Cliff Hyra is running for governor of Virginia. Many of the polls in advance of Tuesday’s election have Hyra covering the margin of difference between Democrat Ralph Northam, who is leading in most polls, and Republican Ed Gillespie.
By all accounts, Hyra has run a positive campaign, and is one of the most viable Libertarian Party candidates running in this off-year election. Hyra says he is hoping to capitalize on the strong support – at nearly 6 percent – received in the 2013 election by then-candidate Robert Sarvis.
The following interview was conducted online by David Nalle, former chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, and is currently the national director of Liberty First, a non-partisan libertarian advocacy group. You can reach Nalle via email.
Dave Nalle: You’re running for Governor of Virginia, which is one of the most purple states with a healthy mix of elected officials from both major parties. Does this create more opportunities for a libertarian or are the Democrat and Republican choices enough for most voters?
Cliff Hyra: I think there are more opportunities in Virginia because there are so many independent voters – about one-third of the population – who do not identify with either of the old parties. My support has come overwhelmingly from independents. As the other parties grow more polarized, Virginians are increasingly looking for an alternative. People are excited to find out that they have a third option on their ballot.
Republican Ed Gillespie is bad for freedom, favors bigger government, and has been shrill and divisive
Dave Nalle: What is your best pitch to voters picking between you and the Republican Ed Gillespie?
Cliff Hyra: Gillespie is not a pro-freedom candidate. He is very weak on criminal justice reform and opposed to marijuana decriminalization. He has promised to increase government spending by $2 billion, and has stated that there will be no tax cuts unless he gets all of the new spending that he wants. His proposed tax cut, even if it were to be implemented, is much smaller than mine. Mine is ten times bigger for the average family here in Virginia.
He has waged a shrill and divisive campaign, engaging in harmful rhetoric about immigrants and trying to associate the Democratic candidate with violent street gangs and pedophiles. I am a very different kind of candidate. Republicans have shown they won’t cut spending: They’re not even trying.
Only I would shrink the size of government, end the drug war, provide real substantial tax relief to families here in Virginia, and support our small businesses and local entrepreneurs by improving the tax and regulatory environment. And I’m not running any attack ads or trying to demonize my opponents. I’m sticking to the issues and the facts.
Democrat Ralph Northam has been weak on economic issues and taxes
Dave Nalle: And of course, what is your best pitch to voters picking between you and the Democrat Northam?
Cliff Hyra: Northam is very weak on economic issues. His position is essentially that everything is fine, even though we are ten years into an economic recovery and growth has been very slow, under 1 percent for a decade, and many people are still struggling to find good, stable, high paying jobs. He is proposing a lot of new spending and no change to the income tax code, which has a top rate kicking in at only $17,000 of income, or any other significant tax reform.
I would exempt the first $60,000 of household income from the state income tax, saving the average Virginia family $3,000 each year. Northam is pushing a statewide $15/hour minimum wage, which would be especially devastating for rural Virginia and other areas with a low cost of living.
At the same time, his position on social issues leave a lot to be desired. He is not in favor of legalizing marijuana and ending the drug war, like I am. He is not standing up against federal eminent domain abuse that is taking place here in Virginia, where private property is being taken from Virginians for the benefit of a private corporation to build pipelines, contrary to Virginia law.
I am the only candidate speaking out against that. He recently came out and said that he would ban sanctuary cities in Virginia. I think it’s important for the safety and security of all Virginians that anyone feels comfortable reporting a crime or serving as a witness regardless of their immigration status. He voted for George Bush twice, who was very far from a pro-freedom candidate.
And he’s gotten down in the mud with his Republican opponent, running ads associating Gillespie with neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and imagining his supporters as confederate supporters who want to drive over our children with trucks. Voters need to send a message that those kinds of slimy attacks are unacceptable.
The Republican campaign has been dominated by attack ads
Dave Nalle: You mentioned the attack ads. This race is probably the most contentious in this off-year election. Both establishment candidates and groups supporting them have run very controversial ad campaigns. Gillespie with his race baiting ads and the ad from a Latino group attacking him for it stand out. Is this contentious environment something you can capitalize on or does it keep voters overheated and distract them from the real issues?
Cliff Hyra: It is something that I can capitalize on, especially because I have made respect a centerpiece of my campaign from day 1. Not just respect for people of all different backgrounds and beliefs, but also for people with all different political opinions. That is very important to me.
Attack ads are designed to keep people at home and away from the voting booth. Voters get so fed up with the vitriol and the hate that they get discouraged and don’t want to vote for anyone. But I’m providing a voice for those people, an alternative kind of candidate running a clean campaign, an outlet that allows them to vote against negativity and for civility and respect. I’ve heard from many people in recent days who said that they would vote for me to send the other candidates the message that these kinds of cynical tactics will lose them votes, which is the only way to change things.
Marijuana legalization and school choice for Virginia
Dave Nalle: Does marijuana legalization sell well as an issue in Virginia, with both Maryland and the District of Columbia fairly progressive on the issue?
Cliff Hyra: everywhere I go. In surveys, 85 percent of Virginians support some form of legal marijuana. Everyone has seen now how well it works in other places. I always mention that there is some form of legal marijuana in 29 other states and the District of Columbia. It’s not an extreme position anymore. It’s something that Virginia is way behind on.
Dave Nalle: What is your position on school choice and do you think Virginia is likely to make any legislative progress on the issue?
Cliff Hyra: Being a slow mover in this area in Virginia, we have had the opportunity to see many school choice experiments in other states and learn what works and what doesn’t work as well.
Research consistently shows that school choice increases parental satisfaction, lowers costs, and can narrow the gaps between wealthy school districts and lower-income school districts- which is something that is difficult to do with other interventions.
The only objection I usually get to increased school choice is the fear that regular public schools would suffer, but the evidence does not bear that out. The most consistent finding has been that regular public schools also improve with greater school choice, because they are forced to compete for the marginal students and because charter schools pioneer best practices that they can adopt.
Virginia is currently ranked 47th in the nation in terms of our charter school program. We only have 9 charter schools in the entire state even though we have many failing schools, because the local school boards are the only ones who can bring in a charter school to compete with them.
I do think we will make progress on school choice in the near future, in fact a bill to improve our charter school program was passed this year, although it was vetoed.
Virginia lags behind other states on criminal justice reform
Dave Nalle: What about criminal justice reform and police accountability? What would you do on those fronts if elected?
Cliff Hyra: Criminal justice reform is another area in which Virginia is way behind other states, and it is costing us enormous amounts of money. Many of our policies are legacies of a time when an overtly racist state government engaged in “massive resistance” to public school integration.
First of all I would end the drug war. Substance abuse is a public health issue and trying to address it by putting people in jail doesn’t work. In Virginia, drug arrests have doubled over the last 15 years even though they are dropping in other states around the country. We are now arresting 40,000 Virginians each year for drug crimes, most for marijuana and the vast majority for mere possession.
It costs $30,000 per year in direct costs to incarcerate one person in Virginia and we are spending over $3 billion on our criminal justice system. That’s money that not only is wasted, it’s making things worse because we are taking people away from their families and their jobs, exposing them to violent criminals, giving them a criminal record and taking away their driver’s licenses, which makes it virtually impossible to reintegrate into society upon their release.
I would legalize marijuana and order that marijuana prohibition be given the lowest possible law enforcement priority until legalization can be passed. I would pardon anyone who is in jail only for drug use, and grant them an absolute pardon so they can go back to work. I would make sure that anyone with an addiction problem can receive help instead of incarceration.
Incarcerating a juvenile in Virginia costs over $120,000 per year and we send more school-age children to jail than any other state in the nation. I would expand community based programs used as alternatives to incarceration for youth.
I would end civil asset forfeiture abuse, ensuring that it is used only when someone is charged with a crime, and that seized assets are returned if a conviction is not obtained, and that any proceeds do not go directly to the police department.
I would automatically restore the voting rights of felons after they have served their time and all probation, like almost all other states.
I would make arrest quotas illegal and end the abusive suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay trivial fines or for non-driving related drug charges.
I would reintroduce parole for non-violent offenders, to encourage rehabilitation and good behavior and reduce recidivism. I would end trial by ambush by requiring prosecutors to turn over police reports and other evidence to the defense before a trial.
I would reform our bail system to adopt models used by other states that achieve an equal or greater number of accused returning for trial while keeping many fewer low-income people in jail for extended periods while awaiting trial. I would increase the felony larceny threshold from $200 (the lowest in the nation) to the national average of $1,000 or more. Studies show that low thresholds waste valuable resources without any benefit in crime reduction.
So there are a huge number of reforms that are needed in Virginia. A 2015 report commissioned by the governor identified dozens of needed reforms to the prison system and suggested that Virginia could save $500 Million or more annually. Fixing these problems would not only be a huge boon for justice, but for the economy of the state as well.
Does being a political outside help or hurt Cliff Hyra?
Dave Nalle: Both of the other candidates have a lot of political experience. Does this give them an advantage or does being an outsider help you?
Cliff Hyra: I’m sure it has helped them in terms of having run campaigns before and having a little more expertise campaigning. But being a political insider is not an advantage with the voters. It’s not unusual to have a governor without previous political experience – 25 percent of sitting governors have held no prior elected office – and voters are hungry for someone outside the political establishment, who is not in the race just to advance their own career.
Some thoughts and recommendations for the national Libertarian Party
Dave Nalle: As a libertarian candidate, what did you find to be the hardest hurdle to overcome in running for statewide office?
Cliff Hyra: Since Virginia requires 10 percent of the vote in a state-wide election to obtain major party status, an LP candidate has to gather 10,000 notarized petition signatures to get on the ballot. That was a big drain of time and resources that could have been directed to getting my name out there.
And of course many people are blindly partisan and looking for any reason to dismiss a third-party candidate. But the media and the voters have been overwhelmingly positive.
Dave Nalle: Last question. What would be your best advice for the Libertarian Party for a national campaign strategy for 2018?
Cliff Hyra: I’m not really sure what a national campaign strategy is. What kind of candidates the party should encourage to run and what they should run on?
Dave Nalle: I was thinking along the lines of what offices they should target and what they can do to recruit more qualified and serious candidates.
Cliff Hyra: I don’t know that I’m really qualified to answer that, but I would suggest that we target: (a) Any races that we think are winnable and (b) State-wide races with high visibility where we have the opportunity to get a lot of media coverage and keep people used to seeing us in high profile races and having us on the ballot.
I think a good way to recruit good candidates is to show that they have support. A big reason I was willing to run was the promise of a $25,000 loan for ballot access, the knowledge that there were people around from the Sarvis campaign who had had some success and knew what they were doing, and the fact that there were volunteers available to assist with the campaign. I would encourage the party to look at people who are consistent libertarian voters even if they have not previously been politically active – like me.
Dave Nalle: Excellent advice. Thanks for taking the time and best of luck in the campaign!