Before meeting the libertarian candidate for Virginia governor, Robert Sarvis, I was prepared to write the “Fine, he’s nuts so buck up and choose either the Democrat or Republican” piece. I was expecting to conclude that a vote for him was a proverbially thrown-away vote. Then I sat down with him in Fairfax City this morning.
He came in alone, with no staffers. He didn’t, to be frank, send out the “crazy” vibe you get when talking to fringe third-party candidates. And he turned out to be a lot more mainstream than you’d expect from a libertarian running a shoe-string campaign for governor.
He speaks in clear, soft tones and there is no doubt he’s a smart man who’s thought about public policy. He worked as a software developer in California (“It gave me insight into a dynamic, relatively free industry,” he notes.) He has practiced as a lawyer, has multiple degrees and recently completed economic research at George Mason University. He’s now running for governor full-time.
He’s only 37 years old and his thin frame makes him look even younger. But what strikes you first is the utter sincerity of the man – in such stark contrast to the slickness and, yes, cynicism, of the two major party candidates who are widely disliked throughout the state. Sarvis begins enthusiastically, “Everywhere we go we hear people are elated. ‘Thank God we have a choice’ is the reaction when they hear about the campaign.” He shows me an e-mail he just received saying just that, with delight. He takes comfort in attendance at events and public polling showing his vote share rising. “Now it’s gaining momentum,” he tells me. “Forty percent of voters want another candidate.” He maintains that a positive message will force other candidates to raise their game. “With a third-party candidate in the debate you can’t be only negative.”
Unfortunately for Sarvis, the major candidates’ solution is not to include him in debates or appear side by side with him. “They have an interest in keeping me out, but the debate hosts have a duty to voters,” he says.
In response to the traditional argument that it would be a wasted vote to select him, he responds, “Especially when the major candidates embody everything wrong with their parties every vote [for him] has to be reckoned with.” He is honest that he’s not in it only to win. “Even a sizeable vote share sends a sizeable message,” he says.
As to his views, he says, “I am the moderate in the race. We’ve run a very mainstream campaign.” His theme is “Open-minded and open for business.” As he puts it, he’s for “gun rights and gay rights.” That, he contends, is a popular message with voters. The message is intended to resonate with voters who are wary of Ken Cuccinelli II’s social views and tone and of Terry McAuliffe’s crony capitalism and anti-free market ideas. He makes the case that “this race is different” in that both candidates are so widely distrusted that a candidate like himself can actually be unifying. “I think if I were to win, we’d adopt policies Democrats and Republicans say they are for but don’t have the will to support.” He lists as examples school choice and regulatory and tax reform, which neither party has produced.
Among his top priorities, Sarvis says, are enacting school choice and rooting out “corporatism, special treatment all through the regulatory and tax code.” He comes back to the cronyism issue several times, arguing that he’d look to get rid of as much of it as he could, even items like the “opportunity fund,” which doles out money to connected businesses. “It’s better not to have political patronage. The governor shouldn’t be shilling for individual companies,” he says, a reference to the scandal that has enveloped the incumbent governor. He points to the ads by Texas Gov. Rick Perry that tout the business-friendly environment for companies to locate in that state. “That’s the kind of thing we should be doing,” he says.
Unlike the stereotypical libertarian, he’s not aiming to get rid of all state government. His goals are, frankly, not that revolutionary. On transportation, for example, he says: “We should prioritize spending so we’re not raising taxes all the time. We should decentralize so we’re not sending all the money to Richmond. And we should lean more toward user fees.” The recent shift from gas to sales taxes he says is unfair to the poor. “What about the family in Hampton Roads or wherever who doesn’t even own a car?”
On abortion, Sarvis says, he is “fairly moderate” and “fairly negative on abortion.” He reveals that he and his current wife had an unplanned pregnancy and decided to marry, not have an abortion. “Well, that speaks for itself,” he says. But neither is he looking to seize on a controversy where, he says, “we’re radically divided on a metaphysical issue.” From his standpoint, he says the state would be better if “we can take four years off” from the abortion wars. And he argues that most voters don’t vote solely on gay marriage or abortion.
In one area he does strike staunch libertarian tones. Sarvis believes in drug legalization. “Legalize it, regulate it,” he says regarding marijuana. But he then allows, “If that is not feasible we should do medical marijuana.” He’d also like to deregulate the state-owned ABC liquor stores, something the current governor tried to but couldn’t accomplish.
Voters throughout the state have complained that both McAuliffe (who has GreenTech issues) and Cuccinelli (who has gift issues) are ethically flawed. With bluntness Sarvis says, “A gift ban is a fine idea. It seems from recent events we should also extend it to family members and [closely-held] businesses.” He also makes the conservative argument that if government didn’t do as much then the incentive for gift-giving would diminish. A huge regulatory state “creates an incentive for gift giving,” he explain. “It’s a corrupting influence. If government isn’t able to give anything [to big givers] it will be reduced.”
Sarvis sums up with an attractively simple argument: “When you get into the voting booth on Nov. 5 you want to vote for someone you can be proud of.” Put differently, he’s offering an alternative to voters who can’t abide either candidate and feel bad about not voting. Judging from my conversations around the state, there are a whole lot of those voters.