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68th District Candidate Interview: Garrison Coward

Garrison Coward
Garrison Coward in the VPM News studio. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Ben Paviour sits down with Garrison Coward, the Republican challenger for Delegate in Virginia's 68th District.


Ben Paviour: From VPM, I'm Ben Paviour. Joining me now is Garrison Coward. He's running for the 68th House district. So we're going to start with sort of a lighter question. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about yourself.

Garrison Coward: Absolutely. I'm born and raised in Henrico County. I went to Henrico County Public Schools, attended Short Pump Middle School, J.R. Tucker High School... Went to Hampden Sydney for college, got a degree in economics there and then two years after I graduated, went back to graduate school, got my first master's in public policy, political management, George Washington University, finishing up my MBA in finance there.

As soon as I graduated in 2012, the job market was awful. Luckily, I got a job working for then Mitt Romney, who was our Republican nominee, and then after that I kind of worked my way up through the party, became the political director of the State Party, was the director of community engagement and minority engagement for the party, and then I went on to work for Congressman Rob Wittman for four and a half years.

Now I'm back in Richmond. I never left Richmond, but now I'm back outside of the politics, running as a candidate, but my day job is now I'm the COO of a data analytics company called BizCents.

Paviour: I forgot to say just thank you for joining us.

Coward: No, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Paviour: What book or movie has had the most significant impact on you?

Coward: Atlas Shrugged, book. Movies... I'm not really a big movie guy. I'm not a sci-fi guy at all. I'm trying to think what would be a good one. Maybe Superman.

Paviour: Maybe you could tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.

Coward: I enjoy traveling, and I really enjoy playing basketball and golf. Those are my two pastimes that I just do to escape the day-to-day grind.

Paviour: Let's get into some more policy questions. The first is, should Virginia change any of its gun laws and should cities and counties have more control over regulating guns?

Coward: Look, that's definitely a very hot button issue right now. I'm a big believer that we need to bring everybody to the table to have a real conversation around what it is that we need to do to one, prevent mentally ill folks from obtaining guns, and secondly to making sure that our safety, whether that be in schools or just in the public square, is protected first.

Now there's a lot of different proposals out there on the federal level. You hear about folks who want to beef up the background checks. You also hear about red flag laws. There are obviously some constitutional issues with that. As to whether or not localities should have more say in what they do, again, I think that's a conversation that needs to be had by the state as a whole.

Paviour: Okay, but I mean, what would your role in that conversation be?

Coward: Sure. So for school, I have a six year old niece who actually went to the same schools that I grew up in. She's out in Henrico County right now, and her safety is the number one priority. When I think about what's going on in our country right now, obviously making sure that folks are safe from school shootings is just the number one topic that not only goes through my mind but also in parents' minds, and I think that beefing up resource officers in schools, I think that'd be one of my top priorities. My opponent, she actually voted against a bill that would do such that, and then, again, just having a dialogue in the community about, how do we stop these folks from getting access to these weapons before they do some fatally harmed things?

Paviour: And it sounds like red flag laws, universal background checks, those are on the table for you as possible?

Coward: Absolutely. I'm open to everything. Again, I can't say there's a one-size-fits-all because what's going on in Brunswick County may not be what's right for Henrico County.

Also if you were to go to one of your sheriff's offices right now and you'd ask them, what are you spending most of your time doing? We do have a very, very fatally flawed mental health system in this country right now. You've got hospitals that have open beds, but they don't necessarily take patients, so then you have sheriff's officers who are transporting folks from each locality. Everything's on the table for me.

But again, I think that protecting folks' second amendment rights, that is something that's very, very important to me, and I'm very, very proud to be a proponent of the second amendment, but at the same time, stopping mentally ill folks from getting access to weapons to do bodily harm is something that I am very, very passionate about.

Paviour: And sometimes we hear about people saying stuff like that we do have a mental health crisis in this country... Do we throw money at that? How do we actually get at that problem?

Coward: That's a great point, Ben. You've got a situation where I think anywhere where you can start is always better at the local level so you can actually get down to communities and have community intervention programs, whether that be in some of the inner cities with... What goes on in the inner cities, sometimes it's much different than what goes on in the suburban world, and I think at the end of the day you need to have a place or some sort of foundation where you can really get down there and stop these folks before they get them. I mean, that's just the bottom line. You've got to stop mentally ill folks from getting weapons and if you don't do that then you the problem will continue.

Paviour: Another question is related to campaign finance. Virginia is known in the states for having relatively lax campaign finance laws compared to other states. Do you think there should be more limits in place? Do you think the current system is working?

Coward:  I think the current system right now, it definitely has its flaws, but I definitely don't think that we should have limits. I think that's a constitutional thing. I think you should be able to give however much that you'd like to give to someone who's running for office, whether you be an individual or a corporation. That's just something that I firmly believe in.

Now, the transparency part of it, I think that's the most important piece. If you wanted to give me $1 million, I'd take it, for sure, but at the end of the day, if you didn't want me to put your name out there, well maybe we should figure out what it is that we can do about that. But at the end of the day, I think, yes, we definitely need ethics reform in Virginia, not so much campaign finance reform.

I think at the end of the day perhaps also we should pay our legislators a little bit more, especially in Virginia. It's a part time legislature and it's really, really a full time job. I mean, there's no doubt about that. On the federal level, I believe that the congressmen or women, they start out at $174,000, right? On the state level, I think it's like $17,600 some odd dollars. I'd have to check my math on that. But if you were to actually increase the pay a little bit on the legislature side in Virginia, you probably wouldn't have as many issues with the ethics that you have right now.

Paviour: Sports betting companies and casinos are pushing for legalizing more gaming in Virginia. Is that something you'd support?

Coward:  Absolutely, but at the end of the day, I think it should be up to each locality. I also think it would be a very, very big tax revenue generator, perhaps for education, so yeah, that's something I'd be open to supporting for sure.

Paviour: What can be done at the state level to lower the cost of healthcare? I know your opponent talks a lot about healthcare. She's in that industry, so I wanted to get your take.

Coward: Absolutely. I think that small companies should be able to have the same access to healthcare packages and plans that larger companies do. I also think that you should be able to buy healthcare across state lines. I think that's very, very important. Access is always an issue, whether that be in the urban community or the rural, so quality and then access. Telemedicine, that's something I'm a very, very big proponent of.

This past session they did a great job of introducing new legislation that would allow doctors to perform telemedicine services, but then I speak to some of my friends who are dentists and they are having some issues with some of the regulations surrounding that, so I think that that's something that we need to provide new technologies around as well. Lowering the cost of prescription drug pricing. I haven't been to a pharmacy in a while, but I always hear my mom or my grandmother or my sister talking about the prices of drugs in this country and it is astronomical. I think we definitely need to take a look at that as well.

Paviour: Do you have any ideas on specifics on how to do that? I mean there's talk of federal ideas around importing drugs, but the state level?

Coward: Right. On the state level, I'm not 100% sold on everything that's out there on the table right now, but I definitely think we need to have a better conversation about it for sure.

Paviour: How can the state keep down the cost of higher education? Do you support tuition freezes in future years? What else can be done?

Coward: I do support tuition freezes. I absolutely support tuition freezes, but I also think that we need to go a step further and require that some of these schools really take a look at where they're spending money and how they can really cut back, because oftentimes even with a tuition freeze, you'll see that room and board will go up or... they'll find the money somewhere else. I think that the cost of college has just gotten out of control in this country and you need to make sure that.

Look, right now, I'm a proud millennial. I'm 29 years old and you've got folks who graduated from college with $35,000 in student loan debt. Their job prospects are very, very bleak and then the interest on those payments can get out of control, right? And if you want to continue on to graduate school, then you've also got a situation there where you've got folks who are taking out loans and perhaps they're not getting into the field that they need to get into, so I think that looking at all the options that we can possibly implement so that colleges are really, really lowering the costs for the students, I think that's the most important thing.

Paviour: A question from a colleague of mine who covers education and she's wanted to know, would you support state funded financing of school construction in Virginia?

Coward: State funded financing of school construction? I'd have to look more into that plan. What I will tell you is that the way that a child is funded in the United States right now, or mainly in Virginia... let's talk about Virginia. You get money from localities, the state level and then the federal level. So since I'm running for state office, let's talk about that. I do believe that, so the state, they come up with a formula, and they take an account of several different factors on how much money each school system is going to get, but what I really, really would like to do is require that some of these school systems perform audits. That way we would really make sure that the dollars and cents are getting down to the students. I also think that we do need to raise teacher pay, but back to the financing of schools, that's very interesting. However, I think you've got a lot of school systems right now that have a lot of buildings that are deferred maintenance or what have you, and then you've got some schools that just aren't as populated as others.

I am a proponent of public charters. I will say that. I do think that you do need to figure out a way to get, maybe not privatized money, but mainly you need to figure out a way to get other resources into our education system so that folks are learning life skills. We know that in sixth grade, seventh grade is when Ben says, "oh, I want to be an architect" or "I want to be a coder" or "I want to be this awesome producer." I think you should be able to have access to real life skills right at that moment so that you're not creating a pipeline of folks who go through secondary school, then get out and they're like, okay, well if I don't get to college, what do I do?

Paviour: We're going to switch gears here pretty dramatically. Should localities be given the ability to modify or take down confederate monuments in your opinion?

Coward: Yes, I think so. I think it also should be a community discussion. I don't think that folks should be able to unilaterally do something of that nature, but I think for each locality, the folks, the residents in each locality should have a say in what goes on on that front.

Paviour: Do you support ending cash bail statewide? Or what other sorts of criminal justice proposals are interesting to you, if any?

Coward: Yeah, rolling back mandatory minimums on nonviolent convictions, I think that on non-valid crimes, I think that's something that I'd be a proponent of. But in the same vein, I think for instance, the governor, he introduced a bill, or he vetoed a bill that would have allowed for repeat domestic violence offenders to have mandatory sentences. And I think that's something that absolutely should happen. If you hit someone once, shame on you, you hit somebody twice, you deserve to go to jail, so that's something that I'd look into, but I've not really ever gotten that question, Ben, so I would have to look into that.

Paviour: Okay. So you're in a district that elected Dawn Adams previously in 2017. I believe they voted for Northam, correct me if I'm wrong on that, in 2017, so how do you take back this district that's been in Democrats' hands for a while, at least a couple of years?

Coward: For two years, right? Before that, Manoli Loupassi had the seat, and Delegate Adams, she won by 336 votes in 2017 in a wave year. Look, we're out there talking about just your bread and butter kitchen table issues, right? And obviously you've got a mix of these local issues that are in there. It's very, very important and it's just incumbent upon us to have real honest conversations with folks. I'm not one of these folks who believes that I should get down there with the platform and just start spewing off what I think people want to hear. I've really liked to have discussions and sometimes disagreements because that's when you really find a middle ground where you can actually come to a real solution.

We're talking about lower taxes, education's very big right now and just integrating new technologies into our state agencies. I'm a big proponent of making sure that something as simple as the DMV is running at the speed that it should be because who likes to sit at the DMV for three hours? I don't, and I think the last time I talked to somebody over there, they may have been operating on Windows XP or it was something that was so outdated that I was like, how's that possible?

It's about folks' quality of life, making sure that they can get home, have a great solid career, but also making sure that they can live within their means and also do whatever they need to do, go to their kids' soccer games or whatnot, have the time to do that, not sit in traffic for hours on end.

Paviour: You've been behind the scenes in politics for a little while. I wonder if there's been any surprises now that you're running for office.

Coward: The only surprise is to not be surprised at anything. Every day is different so you keep it rolling. Obviously, yes, not being behind the scenes and being out front, it's a little bit different, but at the end of the day, it's all about people, and how do you give people equal opportunities and not equal outcomes? That's kind of what this whole campaign has been about, frankly. I want to make sure that everybody's got a shot at success, whether that be in your education, whether that be in you starting a business, whether that be in you making sure that your healthcare is up to speed, so that's kind of what we've been talking about in this campaign.

Paviour: All right. Thanks for joining us.

Paviour: Thank you, Ben. I appreciate it.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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