Tom Garrett’s Election Night Interview with Bearing Drift

State Senator Tom Garrett (R-22) defeated former Albemarle County Supervisor Jane Dittmar (D) in the race to succeed retiring U.S. Representative Robert Hurt (R-Chatham) in Tuesday’s general election. According to unofficial results published by the State Board of Elections, Garrett received 206,924 votes, or 58.24 percent, with Dittmar receiving 147,613 votes, or 41.55 percent. There were 745 write-in votes, or 0.21 percent of the total.

Congressman Tom Garrett Election Night Charlottesville
Tom Garrett

Shortly after the race was called, I spoke to Congressman-elect Garrett at an election night watch party his campaign hosted at Random Row Brewing Company in Charlottesville. He gave a lot of credit for his victory to younger voters in the Millennial Generation.

“What blew my mind,” Garrett said, “was the engagement from the millennial community,” including “the young people from Hampden-Sydney, UVA, Liberty (which isn’t in the district), Longwood, all the community colleges. Who knew? I think these young people get it. The consequences of the decisions we make, primarily with spending but also with national security and borders, will be wrought on them — and they’re engaged.”

I asked whether the millennials were drawn to him by his positions on the issues, especially with regard to drug-law reform. Several states liberalized their medicinal marijuana laws through ballot measures on Tuesday, with California, Massachusetts, and Nevada joining Colorado and Washington state in legalizing recreational cannabis. Garrett has introduced legislation in Richmond to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. Would he do the same on Capitol Hill?

“Yeah,” he said. Cannabis “needs to be off Schedule I. I don’t even think I’m trodding any bold political ground here… We know that there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana; we know it.”

Garrett said he is in contact with families with children who have intractable epilepsy and who have, using cannabinoid-A extracts, “cut the number of seizures the kids are having, no kidding, literally a hundredfold.”

He explained how the General Assembly moved legislation “last year and the year before to allow families access to that. You can’t get high off cannabinoid-A extracts. It’s medicine.” Yet, he pointed out, “the pharmacists were the opposition because the pharmacists said, ‘Federally, it’s illegal. We don’t want to go to prison.’”

Referring to the U.S. Constitution, Garrett said, “Look, there’s a ninth and a tenth amendment for a reason. States can handle this. I’ve said this publicly before, if I cast a decriminalization/legalization vote tomorrow, it would probably be no. But the draconian sort of outmoded laws that we have ignore science and reality and that’s not fair to do to families, particularly when we’re not even talking about a form of the substance that can be used for recreational purposes. It’s purely medicinal. And they legally still can’t be sold here. That’s silly.”
I asked Garrett what committee assignments he will seek. Chuckling, he acknowledged that, as one of the low men on the totem pole, his chances of getting what he requests will be low.

“Having served in the Army, this is not a stock answer, this is life experience: I know what being junior means. I know Robert Hurt did not ask for Financial Services, [but] that’s where he ended up.”

He said there are three categories of committees that make sense to him as a freshman Member of Congress. First, what does Virginia’s congressional delegation need? “What’s Virginia missing?” he asked, or what committees lack representation from the Commonwealth. “We’re missing Financial Services” once Hurt leaves office and “we’re missing Appropriations. I think we’re missing a voice on Armed Services.”

Second, what committee can gain from Tom Garrett’s own skills and life experiences? He suggested that Armed Services is where his experience as an Army officer who served in Iraq in the Balkans during the Bosnia conflict might be useful, he said.

Third, what does the Fifth Congressional District need? “I think if we could achieve a balance, it would be great. I’d love to be on Armed Services and [Agriculture]. The Fifth still grows 78 percent of tobacco grown in Virginia. Agriculture’s a huge industry here.”

The decision on committee appointments rests with the Republican conference, and ultimately with the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader. “I’m going to go where they send me. You never start where you finish, and I’m going to be earnest and work hard wherever I am. All I know is there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know.”

Already on election night, Garrett had communicated with outgoing Congressman Robert Hurt, through text messages.

“He’s been wonderfully gracious and thoughtful throughout the process [but] there’s a lot of people I want to talk to. There are people who ran for the nomination who have subject-matter expertise that I’d love to hear from. There are Members who know things that I don’t know. You know, there’s Virgil Goode, who did this for a long time, who probably can give me a useful tip or two.”

Waxing philosophical, Garrett mused, “In life, if you want to be successful, start by understanding that the most indispensable person is the person who knows they’re not indispensable. And then, acknowledge, moving forward, that you don’t know everything, and then find the people who know stuff, be smart enough to listen to them. Then, when you figure out what’s right, make a stand and don’t move.”

He added that there are opportunities to reach across the aisle and work with legislators from other political parties.

Taking a stand “doesn’t mean not compromising, but ultimately find what you’ll compromise on. Dave Marsden [D-37] and I don’t vote alike very often; we worked really hard together on medicinal marijuana. Barbara Favola [D-31] and I never agree; we worked really hard together on seclusion and restraint. When you build those relationships, you can move people the other way when the time comes,” he explained.

At the time of our interview, the results of the presidential race were not yet known. Returns were still coming in from across the country and it looked too close to call between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I asked Garrett what he could do, as a new Member of Congress, to heal the wounds and reconcile different factions of the Republican Party after the most divisive presidential campaign in our memories.

“There’s certainly a really intelligent, thoughtful, significant element that’s somehow been alienated or alienated itself,” he acknowledged, while demurring on his own potential as a reconciler. “I don’t have any delusions of grandeur. I’m one guy. I am who I say am. I’ve told everybody all along, Trump wasn’t my first or second choice but I’m vehemently and wholeheartedly on board right now, even though sometimes reasonable people can disagree.”

He said that, now that the election is over, it is time to move forward.

“Look, yesterday’s yesterday; tomorrow’s tomorrow,” Garrett said. “I tell my kids, if you drive your car looking in the rearview mirror, sooner or later you’ll find a tree. We’ve just got to look at what unites us and not what divides us.”

In general, he said, “Treat people how you want to be treated. Seek commonality and not division. I think rifts heal themselves. There’s always going to be dead-enders who just don’t want to like you or get along for whatever reason. That’s life. Treat them the best you can and recognize reality and move forward.”

The Bible, he said, is “full of good lessons and when you get snubbed by somebody or whatever, if you return the favor by treating them well, sometimes that’s the best success.”

Drawing on his own experience in the General Assembly, Garrett added that “both sides of this party need to stop looking for reasons to argue and start seeking out commonality. It’s ok to disagree sometimes. Bryce Reeves, my seatmate — my best friend in the General Assembly — he was a million miles away from me on medical marijuana, a million miles away. I respect the heck out of him. He’s just wrong on that issue.”

Cautioning about too much ego in politics, he concluded: “This is about America. If it’s about you, you need to find something else to do with your time because there’s a whole lot more going than us.”

You can listen to a podcast of my interview with Congressman-elect Tom Garrett this weekend on The Score. In the meantime, here’s a video of his remarks as he arrived at the GOP election night party in Charlottesville:

Note: This post has been updated to correct the foreign country where Tom Garrett served in the U.S. Army.