Whatever Happened to Senator Obenshain?

Senator Obenshain at the General Assembly in 2015

About six years ago, on January 6th, 2011, I excitedly wrote an article in support of a piece of legislation proposed by my state senator, Mark Obenshain, SB 1203. This proposal would require political parties to pay for their own primaries as opposed to the taxpayers, who shouldn’t have to foot the bill for the nomination process of a private organization.  As Senator Obenshain wrote, “If a political party wants a conventional primary, fine – but they can pay for it. Our localities are burdened enough as it is. If a party cannot or will not put up that much money, they can always go with a cheaper option. Our localities can ill afford it – and under my proposal, they wouldn’t have to.”  During this same General Assembly session, Obenshain also sponsored a bill, SB 1272, to privatize the state government-run ABC liquor stores.  Although unfortunately both bills were killed in committee, I was delighted to see that they were proposed.

I had routinely supported Senator Obenshain since 2003 when I was a volunteer on his first campaign before he even got the GOP nomination.  Sure, some senators in Virginia were pretty good, but Obenshain was mine.  Were there bumps along the way?  Of course, such as when he campaigned alongside Senator Lindsey Graham in 2008, but you can’t find someone with whom you always agree.  In 2009, I strongly encouraged him to seek the GOP nod for Virginia Attorney General.  By 2011, I believed that no other Virginia legislator could hold a candle to Senator Obenshain and I proudly told folks about my senator.  I felt he was making good on his promise that “The most important goal in my life is to have some significant impact in preserving and expanding the realm of personal freedom in the life of this country”.  It was a quote that his father made before his untimely death in 1978.

However, when the General Assembly session rolled around the next year, although I didn’t realize it at the time, something had begun to change.  He didn’t advocate the bills he had in the previous session.  Instead, included in his proposed legislation in 2012 were bills that didn’t limit the size of government and expand liberty, but rather ones that had the opposite effect.  For example, there was SB 244 which was an attempt to register voters in Virginia by political party.  It didn’t make sense to me.  How are the ideals of limited government or liberty advanced by getting the state government involved in a party’s membership recruitment and retention?  Fortunately, the bill was defeated and I didn’t pay it much more thought, merely considering it an odd fluke, much like in 2009 when he crafted a bill which would have charged a woman with a crime if she didn’t report a miscarriage to the state police within 24 hours of her child’s unfortunate death.

As we all know, in 2013 Senator Obenshain won the Republican nomination for Attorney General.  I was invited to attend his campaign strategy sessions and, given that I was a board member of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Virginia and had adventures with Libertarian Party members as well, I strongly encouraged his staff to make the message of liberty a center point for their campaign and that they should use this message to reach out to these like-minded individuals.  Unfortunately, each time I made this suggestion, I was ignored, even when I offered to personally take the lead for this endeavor.  As many will remember, Mark Obenshain ended up losing this race by 165 votes.

The following year, I began my run for Harrisonburg City Council.  As mentioned in previous pieces, I was expelled from the Harrisonburg GOP, a unit in which Senator Obenshain was a member, in February 2014, but that didn’t deter my campaign plan.  Throughout 2015 I tried repeatedly to attempt to schedule a meeting with my state senator, but his legislative aide steadfastly refused my request, declaring it to be a waste of the senator’s time.  As such, I was unable to speak with my elected representative for almost an entire year.  I should note that while I was blocked, this aide and Suzanne Obenshain, my senator’s wife, had formed a consulting firm and among their clients was one of my Republican opponents for council.  Although I didn’t expect an endorsement from my state senator, given that we were no longer members of the same party, I was deeply dismayed when, the night before the election, Senator Obenshain apparently intentionally mislead the voters of Harrisonburg by sending out an email declaring that voters should support my Republican opponents because they were the conservatives in the race.  For anyone who paid any attention to the race it was a blatant deception, especially considering one of these opponents supported higher taxes, more government regulation, and taxpayer funded subsidies.

After the election was over and his quarrelsome (and dare I say useless) aide had left his employ did I finally have an opportunity to speak with my state senator once more.  Given my own experiences getting certified, I didn’t think that it was fair that I had to collect 125 valid signatures of registered voters in order to appear on the November ballot while my Republican and Democratic opponents did not have to do likewise.  Therefore, I suggested a bill for the General Assembly which would require all candidates, regardless of political party, to meet the same filing requirements in order to achieve ballot access.  Senator Obenshain flatly refused, telling me that he only wanted Democrats and Republicans to appear on the ballot.

In the 2015 General Assembly session, Senator Obenshain proposed another bill, SB 1060, which would require voters to register with the state by a political party or be declared as independents.  This time, however, I knew it wasn’t some kind of aberration, but rather a deliberate attempt to squelch independents and the rise of third-party options.  Therefore, I fought back, writing blog pieces and speaking with Republican and Democratic legislators against it.  My primary effort during this time was centered around killing this wretched work.  In the end, I’m pleased to say that the bill was narrowly defeated by the Virginia Senate on a vote of 19-21.

2015 was a reelection year for my senator and he ended up hiring a former liberty activist and former friend who had been a harsh critic of our congressman, Bob Goodlatte, and rallied local activists against him for several years.  However, by this time, he had done a complete 180-degree turn, declaring Goodlatte to be “America’s best congressman”.  In addition, this staffer had also been arrested for beating up a woman and other offenses while intoxicated.  Unfortunately, adding this hire to the actions of Obenshain’s previous aide and his second campaign manager in his 2013 bid who had stolen materials from the campaign of Delegate Rob Bell, Obenshain’s Republican opponent, I came to the conclusion that my senator didn’t hire individuals based on their principles, ethics, or their ability to work with the public, but rather for their unquestioned loyalty (or those that could be bribed, blackmailed, or otherwise controlled).  Although I had been a strong advocate for my state senator in his previous elections and re-elections, in the 2015 cycle I found myself sitting on the sidelines.  During that time, I wrote a piece on the matter but didn’t end up posting it.

Although it was good to see a bill curbing the abuses of civil asset forfeiture, which allows the police to take and keep your property even if you are found innocent of committing a crime, I was horrified when I learned that Senator Obenshain voted against the bill in committee.  Even though it passed that particular committee, it died in the next one.

When in mid to late 2016, Senator Obenshain once again declared a seemingly nonconservative candidate to be the conservative choice for Harrisonburg City Council, I found myself very upset still an entire week later.  As a result, I wrote him a letter explaining my almost overwhelming frustration and disappointment.  In it, I added that if he ever tried to enact party registration again or otherwise erode the political freedoms of the people of Virginia, I would do whatever I could to lead the charge to defeat such a bill.

Well, a few months later, Senator Obenshain announced SB 902, his third effort to force registration by political party.  On Friday, January 6th, he spoke at the monthly First Friday gathering and I intended to ask him about the matter, but his wife was leading the meeting and my efforts were either not noticed or simply ignored.  He explained how “we” needed to keep the Virginia Senate in Republican hands due to a special election coming up in several days, but couched it in a message of fear, saying how terrible it would be if the Democrats regained control of the chamber.  It had echoes of his speech from the October 2015 First Friday gathering. Never mind the fact that the Republican Senate continually chooses Senator Tommy Norment, who is a liberal and supports big government, (he helped push through the 2013 transportation tax hike) as their majority leader each and every time they have controlled the chamber in the last two decades.

Although Senator Obenshain has been pushing for the Republican candidate in the 22nd district both at First Friday and in an email sent the day before, there are actually two special elections for the Virginia Senate on January 10th.  While some people and groups like Representative Tom Garrett (VA-5) and the Virginia Citizens Defense League have also come out in support of the Libertarian candidate in the 9th district, Obenshain has remained silent on the second race because, presumably while it is important to support candidates who share your political party, we certainly don’t want to advance the cause of liberty as much as possible because that might mean supporting a candidate of a different political affiliation.  There is a Democratic and a Libertarian candidate in this contest, no Republican ran.

As you might imagine, these last several years have been profoundly discouraging. Although my state senator declared himself a champion of liberty in the mold of his father, he acts as if he no longer cares about the idea.  These days he seems to be far more concerned with protecting and promoting Republican legislators regardless of their principles and maintaining Republican control of as much government as possible.

In response to Senator Obenshain’s party registration bill, I’ve created an online petition in opposition.  Politicians often talk of economic freedom, personal freedom, and religious freedom, but if we don’t embrace political freedom and the choices and competition that that brings, representative government becomes perverted and our representatives become our masters.  Therefore, if you oppose party registration here in Virginia, please join me by clicking on this link and showing your support by signing the petition.  Please note, any donations go to the host site and not this cause.

A month or two before her death in mid-2016, I found myself in Rockbridge County helping Suzanne Curran, the somewhat legendary political activist from Shenandoah County, pack some materials in her vehicle.  While I carried a box outside, she mentioned to me how she thought it might have been a good thing that Senator Obenshain lost his 2013 race for attorney general.  Although I found it a surprising sentiment at the time, unfortunately, it is becoming all too clear what she was saying.

Billing himself as an advocate for liberty, Senator Obenshain seems to have unfortunately morphed into a mouthpiece for the Republican establishment.  My once great pride in my state senator has been replaced by feelings of shame and regret.  Has there been a radical transformation in Senator Obenshain in the last several years or has it always been the case and I was simply deceived?

Whatever happened to Senator Obenshain?

In Memory of Suzanne Curran

Photo of Suzanne Curran (in red) courtesy of Martha Boneta
Photo of Suzanne Curran (in red) courtesy of Martha Boneta

Earlier today, I received word that long-time Shenandoah Valley political activist Suzanne Curran has died.  A resident of Shenandoah County, Ms. Curran was the program director for the Shenandoah Valley Constitutional Conservatives, which holds a monthly gathering at the Denny’s in Mt. Jackson.  She was also heavily involved with the Republican Party of Virginia, serving as the Western Vice Chairwoman.

Although Ms. Curran and I disagreed over candidates, for example she supported Ed Gillespie for U.S. Senate in 2014 while I preferred Shak Hill over Gillespie for the Republican nomination and Libertarian Robert Sarvis over Gillespie for the general election, and she was an ardent supporter of Ted Cruz for president while I was not, I admired her for steadfastly standing up for her principles and her willingness to stand behind them even if doing so upset Republican Party bosses and elected officials.  She was a courageous woman and I appreciate that she treated me with respect and dignity in a time when many in the GOP shunned me.

I’d like to share two memories of Suzanne Curran.  The first is from the 2012 6th district Republican convention.  Ms. Curran was seeking a spot as a delegate to the RNC National Convention that year.  Although she was a supporter of Newt Gingrich (while I was for Ron Paul), I thought that she easily gave the best speech of any of the candidates, speaking of the importance of principles and working together to achieve common goals.

The Ron Paul campaign had their own preferred slate of candidates (as pictured), but as I thought Ms. Curran was more honorable than one of the “chosen ones”, I cast one of my votes for her instead.  I was disappointed when she didn’t win.

The second recollection is more recent.  Several months ago, I wrote what I thought was a quite controversial piece about the race for Republican National Committeewoman.  Shortly thereafter, I attended a political dinner and Suzanne Curran was there too.  She came up to me and said she had to shake my hand, which she did, and then thanked me for writing the article.

Life is an odd thing really.  Only a handful of days ago, on June 3rd, I had lunch with Suzanne Curran in Harrisonburg at First Friday.  During that time she displayed her usual spirit and vigor.  Just two weeks prior the 6th district Republicans elected her to serve as a delegate to the Republican National Convention and I’m sure she was excited to attend, especially after she fell short in 2012.  Now, her space will be filled by another.  Who knew that she would be gone so soon?

Suzanne Curran was a woman who would not allow anyone to bully or intimidate her and, from time to time, she would encourage me to stand tall too.  It is my great hope that Suzanne Curran’s life will serve as an inspiration, especially to young women who share her passion for politics.

Suzanne Curran was a good woman; I miss her already.

Obenshain v. Dunbar

In just a handful of days Republicans across the state will gather in Harrisonburg, my hometown, for their state convention. There they will be voting for a new committeewoman. The two choices for this position are Suzanne Obenshain and Cynthia Dunbar. Having had the opportunity to get to know both women, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

The Obenshains in Richmond in late 2012
The Obenshains in Richmond in late 2012

I’ve known Suzanne Obenshain for well over a decade. While I was growing up in Harrisonburg we both attended the same church and were both quite active in local Republican Party politics. She’s a person whose opinion I’ve valued. For example, when in 2013 I started to consider running for local office in the 2014 elections, speaking to Suzanne Obenshain was of prime importance. To highlight some of my activism, I was a bus captain for the Obenshain for Attorney General campaign at the 2013 Virginia Republican convention and later the campaign asked me to serve as her chauffeur, though I only ended up driving her once and it was just around Harrisonburg.

My last meaningful conversation with Suzanne Obenshain was a little over two years ago. However, as I’ve written in previous pieces, after about 19 years of activism I was kicked out of the Harrisonburg GOP in February 2014. Given that I had been a loyal supporter and volunteer for the Obenshains since Senator Obenshain first declared his intent to run for office in late 2002 or early 2003, the first person I called looking for assistance with this matter was Suzanne Obenshain. In the moment I needed her help the most she refused to provide aid. During the call she asked me if I knew what a “good Republican” was. I explained that I thought it was someone who held fast to principle and advocated the values found in the Virginia Republican Creed. Instead, Ms. Obenshain explained that being a good Republican had nothing to do with ideology, but instead a good Republican was a person who supported all the Republican candidates. I was shocked when I heard these words, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

After all, after the 2012 Republican National Convention, which screwed over the Ron Paul delegates, I presented a resolution to the local Harrisonburg GOP from the Virginia Republican Liberty Caucus that condemned both John Boehner and Reince Priebus for their role in this matter. However, it was Suzanne Obenshain herself who scuttled any attempt to either discuss it or bring it to a vote.

Also, during the 2012 Harrisonburg City Council elections, much to my disappointment I discovered that one of the Republican candidates promoted a lot of big government policies, more so than even the Democratic candidates. Given this realization, there was no way I could bring myself to either support or vote for this person. After the election, when all three Republican candidates went down in defeat, I spoke with Suzanne Obenshain, as she was the person who recruited our local candidates. I asked why the local GOP would nominate a person who couldn’t be called a conservative by any stretch of the imagination. She responded by telling me that no one else wanted to run. However, wouldn’t it have been better to have one fewer nominee than running a full slate if that meant rallying behind someone who was antithetical to our principles? Does being a Republican actually mean anything?

Getting back to 2014, although no longer a member of my local committee, I still requested to attend the state convention. Both the chairman and Ms. Obenshain told me that I could go as a voting delegate. However, I was dismayed to discover that the call for the convention included a strict loyalty oath to the party and her candidates, declaring that all delegates from Harrisonburg would support all of the Republican candidates that year. Neither knowing who they were nor whether or not they would uphold the principles of the RPV Creed I felt could not honorably sign such a document. I asked who decided to include this oath in the call, which was considerably more stringent than other local calls, such as the one from Waynesboro, and was told that it was Suzanne Obenshain who did so.

One of my relatives asked Suzanne Obenshain why the Republicans had treated me poorly and I was told that she responded saying that the Republicans were afraid of me, in part because I was unwilling to compromise on most principles and because I openly criticized my representative, Bob Goodlatte when he voted against what I always assumed were supposedly Republican values.

After the convention I spoke to a local friend who was also a Shak Hill supporter and convention delegate. At the time Shak Hill was running as the more conservative option for Senate. However, my friend told me that several Ed Gillespie supporters, including Suzanne Obenshain, attempted to intimidate him on the voting floor into supporting their preferred candidate.

I still ran for local office but I did so as an independent since I wasn’t a member of the Republican Party any longer; I felt someone needed to represent my principles. I ran on a platform of limiting the power and scope of the city government and to the best of my knowledge, I was the only candidate who mentioned the Creed of the Republican Party of Virginia or sought to advance the values which it advocated. Party labels aside you’d think that limited government Republicans would be happy that at least one of the candidates actually advocated limiting the government. Nevertheless, several of my friends told me that Suzanne Obenshain was furious with me because I had the audacity to run for office against the Republican nominees. When I went door-to-door for my campaign I stopped by the houses of several friends who had signs for the Republican council candidates in their yard. When I asked them about it, I was told that they had not requested the signs but instead Suzanne Obenshain placed them in their yards simply because they were members of the Harrisonburg Republican committee. By comparison, due in part to my principles, many Libertarians supported my campaign either through time or money as did some disaffected local Republicans.

Photo of Cynthia Dunbar with Suzanne Curran and Mark Berg. Image from the Dunbar campaign.
Photo of Cynthia Dunbar with Suzanne Curran and Mark Berg. Image from the Dunbar campaign.

On the other hand, I first spoke to Cynthia Dunbar on New Years Eve of 2015. She called me while I was picking up a few pizzas for a party that was taking place that evening. Although I wasn’t a member of the Republican Party and had no plans of rejoining, we spoke about her candidacy, the GOP, and political principles. I met her in person on Saturday at a meeting of the Shenandoah Valley Constitutional Conservatives in Mt. Jackson.

Over the last several months, I’ve had the chance to listen to Cynthia Dunbar on a handful of occasions.   She seems to be a person guided by conviction that promises to stand up to the party bosses and elected officials who betray their principles and/or the grassroots activists who elected them in the first place. In addition, she’s picked up endorsements from a number of good Virginia political activists and elected officials I respect including: Delegate Brenda Pogge, Delegate Bob Marshall, Senator Dick Black, Suzanne Curran, Anne Fitzgerald, Steven Thomas, and Ed Yensho. However, the most exciting endorsement comes from my former boss, the godfather of the modern liberty movement, Dr. Ron Paul.

Some of her detractors have attacked Dunbar for the fact that she has lived in Virginia for only a handful of years. But don’t we all have to come from somewhere? One of my Republican opponents for city council used this issue against the Democrats and the Libertarian candidate because they lived within the city limits for only several years. Although I am a native of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, that was as a result of the choices my parents made, not my own. Honestly, what should matter more, political principles and character or something transient like geography? I’d like to think this is an easy question and we should not treat people as outcasts simply because their roots are not as deep as our own.

Let me offer you a few fun facts. Since 2009, only one Republican candidate has beaten a Democratic candidate in Harrisonburg. If Senator Mark Obenshain had won our hometown in 2013, he would be Virginia’s attorney general. Here’s another fact. In 1995, at the age of 15, I was the youngest Republican activist in Harrisonburg. In January of 2013, at the age of 32, I was still the youngest person who regularly attended monthly meetings of the Harrisonburg Republican Party.

The facts and experiences I’ve mentioned might leave you with several important questions. Why don’t Republicans win Harrisonburg? Although I don’t know their current membership, when I was a part of the party why did the Harrisonburg GOP fail to recruit newer, younger members? Well, when you have leaders of a political party which values loyalty to the party over principle, what do you think happens? When you have a local unit, which forces its members to sign onerous loyalty oaths to the party and her candidates, it is possible that the members begin to build up resentment? When you have a political party that is more concerned with pleasing elected officials and party bosses at the expense of the volunteer grassroots activists, why in the world would anyone choose to join such a group? When a local party recruits candidates who are indistinguishable from the Democrats, why wouldn’t voters select the genuine article? When the local leaders of the Republican Party treat conservatives and libertarians who are outside of the party as hostile enemies, should there be any wonder why Republicans no longer win Harrisonburg and the local unit is so dreadfully small and ineffective? Lastly, I have to ask you, are these kinds of values ones that Virginia Republicans want at the national level?

It should be obvious that this election for Republican National Committeewoman is one of important contrasts. Like my hero Ron Paul, if I were a delegate to the Virginia Republican Convention, given my experiences and knowledge of the two candidates, I would have no hesitation in casting my vote for Cynthia Dunbar.

Where is Susan Stimpson?

IMG_1677
Susan Stimpson M.I.A.

Last night, the Republican Women of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County hosted the seven campaigns for lieutenant governor.  Jeannemarie Davis, Senator Steve Martin, and a rather hoarse sounding Corey Stewart each attended the event while Suzanne Curran spoke on behalf of E. W. Jackson and Scott Lingamfelter and Pete Snyder sent a member of their staff.  Although I didn’t see anyone that I knew from the Susan Stimpson campaign, I assumed that one of her staffers or surrogates was in the audience.

For a few additional details about the evening, Corey Stewart explained that he nearly lost his voice after personally calling each of the Rockingham County delegates.  And, after the event, I appreciated the opportunity to speak briefly to Jeannemarie Davis about her campaign.  She asked about my work and so I spoke of a potentially exciting new development to expand my reach to local radio (hopefully I’ll have more details available soon!)

Getting back to Susan Stimpson, at the Lingamfelter meet and greet in Harrisonburg earlier that day, I had heard that she had to cancel her evening appearance at the last minute.  However, I figured that someone would speak for her that night.  Unfortunately, I arrived to the Republican Women meeting a few minutes late, during the speech of Jeannemarie Davis.  Once all of the candidates gave their presentation and I didn’t hear anyone from the Stimpson campaign, I simply guessed that her representative must have spoken first, before I arrived.  Only just this afternoon did I discover that her campaign was a no show.

Although I would recommend attending every event possible, especially the Republican Women, it is understandable that things do come up.  Regardless, it is natural that some of the local women would feel slighted by an abrupt cancellation.

Now, taken as an isolated incident, this oversight by the Stimpson campaign would be rather trivial.  However, it seems to be indicative of trend for the Stimpson campaign; last night marks their third absence in several months at previously scheduled campaign events in the central Shenandoah Valley.

Let me tell you that I’m not the only one around here who is starting to wonder.  Where is Susan Stimpson?

Late Fireworks In Middletown

IMG_1670On Saturday, February 9th, the seven Republican candidates for lieutenant governor gathered for their second forum in Virginia’s sixth district, this time in Middletown, a small town in Frederick County.  The Apple Valley Club, the Republican Women of Shenandoah County, and the Shenandoah Valley Constitutional Conservatives hosted the event.  Suzanne Curran was the moderator and Karen Kwiatkowski kept the time.

The forum began with opening statements from the office seekers, an introduction that lasted for about an hour.  After about a twenty-minute break, Ms. Curran asked a battery of questions on a whole host of topics.  Unlike the previous event in Lynchburg, all of the candidates had an opportunity to answer each of the questions.  It was common for the respondents to exceed their allotted time window; Ms. Kwiatkowski shook a cowbell to silence the candidates once his or her time had expired.  In a particularly amusing moment, Pete Snyder bowed to the bell when it rang for him.

Many of the topics explored at the Middletown forum were the same issues that had been discussed at the last event.  For the most part, it was difficult to differentiate among candidates.  Although their delivery differed, all of them claimed to be conservative; each is supposedly pro-life, each supports the 2nd Amendment, and each decries the erosion of the Constitution and the massive overreach of the federal government.  The only noticeable exception was when Jeannemarie Devolites Davis announced her support of background checks at gun shows.  Presumably, the longer that the seven remain relatively indistinguishable, the bigger bump the E. W. Jackson campaign should receive.  After all, Jackson’s fantastic oratory skills are perhaps the greatest advantage he enjoys over the other six.

However, as the title of this article indicates, there were some moments of particular interest as the forum drew to a close.  Delegate Scott Lingamfelter and Corey Stewart took a few jabs at each other as Stewart blamed the General Assembly for many local problems and for lacking courage while Lingamfelter responded claiming that local government ought to shoulder more of the responsibility.  Given their roles in local and state government, both Chairman Susan Stimpson and State Senator Steve Martin were drawn into fight, though Martin seemed to try to stay above the fray.

Pete Snyder’s closing remarks filled me with some small message of hope as he reminded the audience that if you have love in your heart, just about anything is possible.  Also, at the end of the event Delegate Lingamfelter seemed to make it a point to speak with me personally and ask for my support.  Whether he read my last post chastising him for his remarks about Ron Paul is uncertain, but I do appreciate his willingness to try to mend fences.

IMG_1676
Corey Stewart

In general, most of the candidates appeared a bit more polished at the Middletown event and I did not catch any major gaffes.  However, given his willingness to make bold statements such as claiming that the phrase “I introduced a bill” is almost useless in politics, I believe that Corey Stewart emerged as the clear winner at the forum in Middletown.  I won’t say that I agree with every single position that he articulated, but the idea of nominating a candidate who is willing to call out his or her fellow Republicans is exceedingly important.  Even though I’m admittedly still jaded by his anti-Paul piece, for going toe-to-toe with Stewart, Lingamfelter claimed second place.

To all of the candidates, I would recommend making every effort to stand out in the sea of seven, clearly articulating how your positions are different and better than the rest; failure to do so may mean that soon you will be forgotten.

Fellow blogger Craig Orndorff recorded the entire forum and you can find this video here!  Watch and decide for yourself.