No sign welcomes people to the biggest, most important Libertarian convention in recent memory. No balloons, no music, no campaign hats. The party faithful gather in a conference room just past the bar of the Hilton Garden Inn Richmond Airport. They sign in at a table staffed by a man wearing a holstered handgun.
A weather-beaten Libertarian Party of Virginia banner fights a losing battle for attention with the room’s garish carpet. In the back of the room, the Virginia Citizens Defense League lays out a table covered by an immense variety of products declaring that guns save lives. Pamphlets and books and bumper stickers condemning taxes and big government are neatly stacked on the next table. Two editions of “Libertarianism in One Lesson” are set out, free for the taking. And next to them lies a soft pile of souvenirs from the election three months earlier: Robert Sarvis for Governor T-shirts.
Sarvis, the soft-spoken, multiple-degree-holding economist, Libertarian and lawyer, wandered into last year’s much smaller convention to seek the nomination for governor, despite having joined the party only a few weeks earlier. He finished the race in November, losing to Terry McAuliffe with 6.5 percent of the vote — a success beyond anything the party had known.
Libertarian Party members concede that much of that success can be attributed to the unpopularity of the Republican candidate, former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and the Democrat’s nominee, McAuliffe. But the concession does nothing to diminish their enthusiasm, which may be inconceivable to anyone steeped in mainstream party politics — or what some may call reality. That enthusiasm is the reason that 100 people, instead of the last year’s two dozen, show up at this year’s convention Feb. 8. It’s the reason that a third of them joined the party fewer than 30 days ago.
One in 10 people in this room may end up running for U.S. Congress. Sarvis is leading the charge, running against U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. During the next nine hours, they hash out the Libertarian Party’s path to changing Virginia’s political discourse.
These believers don’t need backslapping or funny campaign hats — the $8,200 in the party coffers is better spent elsewhere. They don’t need any of the other flourishes of a political convention. They don’t even need the one thing that matters to the mainstream parties: victory.
Picking out a typical Libertarian is as easy — and as difficult — as you might think. Most of the people here are middle-aged, white men. Some are armed with handguns, others with loud ties in various shades of patriot. The outliers speak to the party’s broader appeal: shaggy-haired teenagers rubbing away sleep crust, a few people of color. Women are just as likely as men to wear the blaze orange Guns Save Lives stickers, which just happen to perfectly complement one attendee’s bright chartreuse blazer and gray and pink stocking ensemble.
Nobody is here to talk about gun rights. Or the merits of opening the Mexican border. Or legalizing marijuana. Or the fight for same-sex marriage. This gathering isn’t the time to sit around talking basic libertarianism. It’s devoted to figuring out how to get you, the voter, to understand that two major parties are failing to uphold the Constitution.
“A lot of Libertarians had an ‘aha moment,’” says Laura Delhomme, the party’s communications chair. “I didn’t have one of those.”
Last year Delhomme ran for a House of Delegates seat representing Arlington, a Democratic stronghold — and drew 23 percent of the vote. “I read a lot of Ayn Rand, economics books and that kind of stuff,” she says. “I got to Googling and I thought, ‘Well, they sound pretty rational.’”
Delhomme, 29, says 2014 will be the year Virginia’s Libertarians build upon the momentum of the Sarvis campaign by running more candidates who preach the message of small government and personal liberty. But how deep is the bench of the Libertarian Party of Virginia if it can draw only 100 people to a convention?
Before Delhomme can answer, her former campaign manager appears at her side. She shoos him away, laughing. “He’s trying to get me to run for something,” she says.
Similar recruitment scenes play out all day. How deep is the bench? The 100 people at the convention are the bench. The day will be about cajoling as many convention-goers as possible to run for office. Delhomme says the goal is to have a full slate of congressional candidates in this year’s elections.
“The state of our party is good,” Chairman Chuck Moulton says from the lectern as the convention begins.
Sarvis makes an unnoticed entrance. Looking half-awake, hair slightly askew, he drags a chair to the back row and stares down at a legal pad.
Moulton tells the crowd that Sarvis’ performance in November was the South’s strongest third-party gubernatorial candidate showing in 40 years.
Sarvis, who casually announced his intention to run against Warner during an interview a few weeks ago, introduces himself to the room with a simple: “Robert Sarvis, Northern Virginia.” No point in big speeches just yet. He’s scheduled to speak later, and things are about to get a little ugly.
Political analysts outside this room can’t be blamed for thinking a Sarvis run for Senate signals the minting of a perennial candidate, the Libertarian Party of Virginia’s version of Ralph Nader. No one here seems concerned about that. The toughest question Sarvis fields about his Senate run is whether the party’s resources are being wasted on a campaign that everyone knows will end in defeat.
A few questions come from around the room.
How much money can you raise?
“As much as possible,” Sarvis says.
What will your platform be?
“The platform is liberty,” he says. “In every area of government, there’s too much government.”
The only person to speak against Sarvis outright is party secretary Marc Montoni. He’s been a party member since 1980. Montoni’s path to Libertarianism involved a Republican phase, rebelling against Yellow Dog Democrat parents “who owed their living to the state” as music teachers. On election eve 1980, he saw a campaign ad for Libertarian candidate Ed Clark and he was hooked.
Montoni takes the lectern and lists the ways he supported Sarvis, even, he says, as Sarvis was “wandering” off Libertarian party dogma in interviews. But, Montoni complains, for all that help, Sarvis still hasn’t shared his database of supporters with the party. He pauses and then plunges on. Sarvis “threw me under the bus,” he says. “He chose to take the easy way out.”
Sarvis, now standing against the back wall of the room, says nothing.
A brief debate ensues over whether the nomination ballot should be secret. They settle on a voice vote, and, from the sound of things, about a dozen people vote for none of the above. Sarvis wins the nomination.
During a break, Michael Morris, 18, gets up to check his phone, leaving his green hoodie behind to reveal a blue Ron Paul 2012 T-shirt. During the gubernatorial election, Paul said voters would be “insane” to cast their ballots for Sarvis, arguing that he would siphon votes away from Cuccinelli. As it turned out, exit polls indicated Sarvis won over more people likely to vote for McAuliffe.
Morris, a Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School student, has been a party member for 32 days. Sarvis covered his dues as part of a Facebook pitch in which he offered to pay for the first 10 students who replied to his post. Morris’ We the People team at school just advanced to nationals in the competition about interpreting the Constitution. With college in the fall, he isn’t sure how much he can commit to the Sarvis campaign.
“I would like to be involved,” he says, adding he also received a mass email from the party asking if he’d like to become a candidate.
“Once I get a degree in something,” Morris says, “I could run for office.”
Sarvis may never connect with mainstream political thought, but the thinkers he does attract are full of energy and enthusiasm. At least two convention-goers say they’re running for Congress because of him.
This isn’t a party for Sarvis, although perhaps it could be if he were in the mood. Sitting in a plush armchair outside the conference room, Sarvis stares into space. He doesn’t exactly jump at the chance to talk about what just went on with Montoni.
“Marc is very libertarian, to the point of anarchist,” Sarvis says. “He’s been a longtime Libertarian Party leader in Virginia and he’s very protective of the party’s interests. Obviously he and I see things differently about how to move the party forward and increase its membership and all that stuff.”
And the throwing under the bus comment? Sarvis is the tech guy for the party’s website, so he took down an editorial Montoni had written. The editorial itself was fine, Sarvis says, but the title was offensive.
“It was something like, ‘Slavery: Not such a simple issue,” Sarvis says. “Of course, it’s a simple issue. It’s bad.”
But that’s all behind him now. Ahead lies a fight against an incumbent Democrat and former governor, Warner, and the Republican opposition. Sarvis clearly has spent time preparing to answer the question of why he’s running again.
“If we don’t run candidates this year, we lose a lot of momentum,” he says. “It serves nobody to get six and a half percent and just see the party sort of stall.”
He has no interest in becoming a perennial candidate, he says. Sarvis acknowledges he isn’t as organized with this Senate run as he was for the governor’s race. A lot has been happening in his personal life.
“My brother-in-law just got 24 years in prison for his third marijuana offense,” Sarvis says. It was a sting operation, he says, and his brother-in-law was convicted on a charge of possession with intent to distribute. “He’s 31 years old. … Think of all the lost human potential there.”
It’s time for his speech. He doesn’t seem nervous or excited. A room full of people, many of converts to the cause because of him, waits.
“I have a lot of respect for people like that,” he says, “who have such open minds, revising their opinions and who they support based on actual substance.”
But aren’t you kind of a rock star? Sarvis finally cracks a smile.
“This is very unnatural for me,” he says. “That’s kind of how it is being a third-party candidate. There’s no reason to think of yourself as this big shot.”
During his speech, Sarvis touches upon the main planks of his platform: fighting against government surveillance, ending the war on drugs, the overreach of the criminal justice system and the racial disparity evident in arrest, prosecution and sentencing of drug-related crimes. He tells the crowd about his brother-in-law’s incarceration.
This year, he says, it’s personal.
Twenty minutes in, he pauses, realizing he’s made a Candidate 101 mistake.
“I meant to say first thing, thank you so much to everyone who helped on my campaign,” he says. “I’m going to need your help again.”
His followers laugh and applaud. He gets back to his main point: “Please run.” Who, he asks, wants to run for Congress?
James Carr of Louisa County raises his hand. He’d like to run for Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s seat. Army veteran Jeffrey Carson says he’s considering a run in Northern Virginia.
Neither has a prayer of winning. They know this.
“We have to start somewhere,” Carr says.
That’s the theme of a panel discussion later with last year’s candidates, including Delhomme. Know recent legislation, she says. Buy new suits and look the part, adds Northern Virginia candidate Anthony Tellez, wearing a marijuana leaf lapel pin.
The only real victory in sight, Delhomme says later, is getting the message out. To Montoni’s criticism about Sarvis coming across as a rambling, unprepared candidate, as far as she’s concerned, that’s an asset.
“He’s not polished,” she says. “He’s very respectful of whoever he’s talking to and doesn’t just give them a sound bite.”
But will Montoni and other party skeptics end up supporting Sarvis?
“At times it’s been him holding it together with his bare hands,” Delhomme says of Montoni. “He absolutely will be an advocate from this point on.”
Montoni seems less sure.
Sarvis “could convince me,” Montoni says. “He convinced me last year. He’s going to inspire energy for his campaign. For now, I’m taking my energy elsewhere.”
The convention winds down. People hit the bar. The real fun occurred the day before. Delhomme says things got a little raucous when three chess games broke out at once. Anthony Estes, who calls himself the Libertarian cowboy of Fredericksburg, orders a beer and talks about how the tea party has been hijacked by the religious right, and his wife’s cancer and his arrest for possessing the marijuana that he says alleviates her pain. Sarvis chats with well-wishers. Delhomme buys a drink for likely candidate Carson.
It’s a room full of believers with sights set on the next campaign, the next candidate, the next 100 members.
Someone asks Delhomme if she wants a cigarette. Her eyes light up, and she sheepishly excuses herself — as if smoking were the most radical thing she’d done all day. S