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?