Photo by Jay Paul
Humbling experiences help define the scenery on the political campaign trail, and few whistle stops offer the humility that attends glad-handing at a down-home county fair.
This year's Rockingham County Fair offered no exception for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis as he parked his entourage at an exhibition hall booth next to the Gideons and across from the fairground's only clean bathroom.
Wandering among the smells of pit barbecue and kettle corn mingling so comfortably with the clattering bells and whistles of midway games, Sarvis stands out like a seersucker-suit-clad sore thumb. In spite of his fresh-faced appearance — or perhaps because of it — he's a hit.
The Next Governor?
"Are you Mr. Sarvis?" A portly Kiwanis member cradling a plate-full of beef barbecue extends a handshake. He uses his greeting as an opportunity to bend toward the candidate's ear and whisper a friendly warning: "You need to shed that coat." "Oh? Why?" asks Sarvis, thrown slightly off balance by the unsolicited but clearly friendly advice. "People will accept you more," says the man. It's a helpful tip he'd be unlikely to share — or even have an opportunity to share — with Sarvis' major-party rivals, surrounded by their teams of paid campaign handlers. Henry Hawkins is a ninth-generation son of the valley, Blue Ridge-born and raised and a "lifelong Republican," he says. But in the current governor's contest, "I'm not enamored of either one of them." Which is why he says he struck up a conversation with Sarvis. In return, the candidate shares that he's also a longtime Republican adherent, who only recently found himself disenfranchised — and somewhat put off his lunch — by party politics. The two exchange views of Gov. Bob McDonnell's recently championed overhaul of the state's transportation funding. Neither is satisfied. Sarvis scores an invitation from Hawkins to the following Tuesday's lunch meeting of his Kiwanis club. Taking a seat at a nearby picnic bench just a bit away from Hawkins and the midway clatter, Sarvis looks more comfortable sans his coat and tie. He also looks young. At 37, he's nearly a decade younger than his Republican rival. Ken Cuccinelli is 45, and Democrat Terry McAuliffe is 56. But Sarvis' experience as an elected official — none — is equal to McAuliffe's. As a graduate of Harvard, Cambridge, New York and George Mason universities, he's more than a match for either of his opponents' educational qualifications. Sarvis says he's not surprised by Hawkins' interest in engaging him rather than the other way around. He describes voter reaction on both sides of the political divide as "almost elation" when they realize there's another choice besides Cuccinelli and McAuliffe. "Their faces brighten, and it confirms everything you're seeing in the polls." Those polls show a close race between the Democrat and Republican, with Sarvis' numbers creeping toward the magic 10 percent mark at the end of August. The trend was first noted in July, when a Public Policy Polling survey put him at 7 percent. It's a rarely noted bit of trivia that in this gubernatorial race, a contest once dominated by powerful dynastic politics centered on the central and southwestern parts of the state, all three candidates claim Northern Virginia as home. But while Cuccinelli was born in New Jersey, and McAuliffe is a New York native, Sarvis is a real-deal Virginian, born at Fairfax Hospital and raised in West Springfield. Also remarkable in this race, according to Sarvis, is that because of the various controversies, brewing scandals and partisan viewpoints of the two major-party candidates, his own candidacy offers voters a principled, comparatively moderate alternative that's free of drama. A growing list of statewide pundits and editorialists are beginning to mention Sarvis' name, and not with dismissive chuckles. Derek McGinty, weekend anchor on WUSA Channel 9 in Washington, moderated the Aug. 9 "Battleground Forum." As was the case in a previous debate, Sarvis was not included in the forum, but afterward, during his regular "Let's Be Real" commentary segment, McGinty questioned why not. Cuccinelli and McAuliffe both "did OK I guess," McGinty says in the segment, "but like a lot of you, I came away thinking, ‘Is this all we've got?' " He notes that the two candidates' negative assessments of each other "are just true enough to be disheartening, which may be why some folks are calling this a race to the bottom." As an image of Sarvis appears, McGinty says, "So then maybe it's time to talk about this guy." Sarvis offers his own clear-cut criticisms of both of his opponents. "I don't think [McAuliffe] stands for anything except crony capitalism and big government," Sarvis says. "He represents the nationalization of Virginia politics, which I think would be bad for Virginia." McAuliffe, a former fundraiser for President Bill Clinton, also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. On the other side of the coin, "Cuccinelli, I think he wants to control our private lives — he's a moralist," Sarvis says. "I also think he's inconsistent on issues like federalism." With both candidates, Sarvis says it comes down to a question of how much government intrusion in Virginians' private lives is healthy or desired. "The core function of government is to protect our rights," he says. That said, some of Sarvis' views are more in line with Cuccinelli's planks than with McAuliffe's. Sarvis believes that public education — specifically equal access to quality, "cost-effective" education options — can best be improved by competition and by "putting parents in charge." He says he's the only candidate who advocates doing away with the state Standards of Learning tests entirely: "The other two candidates would just tinker around the edges." And he's in favor of reforming the teacher certification and licensure process. Similarly, Sarvis advocates a more decentralized approach to statewide road construction and maintenance. He says he wants to take a second crack at reforming the state's formula for road funding, putting the emphasis back on tying funds to road-related taxes, like the gas tax, rather than on general sales taxes that place the burden unfairly on the poor or those without cars. "What I'm trying to do is move us in a direction where things that affect us are done better," he says. Sarvis' view is that much of what we try — and fail — to do with regulation could be accomplished through expanding the rights of harmed parties to take legal action against corporate wrongdoers. "If you give people the private right of action … the compensation system is going to create the right incentives," he says. In the fair's pavilion, Sarvis captures a steady stream of potential voters, some already carrying Cuccinelli literature or bumper stickers, who are on their way to the exit or the bathrooms. Most are polite, many take Sarvis' literature, and a handful stop to hear more. One woman shows the kind of enthusiasm Sarvis will need more of if he hopes for a big showing in November. "Thank you!" says Sue Ringgold, a 72-year-old grandmotherly resident of nearby Dayton, throwing her arms around a momentarily startled Sarvis, who quickly recovers to return her enthusiastic hug. "He's the one," Ringgold says, indicating Sarvis as her choice for governor. "I saw him on TV, and the other two I just don't care for." Acknowledging she doesn't "know as much as I should" about the candidates, Ringgold offers her perspective on the major-party race. She says Cuccinelli's main weakness is Star Scientific. While Gov. Bob McDonnell stumbles under the weight of a federal investigation into his dealings with the dietary supplement maker, Cuccinelli also struggles by association to explain the more than $18,000 in gifts he accepted from the company's CEO, Jonnie Williams. As for McAuliffe, Ringgold shows a surprising familiarity with the details of the potential scandal involving GreenTech, an electric car company he founded. "He's hooking up these folks from overseas," she says, a reference to the company, which currently makes glorified golf carts, and its efforts to secure foreign visas, which are under investigation by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. By comparison, she says, Sarvis is squeaky clean. "I just like him," she adds with a grandmotherly smile. Sarvis' own career, while lacking the controversies of his competition, has yet to hit their high points either, aside from some fleeting minor fame as a tech entrepreneur. A 1994 graduate of the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, he earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics at Harvard in 1998. From there, he went to the University of Cambridge in England to earn his master's degree in the same subject. In 2005, he attended NYU for his law degree. Sarvis then clerked for a year with a judge in the 5th District Circuit Court in Mississippi, then moved back to Washington to work for a firm where he did "mostly securities and contract cases — compliance issues." It was this experience that underscores his opinions on regulatory laws. "There are so many rules to protect against fraud, but there are so many rules that it's almost impossible to get compliance right," he says. "A lot of rules are designed to give lawyers more work." It was also this experience that first drew him into politics. He ran an unsuccessful bid for the state senate as a Republican in 2011. Somewhere in the midst of it all, Sarvis joined with three partners in a high-tech startup application development company that won the 2008 Google Android developer challenge for its social nightlife-networking app, Wertago. "We lasted a few years, and then we moved on to other things," he says. This past year, even as he prepared to launch his bid for governor, Sarvis was finishing up his latest degree, a master's in economics at George Mason. At GMU, he spent time as a researcher for the university's Mercatus Center, a think tank that, as the name implies (mercatus means market in Latin), focuses on free-market policies. It further cemented his views on how law and economic policy retard growth and recovery. "I don't know if I was ever an active [Republican] … till I ran two years ago," he says, now calling himself a moderate Libertarian. "But I've pretty much always been a small ‘L' libertarian." The youngest son of a Chinese mother and an English-Irish father, both of whom worked in high-tech engineering fields, Sarvis had his life rocked at the age of just 10, when his father died from suicide. His mother, a "typical Chinese Asian tiger mom," filled the void, raising a daughter and two sons entirely on her own. "She did a remarkable job," he says. Sarvis' own family is a seamless continuation of his upbringing in the midst of the postmodern melting pot of Northern Virginia. His wife, Astrid, a pediatrician who practices in the D.C. area, is African-American. She and the couple's two children, Harlan, 3, and Ai-Li, 2, have been on the campaign trail too, but they are running late meeting Sarvis at the fair. Even with his ascending profile as a legitimate candidate, Sarvis remains circumspect about the challenges he faces in the race. Independent candidates rarely muster even 10 percent of the vote in a statewide race, and the only independent to win such a race in Virginia was former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., scion of the powerful Byrd Machine whose departure from the then-conservative Democratic party did little to erode his support from Democratic voters. By contrast, H. Russell Potts Jr., who ran against Jerry Kilgore and Tim Kaine in the 2005 gubernatorial race, managed just 2.2 percent of the vote. In the 2001 race with Mark Warner and Mark Earley, Bill Redpath managed barely three-quarters of 1 percent of the vote. Even if Sarvis loses, earning 10 percent of the vote in the general election would represent a major victory for the Libertarian Party in the state moving forward. By securing the magic 10 percent, his party would earn official recognition under Virginia law, entitling its candidates to automatically appear on ballots for years to come without leaping the high hurdles for petition signatures imposed on independent candidates. "I'm not going to be able to raise millions of dollars," he says, a nod to the Cuccinelli and McAuliffe war chests, which dwarfed his nearly $39,000 raised by the end of June. But he's trying to see each of the attack ad salvos traded between the dreadnought is major-party campaigns as money that is, indirectly, being spent on him. "What we lack in money, we make up in passion that Libertarians have for freedom," he says. He carries with him on the long and winding campaign trail an easy-to-digest brand of Libertarianism, mainstreamed over the past decade by the ascendancy of movements like the tea party and the Occupy movement. Sarvis sees government regulation — the traditional whipping post of Libertarian politics — not simply as evil, but as a necessary evil. Rather than lamenting government regulation of industry and the environment, though, he's more concerned with "misregulation" and "poorly done deregulation." "You start with an overly regulated economy, and you deregulate certain parts of it without much thought," he says, providing his own recipe for the financial collapse and economic stagnation of the past decade, in which poorly considered deregulation and even re-regulation policies, often written to benefit industry more than consumers, led to profiteering. In the meantime, Sarvis plans to keep on attending events like the Rockingham fair, where he's able to offer voters his version of an alternative to politics as usual. "We're just going to continue doing what we're doing," he says. "I tell people the Libertarian is the moderate in this race, because the others are so extreme on the issues."