More than four years ago, Rep. Tom Garrett announced he would not battle any Democratic challengers in a bid for a second term and instead would battle his alcoholism.
Flash forward to 2022 — and Garrett says he’s ready to represent Southside Virginia’s 56th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates.
“With what’s going on the world I’m not gonna sit here and throw bombs at Joe Biden or anybody,” he said Tuesday, noting the bitter partisanship he experienced in one term in the U.S. House.
“I could sit back and cry in my soup at night or I can stand up and say ‘What can I do to try to fix it?’ ” he said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch before his announcement that he will seek the seat next year.
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He then stood in front of the Virginia Civil Rights Monument in Capitol Square and spoke to a crowd of five while his staff took a video that he would later post to his campaign website. The monument commemorates student-led protests — first sparked by Farmville student Barbara Johns — that helped usher in an end to school segregation.
Garrett said he chose to publicly announce his candidacy by the monument outside of the state Capitol instead of within the boundaries of the 56th District because the monument is where he stood 4½ years ago to announce the addiction that led him to step back from politics.
And, he added, “I feel so strongly about [Johns’] role in our perpetual American Revolution.”
In April 1951, Johns, then 16, led the student walkout at Moton High School to protest the segregated school’s substandard facilities. Civil rights attorneys Oliver Hill Sr. and Spottswood Robinson took the case, which became part of Brown v. Board of Education.
Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, also spoke at Tuesday’s event in support of Garrett — and called him “someone that stands up with the things that we believe as conservatives.”
The new 56th District includes Buckingham, Appomattox, and Cumberland counties along with part of Goochland County and just 15 voters in Louisa County. The open seat leans Republican.
Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland, who represents the old 56th District, is running next year for the new 10th Senate District.
Though Garrett’s candidacy is new, he is not new to politics.
He was first elected to the 22nd state Senate District in 2011 and represented it until 2017. He went on to represent the 5th Congressional District from 2017 to 2019. The district was then roughly the size of the state of New Jersey and stretched from the North Carolina border almost to Maryland.
On running for state office again, Garrett said his legislative priorities will be a “moving target” as he sees how the General Assembly session plays out and which issues he will want to help work on or champion.
In the U.S. House, he served on the House Freedom Caucus — one of the more conservative caucuses in Congress. However, Garrett was among Republican lawmakers to support marijuana decriminalization at the federal level — citing unequal enforcement — before more and more states began setting up legal markets.
He and former Democratic presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard carried an unsuccessful bill in 2017 that would have decriminalized marijuana at the federal level.
“We hand kids an Entrepreneur of the Year award in Colorado, and we send them to prison in Virginia,” he said. “Yeah, that’s bullcrap. Justice that isn’t blind isn’t justice.”
While he said he doesn’t like to partake in cannabis he will support further work on Virginia’s cannabis laws.
On potentially returning to the General Assembly, he said that he enjoys the camaraderie among legislators across party lines that he experienced when he was a state senator — and noted how it was two Democratic legislators who were among the first to call to wish him well when he disclosed his alcoholism.
“I’m an alcoholic. I’ll always be an alcoholic,” he said in an interview. “I haven’t had to drink in four-and-a-half years. As soon as I start declaring victory over anything, it will come back and tap me on the shoulder.”
From “not liking” himself a few years ago, Garrett said he’s grateful for the life experiences he has had and public service he has been able to do and hopes to get back into doing. But, he added, he will always be “taking it a day at a time” to stay sober.
He recalled how a former state senator had told him that he wondered how much more impressive Garrett could be if “he didn’t come in half the time hung over.”
“It was both a compliment and something that hurt,” Garrett said. “If the good Lord wills it and the voters of the 56th District of the Virginia House of Delegates will have me, in one year we’re going to find out just how good I can be.”