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Larry Barnett and the joy of canvassing

By Matt Blair

October 16, 2019

Larry Barnett is a nice guy with a unique taste for life. He’s a musician, father and retired mental health professional. But his real joie de vivre is knocking on doors.

Pressed for a fun fact, Barnett, the Democratic candidate for Virginia House District 27, didn’t hesitate. “I’ve discovered the joy of canvassing,” he said with a smile during an interview with The Dogwood.

Never mind that showing up unannounced at strangers’ homes and asking them to support you is typically considered among the more grueling tasks of running for office. Or hitting hundreds, sometimes thousands — by his count — of doors per week no matter rain or 100-degree heat. “A lot of people don’t realize that knocking on doors, talking with your neighbors, is really a very enjoyable activity,” Barnett explained, adding extra emphasis to the word “very.”

“It’s something that very few people probably have the opportunity to do, just to go from house to house and have conversations with neighbors. It’s a great thing.”

Barnett thrives on conversing with constituents. “I’ll try to connect to some issues that they’ve let me know that are important to them and I’ll kind of build a line between the thing that matters to them and these elections.”

“You have to be able to let them know that you get it,” Barnett said, “And that you’re interested in working on those problems to make things better.”

It’s clear the man genuinely enjoys campaigning. So much so that when asked if he would rather travel alone anywhere in the world or stay at home with any one person in the world over the next two weeks, he said he’d stay right where he was, with his campaign manager, Karl.

Beyond canvassing voters, Barnett is also a musician. Strumming classical and jazz tunes is his “anchor.” He even plays the keyboard from time to time. At local Democratic fundraisers, he gets a band together.

He’s never sung carols while going door to door, sadly, but occasionally he’ll send out emails on neighborhood list serves with a video of him playing music before canvassing in a community.

Barnett’s upbringing is about as eclectic as our conversation to this point.

A child of eight (three brothers, four sisters), he hails from a Coast Guard family. He was born in Seattle, but has lived in Boston, Northern Virginia, the Aleutian Islands and all over the east and west coasts. He moved to Richmond in 1975.

In Richmond, he earned his undergraduate degree and then a master’s degree in Rehabilitative Counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Today, Barnett and his wife, Pat, live in Midlothian. Their daughter, Eileen, attended Chesterfield public schools and now lives in Charlottesville.

Before running for the House of Delegates, Barnett worked in mental health care for the Chesterfield County Mental Health Support Services. As a licensed professional counselor, he worked cross functionally on various projects aimed at improving access to mental health and substance abuse services.

“In retrospect what prepared me to run for office was the work I’ve been doing for a long time in this community … I see this as a continuation of public service to people in this community.”

He mounted his first bid for the House in 2017 in a district that pundits considered unflippable. House District 27 is located entirely within Chesterfield County, and Republican Del. Roxann Robinson has represented the district since 2010.

Nevertheless, Barnett ran “a spirited, grassroots campaign,” and fell just 128 votes shy of victory. The race was within the 1% margin that allowed him to seek a recount, but true to his non-confrontational demeanor, he chose not to do so.

“Our team learned so much about how to run an effective campaign,” Barnett said. This time around, he said he has a much clearer sense of how to build out campaign infrastructure and make sure “volunteers having meaningful important tasks that they can do that helped to propel us forward.”

“Our local supporters now are very excited and they see a win coming in 2019 as a result of having gotten so close last time.”

Barnett said he’s working harder than ever to win. In addition to knocking on doors, he said he makes between 20 and 50 calls per day. His campaign manager paused the interview to check the official call log to confirm. As of late August, the number was over 14,000, according to their records.

Those aren’t quick calls, either. “I’m usually looking for the quality of the conversation and the connection with people to build that relationship and help them to see the importance of getting behind our team in this race.”

On the issues

In his 2017 bid for the seat, Barnett ran on a promise to expand Medicaid in Virginia, which his party accomplished in 2018. Robinson voted no. With as many as 1,600 people in their district who could gain coverage as a result of the expansion, the Medicaid vote is likely to be fresh on voters’ minds in the 2019 election.

With Medicaid expansion on the books, Barnett is narrowing in on other health policy issues, including the opioid epidemic, mental health crises, and treating addiction within the criminal justice system.

“This year particularly, people bring up concerns with pre-existing conditions and some concern that they might lose coverage for themselves or a family member or loved one,” Barnett said.

Over three million Virginians live with a pre-existing condition. General Assembly Republicans including Robinson passed a bill this year to allow insurers to sell so-called “short-term” plans that are also not required to cover people with pre-existing conditions. It was veto’ed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Barnett is as much concerned about healthcare costs as he is about coverage.

“I talked to an elderly woman last week who told me she sometimes makes decisions about whether she buys groceries or she gets her prescription filled because of the expense and that’s the choice she shouldn’t be having to make.” He said he talked to another person, a father, who claimed he pays more in health care coverage for his family than the mortgage on his home.

To address costs, Barnett wants to focus on prevention. As a mental health professional, he’d “often see tremendously expensive interventions for people who hadn’t had access to the care they needed at the front end.”

“So instead they have first responders called out. They’re taken to an emergency room. There are expensive bills. And all of that could have been prevented.”

Those costs are shared all by Virginians, he said. “It’s a result of a short sightedness around our Healthcare systems and not investing in the care of people in our community at the front end.”

Barnett also sees gun violence as a public health crisis, and supports universal background checks and emergency protective orders that enable family members to temporarily remove firearms from loved ones during a crisis. He does believe in the right to bear arms, but also, per the second amendment, in a “well-regulated” manner. 

“It’s much more about a public safety issue and making sure that children and our families are safe in our community and we put in place sensible measures to reduce the risk of gun violence,” he said.

On education, Barnett wants to improve teacher pay, lower the student-to-teacher ratio and give educators more autonomy in the classroom. 

“Investing in our children is the wise, the smart, the best thing to do,” he said. “Having teachers who are recruited and retained because they’re paid well is one step we can take.”

Barnett is an environmental advocate and was endorsed by the Sierra Club in 2017. Like many Democrats, he signed a pledge to not accept campaign contributions from Virginia’s biggest utilities, Dominion and Appalachian Power.

He also wants to tighten campaign finance regulations by disabling candidates from accepting campaign funds from corporate PACS and capping individual donations at $10,000.00.

And like every other Democrat, Barnett supports ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

If he wins, Barnett said he has no intention of becoming the House of Delegates shrink, though he conceded that assuming that unofficial role may come with the territory. 

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