By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — Libertarian gubernatorial hopeful Robert Sarvis has no pretenses in his quest to challenge political heavyweights for the state’s highest office.
Clad in a brown, button-down shirt, his hair tussled just slightly from the weather, and a green sports water bottle at his side, there’s nothing showy in Sarvis’ appearance. He’s professional, but not overdone. He bears an expression that’s down-to-business — but not in a salesman kind of way. His speech is clear and full of conviction — but not in a polished, party-line kind of tone.
Sarvis doesn’t come off as someone who’s held elected office in Richmond or Washington, D.C., before — because he hasn’t.
Virtually unfunded and unknown, Sarvis is challenging the two major-party candidates backed by war chests filled with cash in what promises to be among the most widely watched race in the country in 2013.
Name recognition is clearly an obstacle for him, Sarvis said as he makes himself comfortable. Every opportunity, every interview, counts — especially since the major parties will try to keep him out of the gubernatorial debates.
He isn’t fooling himself. Political prognosticators in Virginia didn’t recognize his name.
Sarvis had received the emailed request for an interview barely an hour before. The Annandale resident, husband and father of two called from his cell phone right away.
He was on his way back from D.C. And could he just stop by?
Of course he could.
(Read the full text of the interview here.)
Although the Virginia native has been, at different points in his life, a lawyer, small-business owner and technologist, he’s never held public office. He just finished his master’s degree in economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, as well as a graduate fellowship at GMU’s Mercatus Center.
He did run for public office once — for State Senate in 2011, as a Republican.
“I learned a lot,” Sarvis told Watchdog.org. “But one of the things I learned is that the Republican Party is not a good place for a liberty candidate, somebody who thinks that we should be, in the first instance, free to live our lives how we want to.”
And that’s what irked him — Republicans’ seeming inconsistency on liberty in the social sphere versus the economic sphere, and hypocrisy on economic policy when it came to doling out tax breaks for certain industries and taxpayers. Democrats are just as guilty when it comes to tax breaks, he said.
When the Libertarian Party of Virginia announced it was looking for a candidate, Sarvis seized the opportunity.
“I basically looked at what the race was going to be like, and when it became clear that it was going to be Terry McAuliffe against Ken Cuccinelli, I decided, why not run? Because Virginia really needs another option,” Sarvis told Watchdog.org. “I think the other two candidates really epitomize exactly what’s wrong with their respective parties and really shouldn’t be trusted with the reigns of government.”
Sarvis seems to embody what both the Democratic and Republican candidates say are their priorities — and oppose the viewpoints both main-party candidates find offensive in the other.
His campaign slogan, “Virginia — open-minded and open for business,” pretty much says it all.
He’s a staunch supporter of gay marriage and marriage equality, generally a Democratic platform. Fifty years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to marry his wife, who is black. He is half-Asian and half-white.
He said abortion and pro-choice issues are tough, but that government shouldn’t criminalize and penalize women for something that’s legal.
“I think it’s a little bit odd to argue in the Obamacare context, that government should not be in the room with a person and his or her doctor, but then on this issue, have a totally different viewpoint,” Sarvis said.
At the same time, he said he champions small, limited government — government that doesn’t intrude on business with regulations and restrictions in the way Virginia does now. And he said freedom in school choice is one of the Old Dominion’s greatest needs — also, more of a Republican notion.
“He’s the social liberal version of Ken Cuccinelli,” said Harry Wilson, professor and director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College in Salem. “Or you’d say he’s the economic conservative version maybe of Terry McAuliffe. So it’s conceivable that he could pull from either group.”
At the same time, the Libertarian advocates positions neither party would be quick to embrace — like the legalization of marijuana, and the “decriminalization” of harder drugs.
“I think the drug war is a huge issue that the Republican and Democratic parties are just obtuse on,” Sarvis said. “I mean, this is something that is ruining, that has ruined and continues ruining, a lot of communities and a lot of families, particularly black families. It leads to arrest records that keep people from being employable. When we send a lot of people to jail, there are a lot of kids who are growing up without fathers in their house.”
To Sarvis, social issues and fiscal issues are inseparable. It all comes down to government getting out of the way by reducing spending, repealing requirements for business occupational licensing and creating an environment that’s open-minded on social issues, like gay marriage, he said.
“This isn’t simply a business thing,” Sarvis said. “I think it’s the right thing to do. But, it’s also one component of that argument for being an attractive business atmosphere. And so you can’t say business people only care about taxes. No, that’s not how it works.”
But, will the public agree with him and split the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe vote? Geoff Skelley, political analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville, said probably not. The last time a third-party candidate ran for governor in Virginia was Russ Pott’s independent campaign in 2005. He garnered 2.2 percent of the vote.
“The problem for any third-party candidate is that voters like to vote for someone they believe can actually win, which typically means a major-party candidate,” Skelley told Watchdog.org in an email. “So while many undecideds may not like either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe, if they show up to vote, almost all will vote for one or the other.”
Wilson said he Sarvis’ chances weren’t any better.
“It’s a Herculean task facing him,” Wilson said. “It’s not even a difficult task. It’s Herculean. If he took 3 percent of the vote, that would be a victory.”
So, why is Sarvis doing it? Why is he sacrificing his time, peace of mind and his money when the chances of victory are so slim?
Skelley said Sarvis’ run might spur the American debate, and give him a better shot at a lower office in the future.
Sarvis said it comes down to principle.
“Most people don’t run as Libertarian if they have the aspirations to have a long career that ends in higher office,” Sarvis said. “But people know that I’m doing this because I’m just tired of what I see, the depredations of the two major parties — the loss of freedom, the increasing burden to taxpayers. I think that there’s a lot of reason to think that Libertarians especially, but third-party candidates generally, have more of an interest, just from the strength of their beliefs, that they’re willing to run as a third party.”
Is it a political Hail Mary? Maybe. But it’s one he said he’s willing to take.
“There’s a Washington Post poll showing that 40 percent of people wish someone else was running,” Sarvis said, leaning forward with his arms on the table. “So I’m trying to fill that void.”
— Kathryn Watson is a reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.