Tom Speciale – A Different Kind Of Candidate

Interviews with candidates don’t rank high on my list of writing projects, but this year I’ll make an exception for one I think voters should consider. I’m always on the quest for “different” and I often disagree with my friends over what that means. I can only say it’s important to me that a candidate has enough character not to roll over on commonsense policy, even when faced with tough questions especially in a primary.

To do that they have to be connected to real people, community leaders, citizens, and local government. Candidates who play to an audience show they won’t stay grounded in the simple concept of who they work for – the citizens of this country. For example, tough love on policy and remembering who they serve, are the qualities that drew me strongly to Denver Riggleman before he went to Congress, and why I love my 1st District Congressman Rob Wittman.

When my husband Jeff first ran for local office, I told him I’d support him as long we kept in mind for the long haul who we were, and why we were jumping off the cliff called politics. I support people who get that concept. I remember Riggleman walking down my driveway at an event where he clearly wasn’t the headliner with a bottle of Silverback Honey Bourbon under each arm to share with my guests and to support liberty, smaller government, and common sense.

My story about Wittman answering my call during a governor’s inauguration was published here on Bearing Drift a few years ago. I remember a couple of district chairs with smirks evaporating as they watched my newly minted Congressman high up in the stands reaching in his pocket for his phone. Candidates come and go. You must have a certain quality to capture my attention. You have to be real.

I like courage, kindness, and a tireless work ethic, and yes I want my candidate’s private lives to reflect that too.  I love that Riggleman often thanks and gives credit to his wife on social media, holding her in high esteem to the world, and that Wittman drives home to his every night from D.C. Only a handful of the showboats in Washington can manage to hold the line on policy, but yet have the personality to build enough consensus to get something accomplished.

This year, there’s another candidate out there who can pull it off. His name is Thomas Speciale and he’s running for the Republican nomination for the United States Senate. A few months ago when COVID-19 was still a concept and not a weight in everyday life, a friend, the Reverend MichaEL Hirsch, offered me a copy of Speciale’s book, Faith Family and Fortitude.

At the time I had already received another Senate candidate, Daniel Gade’s mail drops, and my first thought when I saw what amounted to a full color book was how in the Sam Hill did he pay for that thing? As someone who has created campaign material and hired many a mail house, I was impressed, but only with the cost, as it was apparent this guy had money to burn in a primary early. Good for him.

As far as the content went, it said all the right “canned” things and had huge slick pictures of the candidate “biking” with former President George Bush. Respectfully, those days are in the rear-view mirror and the good old days sometimes weren’t so good. Spending tax payers money and increasing the national debt isn’t just the pastime of our Democrat colleagues by a long shot.

The book sat around for a couple of nights until God forbid, we lost our cable for a few hours and I decided to learn why this guy had written a book in the first place. In a nutshell, Speciale believed his run for office should also come with details of exactly why and how he had arrived at this decision. I thought okay, there must be some “smoking gun” content in here. He’s telling us before he gets into campaigning and before social media does the job for him.

Once I started the read, I realized he had written it himself, concentrating on the people and events which had shaped his life. I’ll be honest, as I got into the story I kept waiting for the big reveal, the scandalous content, and I’m happy to ruin the ending for you. There wasn’t one.

What was apparent was that this candidate was different. He wasn’t hyping himself, but giving me a choice, laying it all out for people to decide if his views were worth supporting. This was the story of a real person, just like you or I who got into scrapes and bumps along the way.

Compared to the background of many of our candidates on both sides of the aisle, Speciale’s bio reminds one of … well … none of them. He’s also frank and open about his Christian faith without apologizing, but manages to convey kindness and an open mind there as well. There is a humbleness about the book that is completely disarming.

Born in Peoria, Illinois, Speciale has been divorced and is now remarried. He is a completely self-made individual. He grew up without the extras, but had a strong, loving and resilient family and learned to make his own opportunities finding a successful, diverse and unusual career as an adult. As a teen and twenty something he had several scrapes with the law. I don’t want to scandalize you too much, but he knocked over a potted plant with his car and with a group of boys broke into a comic book store and made off with figurines. I’m not making fun of these revelations at all, I promise, because the result was a learning curve that brought Speciale to where he is today, with a keen and pointed interest in criminal justice reform.

In the book and on his website he says, “It shouldn’t be a crime to be poor,” and goes on to say, “Convenience should not be our priority when it comes to justice. Justice and fairness must be our priority.”  This is not an esoteric concept to Speciale. He believes it, because he lived it.

It is an interesting thought-filled narrative told with candor as he reveals the diverse people he has met along the way and what he learned.   He discusses his views on gun violence and the relationship to mental illness which is a prime mover in his decision to run for office. He gives credit throughout the book to his family and to those who influenced his life, including some he was incarcerated with due to the comic store theft. Growth, he says, is about overcoming obstacles.

A key passage in the book and one which rang true for me refers to generational wealth, the importance of family and family support, and his experience with the criminal justice system. “It wasn’t until many years later in 2005 while attending a military school, that I was made to understand I had not been as poor as I thought I was. I had something due to my extended family that truly poor people don’t have -generational wealth.”

Since 1987, Speciale has served on active duty or in the Army Reserves at tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Today he is in the Army Reserves as a Chief Warrant Officer. He has served in Afghanistan alongside U.S. Special Forces. His platform includes his promise to “do everything to keep our American military the greatest fight force in the world.”

In addition, since 2005, he has served in the military or the intelligence community as a subject matter expert on terrorism and Middle Eastern conflict issues and understands first-hand the threats we face across the Middle East and beyond.

Speciale pursued his undergraduate education from Illinois Central College and Illinois State University and his graduate education from the American Military University. The top campaign issues in the book are immigration, mental health, education, and criminal justice reform

What also struck me in reading Faith Family and Fortitude was how aptly named the book really was. While it touched on his career and accomplishments, which are laudable, it doesn’t dwell on those. The story is really about what you learn and the person you become on the journey through faith, family, and fortitude. There is a humanity in the book that we don’t think of as integral in a candidate, but certainly should.

So, when I finished the book, I gave Tom Speciale a call and found he has one of the most important skills necessary in a candidate, the ability to listen.  I can’t tell you how many candidates want to blow off local government discussions and questions as if they have no relation to state or federal matters.

Speciale is the opposite and is full of questions, also a rarity, I promise. As we talked about campaigning, he relayed to me how he had collected his own signatures and I said, “Wait a minute. You got your own signatures for senate? You didn’t pay for signatures?” He seemed puzzled with the question and then answered up that he and his family and friends found the best way to meet and get to know people was to reach out to them in person, so he carried his petition to them. One on one conversations with real people instead of a paid surrogate army at $10.00 or more a signature? Novel idea.

Tom is both idealist and practical at the same time.  He chose four issues because he knows the tasks are monumental and promising the world in a week or a few months isn’t feasible. That’s called a plan, something that is also rare in the canned rhetoric world of politics. I also threw him the 54 dollar question I ask all candidates. If you’re elected how will you stay connected to your constituents? His answer was immediate and genius, but he has no idea he hit the nail on the head. It’s just Tom being Tom. Pay close attention to the first sentence.

“I don’t see any reason for any big change in how I live and work now. My home would always be open. I will do everything I can to be available to my constituents. But I don’t even like that word. I will be an employee and servant of the people of Virginia and, as such, no one will be prevented from direct access to me. I will figure out a way to have direct and regular contact with my fellow Virginians. I would want to have regular face to face town halls where those with questions and concerns could talk to me directly. I would need the help of people like you to help me stay connected. I don’t want to be changed by this. I want to change how things are done. I want to return to a time of citizen servants rather than politicians.”

My last question to Tom was about how to build consensus and he said he welcomed working with any colleague who was serious about real reform. He said mental health must actually address the depression and suicide problem we are suffering from, and that education must be focused on promoting the American dream of opportunity, individual responsibly, and success. He reiterated that criminal justice reform must level the playing field between the rich and the poor.

The following is a direct quote from the end of our interview:

“These are not easy tasks. But they are the issues we must focus on to take America into the future. I am tired of excuses for failure and political in-fighting. These four issues are interrelated. And improvement in one will have positive impacts in the others. So even modest improvements in each would have incredible effects across the country as a whole.”

In closing, take a look at Tom Speciale’s website as well as a companion article in the Winchester Star. If you’re comfortable with the usual rhetoric and the shiny, establishment candidate in any election, I’ll tell you upfront Tom’s probably not for you. His platform concentrates on four doable issues. If you are looking for “real” consider Tom Speciale in the Primary on June 23rd.

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