MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — Cliff Hyra will be on the ballot in November but won’t be on the stage Saturday when his two rivals in the Virginia governor’s race square off in their first debate.
Hyra, the Libertarian Party candidate, met the state’s daunting hurdle for ballot access, collecting 10,000 signatures from across Virginia for the right to be listed on Election Day along with Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam.
But he did not meet the Virginia Bar Association’s criteria for an invite to Saturday’s debate at The Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs. The bar association opened the event only to “significant” candidates with “a reasonable chance of being elected” — and concluded Hyra does not meet that definition.
A 34-year-old suburban Richmond patent attorney making his first bid for elective office, Hyra has politely and fruitlessly urged the bar association to reconsider. He has no plans to schlep to Hot Springs to protest or to take the seat the bar offered him in the VIP area at the 90-minute debate, which will be moderated by Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour.
He intends to watch the debate remotely — it begins at 11 a.m. and will not be televised, but it will be live-streamed on the NewsHour’s YouTube channel and Facebook page. Later in the afternoon, he will meet voters in Richmond’s bustling Carytown shopping district.
“It would be really unfortunate if somebody comes to the polls and says, ‘Oh, who is this guy?’ ” Hyra said. “It’s really the Virginia voter who loses when I’m excluded from the debates. I think it would spur a lot more interest.”
His trip to Carytown is part of a strategy targeting the city’s booming dining-and-drink sector. Hyra is betting his message of social tolerance and smaller government will resonate with entrepreneurs and young urban dwellers who are drawn to food trucks and craft breweries but neither major political party.
As part of that pitch, he has vowed to do away with some of Virginia’s quirkier liquor regulations, such as the requirement that bars make at least 45 percent of their revenue from food sales and that state liquor authorities approve all cocktail recipes.
“Free mixologists to innovate with craft cocktails,” reads his campaign website, which also includes a call to privatize state-owned liquor stores, something then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) tried and failed to do.
“In Virginia, a bar can’t partner with a food truck because it won’t be counted [toward required food sales],” Hyra said in an interview this week in his Mechanicsville home. Bars are not allowed to advertise drink prices, he noted, or use the word “discount” in advertising. “I mean, that’s just bizarre. It’s just harassing small-business owners.”
The offspring of a Republican father and Democratic mother, Hyra grew up in Falls Church and Springfield. He attended Fairfax’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace and engineering from Virginia Tech and then a law degree from George Mason University. It was at George Mason, while taking courses on law and economics, that he became attracted to libertarian philosophy.
For Hyra, that means supporting a range of individual freedoms that neither major party champions as a set. He advocates for gun rights and opposes a higher minimum wage as a Republican might, but he also supports abortion rights and marijuana legalization as some Democrats would.
He calls for exempting the first $60,000 of household income from state taxes — and says he could pay for that with criminal justice reforms that would drastically reduce incarceration rates, such as pardoning users of any drugs once they have completed treatment programs.
He contends his approach would “bring a little bit of sanity back” to politics. “Nobody’s looking for any common ground,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the middle, and I feel like I’m the more moderate and centrist position.”
Hyra is a partner in Symbus Law Group, specializing in domestic and international patent and trademark cases. He and his wife, Stephanie, live in her home town of Mechanicsville with their three children: Cheyenne, 7; Bridgette, 5; and Thomas, 3. They are expecting their fourth at the end of August.
From a purely financial standpoint, Hyra is the longest of long shots.
He had raised just under $31,000 for his bid by the end of June, compared with Gillespie’s $6.7 million and Northam’s $9.4 million. Heading into July, Hyra had $3,492 in the bank. Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, lobbyist and adviser to President George W. Bush, had $3.2 million on hand. Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, a former state senator and pediatric neurologist, had $1.75 million.
In the governor’s race four years ago, Libertarian Party nominee Robert Sarvis played the role of spoiler. He won 146,084 votes, or 6.5 percent — more than the 56,435-vote margin of victory between now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R).
Sarvis was shut out of formal debates in that race, but toward the very end, as he was polling around 10 percent, he was included in several forums.
His showing was more modest in 2014, in the U.S. Senate race with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) and Gillespie. Sarvis won 53,102 votes for 2.4 percent. Just 17,727 votes separated Warner, the winner, from Gillespie.
Hyra’s campaign director is John Vaught LaBeaume, who managed Sarvis’s 2013 gubernatorial bid. LaBeaume was assistant communication director for former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson’s Libertarian Party bid for the White House in 2016.
In a letter pressing the bar association to include Hyra, LaBeaume said the Libertarian nominee would help elevate the tenor and quality of the debate — as Sarvis was credited with doing at a forum opened to him in 2013.
“A central theme to Hyra’s campaign is the notion of ‘respecting’ Virginians of all beliefs and backgrounds,” LaBeaume wrote. “Cliff Hyra extends that notion to his political opponents, as well. When Hyra presents his vision for an inclusive and innovating Virginia, he will draw a strong distinction between his and the visions of the other candidates, but he will do so on decidedly respectful terms, free of the personal invective all too common in today’s political debate, and, indeed, in previous Virginia gubernatorial debates.”
Asked about Hyra’s request to be included, bar association spokeswoman Marilyn Shaw provided a copy of the group’s criteria that said, in part, “a candidate must, at least 30 days before a scheduled debate, have demonstrated substantial voter interest and support. In assessing the significance of a candidacy, the VBA may consider (a) the results of major, reliable, nonpartisan public opinion polls, (b) coverage by the news media as a recognized candidate, and (c) evidence of a significant and sustained level of financial support and receipt from a significant number of contributors.”
The candidates have agreed to two more formal debates and seven other joint appearances before November, although Gillespie is pushing for a total of 10 debates. So far, Hyra has not been invited.