiment similar to comments made by Trump last week in reference to Clinton picking liberal Supreme Court justices if elected.
The Libertarian nominee didn’t have a specific solution to Venezuela, beyond saying that he won’t support the U.S. government getting involved in regime change.
“I don’t want to speak to anything that I really don’t understand and I don’t understand what’s happening in Venezuela or what we might be able to do to remedy that,” Johnson said.
Dwayne Davis, a registered Libertarian and 50-year-old electrical contractor from Port Charlotte, just happened to be sipping coffee outside Versailles when Johnson showed up. He got a few questions in for Johnson.
“He should definitely be in the debates,” Davis said, adding that he will vote for Johnson if it appears he has significant support in the weeks leading up to the election.
But Davis isn’t happy with Johnson’s running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. He says Ron Paul or Rand Paul would be better picks.
Johnson enthusiastically defended his vice presidential pick, who joined the Libertarian Party this year, saying he brings credibility to the ticket.
The candidate’s visit to Versailles happened the morning after a rally at Florida International University with Weld. He championed a “free market” approach to healthcare and picked up the endorsement of former Miami-Dade State Rep. J.C. Planas, who was at Versailles along with fellow supporter Barby Gimenez, daughter-in-law of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
Valls, the Versailles company exec, said Johnson is welcome back to Versailles anytime.
“We would love to have him back to meet him and have a cafecito.”