News & Politics

Libertarian Rob Sarvis Makes His Case for Virginia Governor

Virginia voters seem to get the point of his run for governor—even if he doesn’t get their vote.

Photograph by Andrew Propp.

Rob Sarvis has little money, no paid staff, and, by his own estimation, few fellow Libertarians among the Virginia electorate. Yet the irrepressible unpopularity of the leading candidates in the November 5 gubernatorial election—Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli—has allowed Sarvis, a 37-year-old Annandale attorney and software developer, to poll as high as the double digits. (The last Libertarian Virginian to run, Bill Redpath, didn’t clear 1 percent in the 2001 campaign.) We caught up with Sarvis to find out what makes him run.

At one point a Politico poll had you at 12 percent. For a third-party candidate to be in double digits says a lot about this election.

It shows the two parties have gotten so far from trying to serve the public. And these two candidates really exemplify exactly what’s going on in their parties.

What are your impressions of your opponents?

You can’t really tell much about a person from talking to them a little. They’re practiced politicians who say the scripted things you’re supposed to say, but the numbers don’t add up. It’s frustrating for voters to see such dumbed-down rhetoric.

What sparked you to run for office?

I grew up in a moderately fiscally conservative household. My mom is Chinese. My dad was white. He died when I was almost ten, and my mom raised us. I never heard anyone talk about social issues. I never really thought I would be in politics because I was really shy and introverted. But I’ve always been interested in public policy. In 2008, when the recession started, is when I got really fed up. I didn’t like that we had bailed out the big banks. It seemed there was a lot of cronyism.

Two years ago, you ran for Virginia’s state senate as a Republican.

I ran as a libertarian Republican. I just didn’t know how socially extreme the Virginia GOP is. There’s basically no libertarian influence—not like other states, where they’re kind of having a civil war.

Why did you quit the party?

I live in a fairly liberal district, and if I run again as a Republican, it’s just an albatross around my neck. It’s the easiest thing for them to say, “Hey, look—a Republican.” And that’s the end of the argument.

Where are you on the libertarian scale now?

I’m tempered by the fact of what’s politically feasible. Most Virginians aren’t libertarians. I accept that fact. I just start with the universe of politically feasible policy options and choose the best one.

If Virginians aren’t libertarians, why are you running?

Because they want something better, and moderate libertarian is far superior to Republicans and Democrats in their current incarnation. Take the marijuana issue. People see the ravages of the drug war and how ridiculous it is that we criminalize possession of marijuana. I think 70-plus percent [of Virginians] are totally fine with medical marijuana and a bare majority is okay with full legalization. Yet the parties aren’t talking about it, and the media generally won’t bring it up.

Can you pull this off?

Obviously, it’s still an uphill climb and we’re realistic about the possibilities, but there’s certainly a path there.

This article appears in the November 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.