Interview: VA-05 Dem Candidate John Lesinski Discusses Why He’s Running, How He Can Win, How Denver Riggleman Has Failed to Stand Up to Trump

Originally posted in Blue Virginia by Lowell Feld on April 7, 2020. While the article was edited for spelling and grammar, the content remains the same as originally published. 

What is John Lesinski’s background and what motivated him to run for Congress?

“I’ve lived in Virginia for 35 years now, been in business for 35 years, had my own small company for seven of those 35 years, so I’m really looking at this from a perspective of what does this mean for the global economy, what does this mean for the US economy, and what does this mean for the Virginia economy, and specifically this 5th District economy, because we’re going to be digging out of this for quite some time. They’re saying now that we could have unemployment greater than we had during the Depression. Just look at the 10 million employment claims in the last two weeks, it’s only going to get worse, and what the horrific impact to small business is, whether it’s layoffs or furloughs or just closing the business down, it’s going to be a long time before people have the confidence to go back out and shop again. … I think the long-term thing here is what is Congress going to do, what is the federal government going to do to get our economy going again? That’s why I think being really the only business person that’s a Democratic candidate in this race, that’s going to be something that I’m really going to focus on [during] the last couple of months of this primary.”

Does this pandemic call into question any elements of our fundamental business model or is this just like a one-off and we don’t really have to rethink things?

“It’s all interconnected…what can we do about our economy…, the supply chain. Trump’s tariffs, when he gets in these trade wars with China, well guess where most of the PPE was being manufactured? So the fact that the PPE is now manufactured overseas and oh by the way becomes more expensive for us to import because of these tariffs, all of a sudden you’re seeing not only supply shortages, but you’re also seeing great markups in pricing so that unfortunately, because the federal government has not taken a leadership role, you’ve got 50 states competing against each other in the open market for these things that mean life and death to individual Americans. It never should have come to this. A  big part of this is a downstream effect of Trump’s anti-global economic[s] policies, where he’s getting into these trade wars …Americans are certainly suffering from these policies. Just like our farmers were suffering from these policies before we were even dealing with this pandemic…They’re not complainers…but they’re definitely feeling the pain of this. We…haven’t had a bulk shipment of soybeans to China since October of 2018; these things are going right to the bottom line of our farmers here.”

On climate change, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and fossil fuels:

“[T]hen there’s the larger piece of this…fighting climate change…when you’re continuing to be dependent on a fossil fuel economy, you’re doing everything from getting involved in endless wars in the Middle East over fossil fuels, which have huge ramifications to our young Americans that fight those wars and then come back with problems of dealing with issues they’ll be dealing with for the next 50 years, to the environmental harm that you’re doing not only globally but right here in the 5th District with this Atlantic Coast Pipeline that’s there for the purposes of moving fracked natural gas to the coastline. It has no direct benefit to Virginians but harms our environment and our people greatly. And that also speaks to the environmental justice issue around natural resources, whether they be fossil fuels or whether they be precious metals, there has not been the focus on the environmental damage to our planet that some of these methods are wreaking…[Now,] our seas are rising, we’re getting everything from coastal flooding to fires to hurricanes on a more regular basis. The thing that people aren’t really focused on, with all of the attention that the Trump administration spends on immigration and people wanting to come into the United States, you haven’t seen anything yet until you start to see the refugee problem in some of our poorest areas of the world in the coastal areas, when rising seas force those people to migrate to other nations…Terrorism does some of that and the collapse of governments certainly does a lot of that….But that pales in comparison to populations that are going to be displaced because of climate change, and we’re not going to be able to lull ourselves out of that problem.”

What type of leadership would Lesinski show on this issue?

“We need to focus on other types of energy, reduce the carbon footprint, reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, look at alternate energy sources like wind and solar and especially battery technology; the big thing here is going to be able to store all these other types of energies, to be able to utilize them when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing…This is interconnected [with] creating jobs…This gives us the opportunity … to recast our economy into a 21st century, forward-looking economy. Green jobs, renewable energy jobs, those jobs that get us off of fossil fuels and reduce our carbon footprint and start to seriously address the issue of global warming, which is on top of us right now. But to be able to do all that means you need [local] leadership, political will, and you need leadership from the top. Not only do we not have that, we have destructive leadership right now.”

On money and corruption in politics:

This [subject of destructive leadership] gets at the issue of money in politics and corruption in politics, including the Trump administration.  This whole administration is nothing more than a corporate business transaction for the Trump family. It’s been designed to build the brand and line the pockets of not only family members but any cronies that serve in high levels of government. And clearly…not only is there no leadership with respect to fighting climate change, he’s actually rolling back whatever small progress we had made [under previous administrations].”

With climate change and other issues – such as healthcare – that involve “market failure” or “negative externalities,” is this more of a role for the government or the private sector?

“This pandemic is certainly making us look at what is the role of government in our society.  Clearly we’ve got an administration here that wants to starve the beast, whether it’s education in not funding our public schools, or whether it’s the EPA and the Department of the Interior in not supporting our environment, you’re seeing this whole mindset here. And I’ve even seen it as a County Supervisor, I’ve seen that mindset at the local level where government is actually vilified. If you’re a civil servant…an elected public official, there’s a faction within our society now that considers you to be part of this conspiracy deep state.  This pandemic is really exposing the role that good government plays in solving big problems like this. Now, I’m a capitalist and I’m also a believer that most problems can be solved at a local level. I was a school board chair, I was County Board Supervisor, and I detested unfunded mandates that came down to us… But on big overarching issues, whether the National Defense or Public Safety or border issues or health care, this is a role that the federal government is designed for, has been created for.”

Healthcare:

I do support the Affordable Care Act. Just like Social Security and welfare, these were big programs that came in that weren’t perfect, but they were made better over time through common-sense legislation. That’s what the Affordable Care Act was designed to do. It wasn’t perfect; it was designed to be improved. But all we’ve had from the Republican side has been an all-out effort to get it thrown out in its entirety… I think if we’ve got control of Congress, that introducing a public option and making it a strong public option and using that public option as a way of hopefully fast tracking toward some type of universal care, so that first of all we cover the twenty-five or thirty million people without health care now, and then show that a public option is viable, then people who have been only comfortable with their private insurers  may feel … the government knows how to run a program and then we might be able to move toward[s]…universal care. And we need to do that on a fast-track basis, not just kind of slowly stepped into it. Because if we do it right, I think we can achieve that. Number one, I think healthcare is a right, not a privilege. And secondly, we’re spending about 20 percent of our GDP on healthcare now with miserable outcomes, and it’s especially awful in rural areas, which is mostly what the 5th District is comprised of.”

The $2 trillion “stimulus” package and “leadership by fear”:

“Now we’re hearing that small businesses are getting very frustrated about applying for these loans…Well, guess what? Probably because we’ve got an administration here that gutted many of the departments of the federal government, [have] unfilled vacancies, civil servants that are vilified or run out if they stand up…look at what’s happening in the inspector general’s office…anybody that criticizes any Trump policy or department is in great jeopardy of losing their job. That’s leadership by fear…America has been very fortunate in that it has had great leaders at very critical times in its history, whether George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or FDR…we’ve had strong leaders when we’ve needed them and they’ve made a big difference…They were Americans first, it wasn’t about the party, it was about the country, and they put everything aside and did what they felt was best for their nation. You have a Republican Party now that has a a systemic lack of courage in that the only people that are willing to speak truth to power are those that are either not running for re-election or retiring, because there’s such an authoritarian fear that lays like a wet blanket over everything, that unfortunately this Republican Party has not been willing to stand up to. And I think history is going to judge them very harshly.”

Money in politics, gerrymandering:

“There are two things…that are really broken right now. Number one is the money; there is just so much money in politics right now, it’s absolutely corrupted our system. I support any effort for campaign finance reform to make an impactful change…You need to raise so much money to run for office, it makes it impossible for any person of lower income in a disadvantaged area to be able to run, because they don’t have the network or the base of support to be able to do it. It makes it like a plutocracy almost, where you might have to be a Michael Bloomberg or a Tom Steyer… The other piece is…gerrymandering, and there it’s really where the politicians are choosing the voters, the voters aren’t choosing the elected officials…voters are microscopically gerrymandered to be reliably red or reliably blue…We’re seeing some encouraging steps…ranked-choice votings or bipartisan redistricting…Until we get that fixed, we’re not going to be able to see many politicians be able to stand up against a despot like Trump, because there’s going to be direct and significant ramifications, so…it almost looks like our system of government is almost turning into some type of authoritarian regime…It’s really about rule of law…”

War powers:

“Congress has been horribly remiss in standing up to the executive branch, especially when it comes to things like war powers…What the Constitution was designed for was that Congress would declare war…Now Congress is not exercising the authority that it has…that we don’t get involved in these endless wars.”

Working together for the good of the country vs. treating politics as “blood sport”:

“Remember what Mitch McConnell said – ‘my goal here is to make sure this president fails’? He said it point blank. Remember when Merrick Garland was nominated for the Supreme Court, McConnell wouldn’t even allow it to come to the floor. When you have elected officials who are viewing this as a blood sport, zero-sum game, you’re a winner or a loser, people like Mitch McConnell or Newt Gingrich. The way the system is supposed to work is the way that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill worked together…At the end of the day, they had to get the right thing done for the American people and that each of them…weren’t going to get everything that they asked for, so they worked it out, they got it done… maybe you’d say the same about Bill Clinton and welfare reform … But that whole spirit went away once the Tea Party rose to power, it has been awful ever since, and it’s… paralyzed us. And it hasn’t been helped by…corporate media…social media…”

Foreign policy:

“We haven’t talked about foreign policy, but China wants to own us and Russia wants to crush us…Just the fact that we have a president embracing our number one enemy in the world just because it benefits him to get reelected…the fact that the Republican Party is not standing up to that…They know darn well that Trump is in the pockets of the Russians, but they refuse to stand up to it.”

Why he thinks he can beat Denver Riggleman:

I’m running against a congressman who votes with Trump 95% of the time. He wore the uniform like I wore the uniform. He was in the intelligence community like I was…He knows better, he knows what’s going on, yet he doesn’t have the courage to stand up and call this out as a national security threat. That’s what froths me, gets me motivated to run against him….I’m 61 years old, I was four years active duty and twenty-two in the reserves in the Marine Corps, retired as a full colonel, I put the uniform of the country on when I was 22 years old. When I took it off in 2006, I then began to get involved into  public service and elected politics. So public service has been in my DNA since I was a very young man. I look for different ways to give back and to serve, whether that’s my military service or…my community through volunteer activities…being involved in different education organizations within my community, everything from child care to adult education…I ran for the House of Delegates in 2009…against Todd Gilbert…[in a ] very rural district and I cut my teeth on running in a rural area in ’09, it was an awful year for Democrats…That didn’t discourage me. I ran in 2011 and was elected as School Board Chair. And then in 2015, when the seat opened up in my district for Board of Supervisors, I ran there…We’re a 55/45 red county…I was the only Democrat that was elected…on to the Board of Supervisors in a Republican-controlled county…I’ve got a track record of winning in a red county…It’s a matter of being able to reach across and appeal to those who are either independent or more moderate Republicans…I’m more of a social progressive and a fiscal conservative…being a businessperson and being a veteran and being a hunter and being a gun owner, and being able to relate to people on a one-on-one basis  at a local level, affords you the opportunity to have the conversation where people realize that you put your pants on one leg at a time just like they do….Now that’s not going to work with most Republicans, but it will work with those who are willing to listen to the person instead of the party, and those who are centrist and independent. And particularly this year, people who may be anti-Trump or may be fed up with what they’re seeing in the Republican Party… I think that experience, of being elected locally twice in a red county translates to being able to win in the 5th District…It’s really the same playbook.”

Does a Democrat win the 5th CD by running up huge margins in the “blue” areas?

“This is not to speak disparagingly of Charlottesville at all, and I’ve been told this by people in the Albemarle County Democratic Committee and within Charlottesville, that Charlottesville is like polishing the apple. If you’re the Democratic candidate, whoever the Democratic nominee is going to be, Charlottesville and Albemarle will support that individual…Cockburn underperformed in the rural counties…You’re going to need the 5% or 6% in those counties…that are gonna make up the difference in the math…to win this, you’re going to have to appeal to people from across party lines.”

What are the main arguments against Denver Riggleman, assuming he’s the GOP nominee?

“First of all, he’s been lockstep with this president and hasn’t shown the political courage  to speak out, speak truth to power in circumstances that were critical to national security, especially as it relates to cuddling up with Kim Jong-un or cozying up with Vladimir Putin. I mean, [he] is saying that he’s great for the job because he’s experienced in security and military intelligence? I mean, you only have to get to be a lance corporal in Marine Corps intelligence to figure out that these authoritarian leaders are enemies of the United States and aren’t good for us to be placating. He should be speaking up against that…You’ve seen what Donald Trump has done…and he’s just been sitting on the sidelines, basically just giving the thumbs-up with Trump at every photo op that he’s had the chance to have…The only thing he’s been asleep at the switch on has to do with our economy, and that’s with rural broadband.”

“Marshall Plan” for rural infrastructure, broadband:

“I want to bring a Marshall Plan type of investment to infrastructure…creating jobs…We’ve been talking about roads, bridges and waterways for a long time now, but we need to include rural broadband into that infrastructure…kind of like a Marshall Plan…The fact that our kids… have to drive to library parking lots now [for internet access]… [and] now we’ve got a healthcare crisis, you can’t do tele-health in rural areas because you don’t have broadband…It’s a public safety communication disaster…[and] it’s obviously impacting our kids in education…It’s an equality issue, because it’s creating haves and have-nots…and Riggleman hasn’t focused on it, he’s given it lip service…It needs to treated like the rural electrification issue of our day… this is something where we should make the investment.”

Economic stimulus:

We definitely need stimulus now…[and] we’re going to need more…to get this economy out of what will hopefully not be a Depression…We saw this in the Great Depression and we solved it through New Deal policies; we’re faced with that kind of time again now.”

We’re at a “tipping point” now:

“You asked why I’m running. I do have an appreciation that we are at a true tipping point in our country right now. We’re at one of those Pearl Harbor, 9/11-type moments, where we take the opportunity to get things right going forward, which means doing things differentlydoing healthcare differently, planning for fighting climate change and understanding that that’s the number one challenge going forward. I mean if this pandemic is a canary in the coalmine on fighting climate change, if there was ever a situation where it showed that we didn’t plan for it, we denied it and now we’re paying for it, when it comes to climate change…and we didn’t plan for it now, we’re not going to be able to react quickly enough to stop all of the global ruin that’s going to happen when this thing really comes down on us hard and fast.”

The role of the private sector:

“We have so many great minds in this country, and I think that whether it’s entrepreneurs, engineers or the scientists or the educators and the politicians,  if we all come together and our private industries are creating these 21st century technologies…we’ll solve it a lot faster than just by trying to nationalize every industry…So this Defense Production Act, there’s a place for that and I agree with that. We used that after WWII…[and] it accelerated us into a great era of prosperity.”

Republicans recklessly spend us into debt, while Democrats act responsibly:

“You know what the Republican Party does – when they want to spend, they go into debt. When the Democratic Party wants to spend, they raise revenue. Which is why Republicans vilify us as ‘tax and spend.’ Would you run your household this way, by running up your credit cards to afford your lifestyle? That’s what the Republicans do. Democrats, we go out and we exercise policies where we…raise more revenues, and yeah, that is often in the form of taxes. It’s become such a terrible word right now  to raise  more revenue, but we just can’t continue to go on with these annual deficits that add to this crushing debt, it’s an unsustainable model. And Republicans know it, but they’re not looking at things past the end of their nose…What they say is, hey, we cut your taxes!…But if you can show people where that money is going to…[for instance] specifically to fund rural broadband, around the country, I guarantee you that people would agree. What they don’t like is when you just put some kind of tax increase on them and they don’t know where that money goes, it just  goes into some kind of general fund…And that’s why I think it’s important to have that local experience, because you understand at the very base level what people will tolerate and what they won’t”

Anything else he thinks people should know about his campaign?

“The [local Democratic] committees are kind of struggling with formats to deal with this new [COVID-19] environment, and I don’t think anybody’s come up with the perfect solution yet. So what we’re doing, we’re not sitting around waiting for things to get back to normal, that isn’t going to happen before this primary. What we’re doing, we’re using social media platforms and we’re using Facebook Live to have town halls. I’ve been particularly successful in getting people with me who have been able to get information out to folks. I’ve had a town hall with an ER doctor [Dr. Hugh Hill] at Johns Hopkins University, talking about COVID. I’ve had the owner of Old Bust Head Brewery in Fauquier County talking about COVID’s impact on small business. Just last week I had a guy by the name of Tom McDougall who runs 4P Foods, which is in Fauquier, talking about food insecurity; that’s a huge issue right now as our school kids aren’t getting fed the way they normally do…Elderly people are shut-in, food pantries are restricted in their hours and their ability to do business, so we had a really good one hour kind of back-and-forth conversation on food insecurity. So I’m looking to do more of these events virtually, where we have an expert to talk about things that are affecting people’s day-to-day lives now.  I’m probably gonna have one about climate change too, because this is interconnected…We’re doing meet-and-greets, where someone’s asking me questions on…various issues…The beauty of these things is they can all be recorded and then if you can’t watch them live, then you can go back…We’ve gotten a heck of a lot of looks at our one from Johns Hopkins and our one on food insecurity…We’re out there on Twitter and Instagram so we’re trying to cover as many…platforms that people are using now…and making phone calls…I think you’ll see us going back to things that worked in the past that might have been a little bit abandoned like snail mail…I don’t know what the turnout is going to be like in the primary, given that it’s pretty much all mail-in…It’s a work in progress…”

What would he say differentiates him from the other Democratic candidates running for the VA05 nomination?

“I think the leadership piece is really important. I think this country’s crying out for leaders…we’ve seen what bad leadership can do…people know this battleship needs to be moved in a different direction, and it’s going to take leaders at all levels to do that, whether it’s local, state or federal. Being a Congressman would be a privilege and an honor, and I would bring all of my experience in leadership and elected office to bear, and I think I have a tremendous amount to offer…[Today] we’ve got a reality TV star…I put myself forward, I put my qualifications forward…for many reasons: I think I’m the best choice…[and] encourage everyone to get out [virtually] on June [23rd] and participate in the democratic process…Socially isolate and participate.

For more information on where John stands on key issues such as climate change, worker’s rights and healthcare, please head over to the Vision & Priorities section of the website! The original article listed the primary voting day as June 9th which has since been moved to June 23rd due to the COVID-19 pandemic.