New Virginia Libertarian chair says party is alive and well

‘I just felt like I could bring everyone together to rebuild’

By: - December 27, 2022 12:02 am

The Libertarian Party of Virginia held a convention Dec. 3 at the Mattoponi Springs event venue in Caroline County. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Leatherbury)

As she talked about her efforts to pull her political party back from the edge of obsolescence, Jennifer Leatherbury sounded surprised that a reorganizing convention earlier this month “went very smoothly.”

“Which is pretty unusual for Libertarians,” said Leatherbury, a 43-year-old physician’s assistant from Newport News who just became the new chair of the embattled Libertarian Party of Virginia. “Usually there’s a lot of arguing.”

Virginia’s Libertarians hadn’t been in the news for a while until September, when Leatherbury’s predecessor Holly Ward announced the party’s state affiliate had disbanded itself and denounced what Ward described as a needlessly divisive tone Libertarians were adopting elsewhere. But according to Leatherbury, the reports of the Libertarian Party of Virginia’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

“I just felt like I could bring everyone together to rebuild and have a more positive air to the party overall,” Leatherbury said in a recent interview.

Jennifer Leatherbury, a physician’s assisant from Newport News, was chosen as the new chair of the Libertarian Party of Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Leatherbury)

The party’s Dec. 3 convention at the Mattaponi Springs event venue in Caroline County was a key step in that rebuilding process as party members tried to figure out how to elect new leaders to replace the ones who decided the party should cease to exist.

“According to our Constitution, the membership can call a convention to resolve these issues and replace the officers that tried to destroy our party,” Libertarian organizer Jason Bruce wrote in an Oct. 7 email to party members encouraging them to sign a petition allowing the convention to move forward. About 50 party members attended the event, according to Leatherbury.

Leatherbury said she and others are now trying to convince the State Corporation Commission the party’s corporate entity shouldn’t be dissolved after all, even though its official status remains “pending inactive.” Leatherbury said she’s considering appointing a communications director for the party to get more press coverage, and the party has picked new leaders for several committees, including a committee meant to support Libertarians willing to actually run for office.

“I would love to be able to have a governor candidate, a lieutenant governor candidate, an attorney general candidate and someone to run in every delegate district across the state,” Leatherbury said. “I don’t know that that will happen in 2025, but that would be my long-term goal for the party.”

Ward, the party’s former chair, sounded less enthused about the new management.

“The new officers of the Libertarian party of Virginia consist of the same people who lost their elections a little less than a year ago,” Ward said in an email.

As someone who grew up in a Democratic-leaning household in Pennsylvania, Leatherbury said she was drawn to Democrats’ “more accepting” stances on social issues but felt their big-government financial policies “always seemed a little ridiculous.” In the 2012 presidential election that pitted former President Barack Obama against Republican Mitt Romney, she said she didn’t like either major-party candidate. When she researched other options, she liked what Libertarian Gary Johnson had to say.

“I just want to get back to limiting government reach into our lives,” Leatherbury said. “I was very disturbed by everything that happened with COVID in the state between the mask mandates and the vaccine mandates for employees.”

Many Libertarians in Virginia, Leatherbury said, have been following the travails of Matt Strickland, the owner of a Fredericksburg-area restaurant that was recently raided by law enforcement as part of a long-running feud with the state government over COVID-19 restrictions and sanctions that came after Strickland refused to follow them. The fact that Strickland’s battle continued under a Republican administration, Leatherbury said, showed the state GOP has its own issues.

So what does she think of the job Gov. Glenn Youngkin is doing so far?

“Well,”she replied. “I don’t know. He’s at least not requiring my daughter to wear a mask at school anymore.”

Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who was on the ballot for governor in 2013 and ran for U.S. Senate in 2014, was the party’s last candidate for statewide office to draw significant support from voters. Sarvis won more than 6.5% of the vote in the 2013 gubernatorial election, while Libertarian Cliff Hyra received a little more than 1% in the 2017 race for governor. In Virginia’s 2018 U.S. Senate race, Libertarian Matthew Waters received 1.8%. The party has no presence in the Virginia General Assembly and hasn’t been much of a factor in local elections for city councils, county boards and school boards.

Leatherbury said she’s planning a heavy focus on candidate recruitment. She said it’d be difficult to run for office herself, because she works a job that wouldn’t allow her to drop everything and be in Richmond for two months a year. She’s thought about running for a local office but said the amount of money candidates have to raise even for local contests “is just unbelievable.” 

“If it came down to we couldn’t find anyone else, I guess it would be my job to run as chair. That’s kind of how I feel,” Leatherbury said. “If there’s nobody else, then I guess I’ve got to step up and do it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Libertarian Party of Virginia has not fielded a candidate for statewide office since 2014. Libertarian candidates qualified for the ballot in 2017 and 2018.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.