(Editor's note: One of the greatest powers Americans have is their right to vote. Patch respects that, and wants our readership to be as informed as possible before walking into that voting booth on Nov. 6. This is the third in a series of in-depth interviews with candidates vying for Virginia’s 11th congressional District seat.)
Reforming the U.S. government and economy, the effectiveness of Congress and ending partisan gridlock were a few of the topics discussed this week in an interview with Mark Gibson, the Independent candidate for Virginia's 11th congressional District seat. Gibson candidly spoke with Patch from the Starbucks in Springfield Plaza in Springfield.
Gibson has $258 cash on-hand for his campaign, compared to $1.5 million for Democratic incumbent Rep. Gerry Connolly, and $56,026 for Republican Col. Chris Perkins. He also faces Independent candidate Chris DeCarlo, Independent Green Party candidate Peter Marchetti and Green Party candidate Joe Galdo.
Gibson, 51, was born in Washington, D.C., and spent most of his life in Montgomery County, Md. The son of a Democratic elementary school principal father and English teacher mother, he graduated with a degree in Economics from Frostberg State University in western Maryland, and received his master's in Economics from the University of Maryland. Gibson began his career in 1988 as a researcher at the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and he has held leadership positions at the American National Standards Institute, SYMVIONICS, Inc., SAIC, Oracle Corporation and Comprehensive Health Services in Vienna. He is currently the vice president for operations and business development at Fairfax-based Advanced Technology Solutions, Inc., an information technologies consulting firm with 15 employees.
Gibson has lived in Fairfax since 1997, is married and has two young children.
Questions and Answers
Patch: How much sleep do you get at night?
Gibson: Six or seven hours.
Patch: What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Gibson: I thought about being a police officer. When I was a graduate student in Maryland it came full circle and my roommate was a law enforcement major and he saw a summer job ad for the Ocean City Police Department, and we gave it a try for a summer - pinned on a badge, carried a gun and worked on the boardwalk.
Patch: Why didn't you stick with that?
Gibson: After that summer, I thought the better choice was working toward an economic degree. I really appreciated those law enforcement guys. It's a hard job and you have to have the right personality for it. That just wasn’t my personality.
Patch: Have you ever been in a fistfight?
Gibson: Not so much a fistfight, but when I was with the Ocean City Police Department there were some scuffles. That's going to happen any time you work late at night on the boardwalk and people come out of bars.
Patch: What are your hobbies?
Gibson: Riding my bike, playing golf and traveling with my family.
Patch: How's the campaign going?
Gibson: It's hard. As an Independent without name recognition, it's really, really hard. Nobody really knows me, so every time I meet someone it's a new introduction. My neighbors know me, but without a major party behind you it's difficult. At the ballot, most people will just vote D or R. And that's at least a 10-20 percent advantage in their favor right there - just having a party net to their name.
Patch: How much time are you devoting to the campaign a week?
Gibson: Well, it's certainly one of the three pieces of my life. Family comes first, then business - because I still have a job - and then the campaign. I can't devote all my time to it (campaigning) with two kids and taking care of business. I have an absentee owner (for a boss) and I have to take care of business and deliver for her. If I was running a full-time campaign I'd be up working 120 hours a week. There's just no way.
Patch: Who did you vote for in the last five presidential elections?
Gibson: Let me think. I voted for Sen. McCain in 2008, for Kerry in 2004 and Gore in 2000. I voted for Clinton both times. I don't recall who I voted for during the Reagan years.
Patch: Why didn't you vote for Obama?
Gibson: I had a feeling he was going to win anyway, and I have great respect for Sen. McCain. I don't necessarily have respect for who he chose as a running mate (former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin). It wasn't so much a vote of protest. I was looking to level the playing field, so to speak.
Patch: Have you figured out who you're voting for in the presidential election this year?
Gibson: No I haven't. I don't think the president has done a good job. I don't think he's been a good leader. But Mr. Romney has not shown us what he is going to do. Neither of them have, really.
Patch: So, it's going to be the question of choosing the lesser of two evils for you?
Gibson: I hate to say it, but yeah. My wife and I were talking about this yesterday. We're within two weeks of the election and for people to wonder what Gov. Romney stands for…I don't know if he (Romney) has been fighting so hard for the right that he's now fighting his way back to the middle and has been wishy washy on where he stands. But there's a lot of details in his platform that are missing. At the same time, I think the president has a lot of details missing about his next four years as well.
Patch: What's it going to boil down to when you step into that voting booth? Instinct?
Gibson: Probably. It's just going to be a gut feeling. I wish I could give a 'none-of-the-above' vote like they have in Nevada. To me, that kind of vote tells the parties that they're not giving us what we want.
Patch: You're not going to vote for a third-party candidate?
Gibson: Well, I haven't looked at any of those.
Patch: What is your defining characteristic?
Gibson: I tend to be a good listener.
Patch: Why are you running for Congress?
Gibson: My frustration with Congress is very high. Locally, I'm happy with my supervisor (Republican Braddock District Supervisor John Cook), I just haven't seen that Congress has been effective, and if I can do something to focus on the issues and change the effect of this Congress then I think I have done something.
I haven't seen any attempt by either party to make any move to the middle. There are no Independents in Congress now - at least on the House side.
Patch: When did you decide you were going to run?
Gibson: It was two summers ago, during the Connolly-Fimian race. It was just horrible. The tenor of the whole discussion wasn't even a discussion. It was ugly - name-calling and no focus on the issues from both sides.
Patch: Describe to me your leadership style.
Gibson: From a corporate standpoint, I like to see people offer their capabilities and for me to guide them. I work with a terrific bunch, and for the most part they are highly skilled professionals and they just need guidance once in a while. I manage money and people and projects, and it's a cooperative effort.
Patch: You've got $258 in on-hand campaign cash. You're an economics guy. How can you present a serious threat to Gerry Connolly with such little cash in the bank? Do you expect to win this thing?
Gibson: Do I expect to win? No. Mr. Connolly has got a lot of name recognition and I'd be lying to you if I said I expected to win. Could I win? Forty percent of the District consider themselves Independent. If everybody voted that way, then maybe. The bottom line is that if people want change in this District, then there will have to be change from within.
Patch: Describe the political environment in Washington.
Gibson: It's finger-pointing. I don't see people even trying to work together. They're scoring political points by sticking with their guns and being all about their party and individual races.
Patch: Why is it like that?
Gibson: I don't know how it's gotten so bad, I really don't. I'm just not seeing enough cooperation, enough realization and honesty with where we're headed, the amount of debt that we have, and there's not any sense of civility.
Patch: On your Web site you say that the solutions to our problems are simple, and that they require us to reexamine the idea of what it takes to be an American. Give me your economic philosophy in a nutshell.
Gibson: It is a practical one. As a business, you invest in the company so that you have money available to use, you build the business and you hire employees. You try to foment an idea into something that's sellable.
Government is a little different. We should spend money when the economy is down, partly because there's available labor and interest rates are cheap. And then we should save money and pay down debt when cash is flowing in, rather than just cutting off all revenue and giving people tax breaks. We already ran up the debt, and it's got to be paid off somehow.
Patch: How should we regard our roles as Americans?
Gibson: John Kennedy said 'Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.' That's about sacrifice, and I think we can do it in terms of a shared benefit.
Everybody always asks what I'd do to lower gas prices. Is that the right question? What can we all do to lower gas prices? Economically, it's supply and demand. You need a diverse supply of energy to make sure it's secure, you need to make sure the energy can get to people, and the demand is there too. People need to ask what they can do to conserve energy, to use it more efficiently, and that helps drive down the price. The economic conundrum is that when we bring down fuel prices that people tend to use more of it.
Patch: You want to reduce the number of Cabinet-level agencies from 15 to seven. You want there to be the Departments of Commerce, State, Justice, Treasury, Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services - and the rest (Education, Agriculture, Energy, Interior, Transportation, Environmental Protection) would be merged into the Commerce Department. How could you make this happen if elected? Would that be your goal?
Gibson: I can't personally make it happen, but I can push the idea that it should happen. All those things - Agriculture, Labor, Transportation - those pieces are part of the business fabric of the United States. The fact is that the Departments of Labor and Education don't talk to each other about the skills that are needed in the labor market. That's a problem. And, I think if you do more to coordinate those programs to ensure that you do have the transportation infrastructure necessary for people to do business, then that makes a lot of sense.
Patch: This would be such a change to the way things are structured. Isn't that a tough sell?
Gibson: One of the biggest challenges I see for government to become more efficient is that you have a lot of people at a high level who are government employees looking to build little kingdoms. Those GS employees out there trying to do things right and run programs efficiently are often pulled apart because political appointees are out there trying to build their resumes. But that would change by pulling those departments together, finding efficiencies and then really looking hard at how integrate the departments, from Education to Labor.
Patch: As a freshman congressman you may have trouble changing the system so radically. Still, you'd be required to vote yea or nay on national issues, such as the budget. How would you vote on (Republican vice presidential nominee and House Budget Committee chair) Paul Ryan's budget?
Gibson: It's curious. I hear Mr. Ryan's budget get bandied about quite a bit. Certainly, I have not delved into all the pieces of it. I'd have to go through it and listen to what voters were telling me here in the District. At the same time I'm going to come out and say there are pieces to it that don't make sense, but to go forward we have to act. Sequestration was the opposite of that approach. Congress ran toward this fiscal cliff, without having a solution in the end. We're just going to put it off and kick the can down the road.
Patch: What's the answer to avoiding sequestration?
Gibson: There's so much pressure on those guys in Congress to get rid of it. They have to go line by line to figure out what programs won't work.
Patch: What programs do you think should be cut?
Gibson: That's a big chunk of change - $1.2 trillion. I think reorganizing the government along the lines I suggested is a step in the right direction. It's not going to happen overnight. We've got to overhaul the tax code. It's a mess. Nobody knows what they pay every year. So, to make up the difference they've got to find some place in the middle where revenues increase over time and that spending decreases over time.
Patch: Does that mean raising taxes?
Gibson: I heard today that the Democrats ask that the employment tax cut not be extended. That's two percent of everyone's salary. That cuts into the economy. It's such a mess right now that any sudden knee-jerk one way or the other is going to send the economy into an uncertain phase.
Patch: I'm still wondering how you think we should avoid sequestration.
Gibson: It's not going to happen all at once. There's no way. I think Congress will continue to incur debt. They're not going to balance the budget right away. They're going to have to come up with a long-term solution. Even folks who are adamant supporters of DoD admit that there are reductions that can be made that don't affect troops, that don't affect preparedness.
Patch: But what’s the solution?
Gibson: I think they need a mid-term plan, two-to-six years to get revenues back to where they need to be. Congress needs to cut spending - agricultural subsidies, energy subsidies - be they for petroleum producers or solar producers. There's a great deal of tax subsidies and tax credits that we can take out. You have to go through line by line, but agricultural subsidies are $20 billion. You have to go piece by piece to figure out what works and what doesn't.
Patch: Would you vote to repeal 'Obamacare' (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act)?
Gibson: I don't think it needs to be repealed, just revised. As a small business, we provide 100 percent of employees with health coverage. They can stick with their jobs and not worry about it.
Every year, we check the price of insurance. We go shopping and look for competitive rates because prices keep going up. But with PPACA, we've got to shop in the Commonwealth and can't look elsewhere. To me that doesn't make sense… I don't know if the people of Rhode Island are going to benefit from only having an insurance market in their state. Why institutionalize a bad idea? And It's really a bad idea to divvy the country up that way into 50 pieces.
Patch: What do you think are the consequences?
Gibson: I don't think the price of insurance will improve. I think more people will be covered, which is a good thing and gets rid of the free rider problem (people who receive benefits without paying taxes). It will help with hospitals that are taking on a lot of costs and the uninsured walk-ins through their doors.
But I don't think there's enough in the way of price competition for insurers in there. You've got to make them compete. Everyone complains about private healthcare insurers. Well, we have 50 individual state insurance commissions now. You've got to get them to compete. That's the only way you're going to to get the price down.
Patch: If elected, what caucus would you join?
Gibson: The one that's in the majority. Part of the responsibility of those of us in the middle, who are Independent, is to moderate the excesses of the majority. So, in order to do that you can still fight for the things that are right, and at the same time discuss with the majority where they've gone too far.
Patch: So, you'd join the Republican caucus to tame their influence?
Gibson: To tame their excesses, not their influence.
Patch: And if the Democrats got back into the majority in the House, you'd switch caucuses?
Gibson: Yes. Again, the part of being a centrist is get the ideas that work and pull back on the excesses.
Patch: And maybe with your 'aye' votes get some of the legislation that you favor passed as well, right?
Gibson: Sure, that's part of it… The parties have been making money and staying in power by prolonging our problems. If I can get in there as an Independent and present my points of view, vote for the pieces of legislation that are actually solutions rather than prolonging the problem - I've done my job. Even if I give credit to whomever - I don't care. We don't have to look for the perfect solution, for the grand bargain. We need to do something that works now, gets us going in the right direction and make some course corrections along the way.
Patch: On Medicare, in Ryan's budget, seniors would get a monthly sum to purchase their healthcare plan, and they could keep remaining funds or decide to pay out of pocket for more expensive plans. What do you think about that?
Gibson: Well, I think Mr. Ryan didn't take the full measure of how people should be involved in Medicare. For people who are well off, they should be buying their own insurance anyway. I pay Medicare insurance out of my taxes, my paycheck. My employer makes an equal contribution. Should people who make a lot of money off interests and dividends be Medicare recipients? I don't think so. I think we need to limit the eligibility for Medicare based on income and we need to raise the floor up to 70-years-old for people to be eligible.
Patch: You also want to raise the age of Social Security eligibility and base that eligibility on 'need.' What exactly does that mean?
Gibson: It's the same as Medicare. If somebody has enough income, they don't need money from Social Security, they shouldn't get it.
Patch: What do we do with the Bush tax cuts?
Gibson: In the near term they should probably expire. But Congress has got to look at overhauling the tax code. It does not make any sense for people with equivalent wage and non-wage income paying the same tax rate. It doesn't make any sense.
Patch: On foreign affairs, what should we do in the event of a nuclear Iran? Do we back Israel?
Gibson: Israel getting into a fight against Iran by themselves is probably not a good idea. Yes, we have to back them. Should we encourage them to get in that fight? I don't think so. I would highly encourage them to step back from that precipice, because it's not going to be pretty.
Patch: On transportation, what should be the role of the 11th congressional District representative in solving our traffic problems?
Gibson: We should be turning our sights away from Washington and turning them to Richmond. We need to get our state tax dollars here and if that doesn't work, we need to go to Richmond to request that Northern Virginia become a special tax district and tax ourselves. We've gone to the feds because they've been more willing to come forward than Richmond to solve some of our transportation problems.
Patch: Congressman Connolly seems proud of potentially securing $950 million in federal transportation bonds for Phase II of Rail-to-Dulles. Should he not be doing that?
Gibson: I don't think we should be going to the federal government for that. Tax dollars that come from the federal government for transportation should go toward interstate transportation, international commerce, to fixing our air traffic control system. The feds are a pushover. Sure, we'll just go ask them - no problem. It's because we've gone to the avenue of least resistance. Richmond has been the most resistant.
Patch: But some might say the feds produce results. What about those who say we're in tough fiscal times right now, and otherwise we'd probably have to wait a long time for important transportation improvements to get underway, and that's during a time when our population is growing and traffic is getting worse?
Gibson: And maybe that pain will create movement on the part of Richmond. In my opinion we can't ask for transportation dollars in local projects that should be used in making us safer on the air and on the ground as a country. I know that's the antithesis of what everyone has been saying. It's about being more self sufficient.
Patch: What is your critique of Congressman Connolly?
Gibson: I think Mr. Connolly blames others for a lot of things, and perhaps takes credit he doesn't deserve. We were at a candidate forum in Merrifield and somebody asked him a question about redistricting and if the District was more effective. Well, he picked up Herndon and Reston, which are more Democratic. He blamed Republicans in Richmond for redistricting, and said that he had nothing to do with it. Then, we (the candidates) were at a community fair in Dunn Loring, and in giving his remarks, it sounded like he took credit for the new Target store that's in Merrifield. OK, he was Supervisor some time ago and perhaps the area evolved over the years because of some of the things he did, but the Target? So, I guess I don't see him standing out in front in a leadership position.
Patch: What effect has Connolly had as a member of the House?
Gibson: I don't think a great deal. I think junior congressmen have to be soldiers to their party. That's how you gain influence in the party, gain your influence in Congress, get those juicy committees, right? And maybe that's just the nature of the beast when you're a party politician. That's why I'm not a party politician. The parties are the problem.
Patch: You say that Connolly shows up late and leaves early. Explain that.
Gibson: We've been in a couple of forums where he comes in just before it's his turn to speak and he leaves right after. I understand he's a congressman, he's very busy and has lots of things to do, but it would be nice if he connected to people once in a while. I just can't point to anything that he's done in the last four years. And when I listen to him talk, he talks about things he did 10 years ago in county government. He's got name recognition. He's been a fixture in the county for a long time, and any seated politician will find no advantage in getting into a heated debate. And we've had no debates, only forums.
Patch: Take yourself out of the equation. Of your opponents, who would you like to see elected to represent the 11th congressional District?
Gibson: Based on personality, I'd pick Chris Perkins. As a politician, I don't see Mr. Connolly upsetting the apple cart, trying something that's new. From a transparency point of view, I would probably vote for Mr. Perkins. Connolly's positions aren't on his website. Mr. Perkins' are.
Would he (Perkins) be able to change his party from within? Probably not. Would he act as an Independent as a freshman Republican member of Congress? Probably not. But that's why I'm running, because I've got nobody to vote for. Perkins has been very genuine with me, has been very forthcoming with compliments and we've had some good conversations. I can't say that I've felt the same way about Mr. Connolly.
Patch: This is your first run for political office. Is this the last time we're going to see your name on a ballot?
Gibson: It really depends on how well I do. If I don't get enough votes where I'm not hitting the right issues for people in this district, or maybe I'm just not the right messenger, then I'll let somebody else go with it.
I think it's funny that I've met so many people who complain politicians have forgotten about people in the middle. When you're in the middle, trying to get by day-by-day with some common sense, and the parties have seemingly forgotten about us. I'm just a representative from the middle. Maybe I'm not the right guy, maybe there's someone with better oratory skills, somebody with more connections in the neighborhood, whose professional life allows them to put more time in, someone who is a better fundraiser - all those things. But, we'll see.
Patch: What advice do you have for young people?
Gibson: Get involved and keep your eyes open. A college education is important, but you've got to know the skills you need and not expect anything more from your college degree than you put into it. Get involved in politics… You don't need anyone's permission to participate. I didn't need to be a party person to participate. Focus on your talents and be confident in your strengths. And don't be envious of those who are better. We all have different talents with different levels of skill. Do the best with what you have.