Election 2012: Not Your Everyday Q&A with Chris Perkins
Former military man, Republican talks about why he's running in Virginia's 11th congressional District
(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 second in a series of in-depth interviews with candidates vying for Virginia’s 11th Congressional District seat.)
Sequestration, the role of government and ending partisan gridlock in Congress were a few of the topics discussed this week between Patch and Chris Perkins, Republican candidate for Virginia’s 11th District seat. Perkins spoke with Patch from Panera Bread in Springfield.
Perkins has $56,026 cash on-hand, versus the $1.5 million war chest of his rival, Democratic incumbent Rep. Gerry Connolly. He also faces Independent candidates Chris DeCarlo and Mark Gibson, Independent Green Party candidate Peter Marchetti and Green Party candidate Joe Galdo.
Perkins, 55, was born in Burlington, Vt. to a military family. His father was a Navy surgeon, and Perkins was mostly raised in Massachusetts. He received a degree in English from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and later received master's degrees in Strategic Studies and National Security Affairs from the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
Perkins enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army in 1981, attended Officer Candidate School and became a Green Beret. From 1982 to 1995, he commanded Special Forces A-Teams that went into combat missions in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and southwest Asia. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross medal, for assisting in the rescue of a downed American pilot during Operation Desert Storm.
Perkins spent four tours in Washington, most notably from 2001 to 2003 as the special assistant for legislative affairs for then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Perkins retired from the military in 2006, and immediately began work as a counter-terrorism consultant with the U.S. Coast Guard. He's currently a lobbyist for government relations firm Legg, Perkins & Associates. He has lived in Lorton since 1991 with his wife, and the couple have two children.
Questions and Answers
Patch: What time do you wake up in the morning?
Perkins: I get up every morning at 6 a.m. at the latest. I do my best thinking over that first cup of coffee - the first of 15 cups throughout the day.
Patch: How long are your days these days?
Perkins: I'm in bed, generally, by about 1:30 to 2 a.m. every morning. The way it works as a candidate is that your schedule is full of meetings and opportunities to get in front of voters during the daytime. Usually there will be some sort of an event at night - a meet-and-greet, a fundraiser or a business group will get together. Afterward I come home and make myself a sandwich and spend from 10 p.m. to 1 in the morning checking up on emails and researching. The worst thing for most of us candidates is to be an inch deep and a mile wide, so you have to be able to get into the weeds of these issues. If you're going to represent the people you're going to have to understand the problems.
Patch: How does that impact your day job?
Perkins: I started a small consulting firm a year-and-a-half ago with a partner. We really only have two clients - one is a medical research company that makes combat trauma therapies down at Walter Reed, and the other that I had at the time … is kind of like a MacGyver company for the military by making technical solutions out of duct tape and things like that for our boys overseas. But it (the campaign) impacts it severely. I've have been running full-time for Congress for the last six months.
Patch: What made you decide to run for Congress? In a previous Patch interview you said it was the 981 votes Gerry Connolly won by in 2010.
Perkins: There's a lot more to it. It's funny, when you catch a candidate on any given day, the question of what causes you to run … My motivation is that I believe in service. I served my country for 25 years, got out (of the Army) and made some money doing consulting in the private sector - not a lot of it, but enough to get involved, and I went from being apolitical to realizing that politics and these decisions coming out of D.C. matter. And I think we're at a real fork in the road. This is really about the role of government. I just really feel that the direction we're going in is wrong, and that I can help change it from within.
Patch: Have you ever been in a fistfight?
Perkins: I have.
Patch: When was the last time?
Perkins: I'm gonna take the fifth.
Patch: What are your hobbies?
Perkins: It used to be reading, and, quite frankly, since I've been running I haven't had a chance to do a whole lot of it. I do some biking and running to stay in shape, and riding a motorcycle - that's one of the best forms of therapy you can find.
Patch: Can you describe your leadership style?
Perkins: I ask a lot of questions. I demand a commitment in terms of work ethic. I don't expect everyone to have the answers, but I feel like we need to work as a team to come up with them, and I promote free thinking. But I demand a lot of my staff. But the real answer to leadership style is addressing problems head-on and working realistic solutions. There is not an optimistic or pessimistic bone in my body anymore after 25 years in the Army. I am a realist. The facts are this, the assumptions are that, what are the potential solutions and what is the best solution? And you just work it out.
Patch: What's your defining characteristic? Stubbornness? Your sense of humor?
Perkins: I consider myself a serious person. We have to have serious answers to serious problems. I believe you have to take what you do seriously, but not yourself seriously.
Patch: Are you religious?
Perkins: I am spiritual. I was raised as an Episcopalian. My faith was rocked during some of the military engagements I was in. I'm in a really good place right now with God, so I consider myself more spiritual than religious.
Patch: When did you become a Republican? Are your parents Republican?
Perkins: I am the son of Massachusetts Democrats. I think everyone becomes a Republican once they realize that the Republican party is the party of individual rights and personal responsibilities, whereas I see the Democratic Party as being more about the collective.
I was a Green Beret, small teams, and it was about personal accountability for everyone in their roles and missions. I was apolitical for a long time in the military. That happens a lot, because the Commander in Chief is who he is and you don't pick a party, and you may vote and have opinions, but a lot of the feelings you may have are repressed until you're out. But I'm a Republican.
Patch: Did you go into combat or were you behind a desk?
Perkins: I was a part of a team that went forward into combat. That's not to say I never rode a desk. On one of my tours I was working for Secretary Rumsfeld as his special assistant for Legislative Affairs with a special-ops portfolio. You rotate in the military between combat-oriented jobs, staff jobs and leadership-oriented jobs. For instance, I commanded an organization that had 650 people, 14 divisions and a motor pool that Fed-Ex would probably be pretty proud of. I commanded them on a day-by-day basis, and then we'd deploy into battle based on our orders.
Patch: You call yourself a "courageous" candidate on your Web site. What does courage equate to in politics?
Perkins: You know, a guy I really look up to is Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey. Now, you don't have to agree with all of his politics, and I certainly don't, but you know where he stands and he's not afraid to embrace the issues. Another guy who shows a whole lot of courage is (Congressman) Paul Ryan (House Budget Committee chair and Republican vice presidential nominee), who says 'Look, this is the problem and it's not going away. Let's sit at the table and talk about it.' And that's my biggest problem with my opponent, that he ignores the fact that we have huge, unsustainable government programs that need to be reformed. I don't necessarily say that I have all of the right answers, but I've got answers and we need to come to the table.
Patch: Connolly calls Ryan's budget a radical document. What do you think would happen if his budget passed?
Perkins: I think we would get on a path of fiscal solvency over the next two decades. It is a plan that needs to be tweaked as time goes, but it is a great start and it is the only budget on the table that is a serious solution.
Patch: Do you think Christie will be president one of these days?
Perkins: I doubt it. Maybe it's the cynicism I have for whether the country is ready for raw truth. There's too many games in politics and Christie doesn't play those games.
Patch: You defend a limited government. Explain that philosophy.
Perkins: There is really a conflict amongst the citizenship in this country as to what the role of government is. When I say limited government, I mean one that is focused on those functions that our founding fathers articulate quite nicely. The primary function of the government is to provide for the common defense. So, before we start sacrificing that function for something such as education or energy, we need to at least remember our priorities. You have to look at it as a tiered structure where you have local government, state governments and the federal government, with Republicans and Democrats at each of those levels, with all of them having their own spending priorities.
I think it is realistic to assume that some Republicans in the House want to spend money on education. It should not be done at the federal level. It should be done at the state, even the local level. Now, I have an opponent who did great things at the local level, and even though he doubled property taxes he served his district and Fairfax County very well. He's not at the local level now.
Patch: So, then what is the most important role for a member of Congress representing the 11th Congressional District?
Perkins: Sometimes a member of Congress has to choose between what he perceives to be the national good and the best interests of his 720,000 constituents. Generally we hope that they are one and the same. And in a representational government, you must represent all 720,000 constituents of your district and if you can't deal with the national implications of your vote, then you need to leave your job.
Patch: You say that your opponent Gerry Connolly favors sequestration. Can you tell me why he would do that?
Perkins: I can't, but we've had a few opportunities in forums to discuss that. It adversely affects the country in terms of gutting the military. In terms of jobs, the 11th District of Virginia is number one out of 435 districts that will be hardest hit by sequestration…
Patch: Are you saying that Gerry Connolly is looking after national interests and not local interests?
Perkins: No. I'm saying he's looking at neither of them.
Patch: But Connolly says he voted for the Budget Control Act to avoid a default on U.S. debt. The Act triggered sequestration in the event that the bipartisan supercommittee could not come to an agreement on debt reduction.
Perkins: That is correct. He (Connolly) cites that the Republicans forced this by their vote. Now, I want to point something out. There are 11 members of Congress in Virginia, four of the Republicans voted for the cuts and four voted against them. Two of the Democrats voted for the cuts, including Gerry Connolly. One of the Democrats, Mr. Moran (D-8th) voted against the cuts because it affects his district so badly. He voted, in my opinion, the right way.
This was not a partisan vote. This was a case where Gerry Connolly weighed the national interest, weighed the interests of his constituents and opted to do something completely different. Both of those would have said 'Vote against this bad plan,' and he voted for it because that was the (Obama) administration's guidance.
Patch: What's the solution for avoiding sequestration?
Perkins: First of all, it can't happen. It will be truly catastrophic to our national defense posture and our local economy. So, it's got to be my number one priority if elected. With that being said, there are two solutions to it: the Democratic position that Mr. Connolly takes, which says that the $1.2 trillion has to be replaced by added tax revenue. I do not believe that we need to be raising taxes in this economy; therefore, the cuts that have to happen need to come from non-security related programs.
Patch: Domestic programs?
Perkins: They need to come out of domestic discretionary or mandatory programs and we need to reform entitlements.
Patch: Describe the political environment in Washington.
Perkins: Ugly. I spent four tours in uniform on Capitol Hill, as sort of an outsider looking in. I've seen it done right, I've seen it done wrong, but I've never seen it so divided by partisan gridlock as now. I was attacked in my primary and my opponent accused me of fraternizing with the enemy because I have a very close friend who is an incumbent Democrat. And it backfired against him, and I said that if you can't work with people across the aisle, where are we going to go? The problem is the redistricting process, which is causing districts to become more polarized.
Patch: What else is creating the polarization?
Perkins: It's ideology. It comes back to the role of government. There is no individual party responsible for this economic mess we're in. We got here over a lot of years by folks on both sides who never understood the role of government.
Patch: What is your opinion of Grover Norquist? If elected, will you take his pledge (to not raise taxes)?
Perkins: I actually told Grover's folks several times that there's no way I would sign a pledge that would do what he asked me to do. Integrity matters to me more than anything, and the fact is that you don't cede your responsibility with a pledge like that. They (Norquist's staff) contacted me a number of times and reminded me that there were a number of folks who already signed up and that I was in the minority of not signing up. I said I was good with that.
Patch: On Israel and Iran, how should the U.S. proceed?
Perkins: I was raised in the military to look at a threat as the presence of capability plus intent. We’ve got countries like Iran, who certainly have the stated intent, but don't yet have the capability. You prevent the intent from growing and you prevent the capability from becoming a reality.
In the case of Israel - Israel is our only true friend in the Middle East... I see Israel as I do my younger brother: got me into schoolyard fights I didn't necessarily want to be in, borrowed and broke some of my stuff and was kind of annoying sometimes. But at the end of the day, he was my brother, and if you mess with Israel you're messing with me. Now, the issue right now is the Red Line. Do we allow Israel to dictate U.S. foreign policy by launching against Iran? We would hope that they do not, because if they go then we gotta go with them. So, I think America needs to let Israel's enemies know that if you mess with my brother you mess with the United States, and we can't be wishy-washy over it.
Patch: You've said that we have a policy of nation-building in Afghanistan and that we need to leave.
Perkins: My position on Afghanistan pains me in terms of the cost of blood and treasure we've invested there. I think we took on an unrealistic goal of nation-building in Afghanistan and we are now so constrained we have a policy of appeasement with (Afghani President) Karzai that puts our troops at risk, my special-ops guys particularly. We need to deny sanctuary to those forces that would hurt us, get out of nation-building, and if we're not going to do it it's time to bring them home… We need to go after Al Quaeda, we need to hunt them down and take them out. And we have that capability.
Patch: As a member of Congress, how would you make an impact on transportation in Northern Virginia?
Perkins: The federal government pays for about 38 percent for all the mega-rail projects nationwide. I think that's too high. I think the federal government has an obligation to maintain our federal highways, rail systems and courts. The question is how much does the federal government get involved in economic benefit programs, such as the second phase of Rail to Dulles. My position is that if we are going to pay into the pot then we need to get our share out of it. The original federal promise was to pay for 50 percent of the silver line and last time I checked it was about 16 percent of the total cost. So, I support the federal government paying for their fair share of the silver line.
Patch: You want to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"). Let's look at it real fast: Kids stay on their parents' insurance until they're 26, small businesses receive tax credits and it strengthens Medicare via access to preventative care and prescription drug discounts. What kind of alternative do you want?
Perkins: You make a good point. You can't just repeal. You have to repeal and replace. On the campaign I've been talking to a lot of small businesses of over the past couple months, and the number one concern they have is Obamacare and the uncertainty of what it's going to do to them. It is the main reason for their reluctance to grow and inability to hire… I believe that we've got to replace it with something that is absolutely dedicated to solving the fundamental problem of health care, and that is the growing costs. That's it. The conversation we need to have is on how to lower the cost of health care and make if affordable.
Patch: Does "Obamacare" do that - make it accessible and affordable?
Perkins: No. It does anything but. We need to get the competition and choice back, and take the government out of health care as much as possible.
Patch: Do you support gay marriage?
Perkins: I'm a traditionalist. I was married in church. It was a pact I made with my wife and God. I am a proponent of civil unions, and there are 1,137 legal provisions that change upon marriage. I think these should be afforded to civil unions as well.
Patch: Is Congress denying a percentage of Americans from pursuing their right to happiness?
Perkins: I'm an old fashioned kind of guy, and to me that term (marriage), means that covenant that I made in church with my wife.
Patch: You live in Lorton, parts of which are no longer in the 11th congressional District. Isn't it important that you live in the same district you represent in Congress?
Perkins: When I filed to run for Congress last year my house was located in the center of the 11th District. Nine months later they published the redistricting plan, which has me 100 yards out of the District. The line is right in front of my front yard. I've lived where I've lived, I understand their problems and the fact that I live 100 yards in the 10th District has no bearing on my ability to represent the district. Everybody we've talked to - no one has had an issue with it. Not a soul.
Patch: Since you left the military in 2006, it appears you've missed some crucial votes, including the midterm elections in 2010. You cite the closeness of that particular race as a motivator for your run, but you didn't vote in that election.
Perkins: That's correct. A close friend of mine (former Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor) was running for reelection in Mississippi. It was late October, and I was supposed to be on an airplane coming back on my birthday, the 31st, and while I was down there his election was not going as well as he had hoped. He is one of my five best friends in the world, and he asked me to stick around.
Patch: Congressman Connolly says that you have no record of civic involvement, that you've never testified on an issue, been on a board or commission or even on the board of your homeowners association. Do those things matter?
Perkins: That's been a very interesting tack that Mr. Connolly has taken. Where have I been while he was performing all of his civic duties? I was serving my country. I came out of a war with proven leadership.
Patch: Connolly asks what you've done since leaving the military.
Perkins: He is a bumper sticker politician to me. He thanks me for my service, yet signs a bill (the Budget Control Act) that would decimate the military. That's not honoring service. The six years since I've been retired - in the first year I put together the Coast Guard's SWAT program, and the last five I have been a consultant to a defense firm that makes combat trauma therapies for our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. To me, Gerry Connolly is the epitome of the careerist politician in Washington, who sees his position as a stepping stone to higher levels of authority.
Patch: So, for Connolly, the reason he is running for re-election is?
Perkins: It's a power thing. I think he very much enjoys that power. That's the problem with these politicians. Put away your games and get something done. Now, I'm not just going to Congress because I want to be something. I've already been something. I'm going to Washington to get something accomplished.
Patch: How can we get past the gridlock in Washington? If you are elected how are you going to work with Democrats?
Perkins: One of the highest honors I received on the campaign was the endorsement of former Congressman Tom Davis (a Republican who held the seat prior to Connolly). He is a centrist Republican, willing to come to the table and compromise on issues without compromising on his values. He got things done and worked with people on the Hill regardless of their politics.
Patch: How would you describe Connolly's ability to reach across the aisle?
Perkins: He's absolutely a Democratic soldier, with his 91 percent voting record. He's one of the primary Democratic soldiers on Capitol Hill. We don't need that. We need more like Tom Davis, who are willing to work together to get things done… We've got to get in there and not compromise on our principles, but compromise on the issues.
Patch: On your Web site, you say you want energy independence. How do we do that?
Perkins: Energy needs to be private sector, market-driven. The fact of the matter is that we are going to be dependent on fossil fuels for the next 30 years. My biggest concern as a former military and national security guy is weaning ourselves off our dependence. It means not encumbering our ability to tap into our own sources of energy. I'm in favor of tapping into our coal resources, drilling off Virginia's coast, and fracking for natural gas, which can be done safely and has huge potential for our own resources and jobs.
Patch: Virginia's Republican U.S. Senate candidate George Allen says that we need to get in on the Keystone Pipeline because of potential competition with China. Do you agree?
Perkins: The Keystone pipeline was a hugely missed opportunity, and if we see it go west instead of south, it has exacerbated our national security problem. We have got to be able to tap into resources for America. If it doesn't go to us it goes to somebody else. I would prefer that we get low-cost oil and not our competitors.
Patch: But what about the environment? What do you think about global warming?
Perkins: I think there's enough evidence that human activity affects the environment, but do you stop things that occur naturally in the environment, like carbon dioxide emissions? I think the economy has to be first and foremost in the eyes of our policies right now. I would not sacrifice our economy because I felt global warming could be reduced.
Patch: Some would say that one of the most important things for a lawmaker, especially in America, should be the preservation of the earth and that we need to act responsibly toward the environment. Some might say it's short-sighted to burn it up in the interests of making money. What do you think?
Perkins: It's not making money as much as it is taking care of the humans who live in America.
Patch: But what about the future of the humans who are going to be living in a different America?
Perkins: Well, this is why I'm a big believer in all-of-the-above solutions… But the fact of the matter is that we can't sacrifice the economy for the environment any more than we should be sacrificing the environment over the economy.
Patch: What should we do with the Bush Tax Cuts?
Perkins: They're a temporary fix. We need to extend them for at least a year, but we need a long-term plan to increase economic growth.
Patch: The last election was close and there were three candidates. In this election there's you, Connolly as well as other candidates. What does that do to your candidacy on Election Day?
Perkins: I have given it very little thought. The fact is they're in the race, they have messages that will or will not be embraced by the electorate. Some may strip votes away from me, some from Connolly.
Patch: Last question. What advice do you have for young people?
Perkins: Get informed. I think it's important that people understand the role of government and exactly what's going on out there, certainly fiscally.