LIBERTARIANS LIKE LARRY Sharpe. It was nearly impossible to attend a state-level Libertarian Party (L.P.) convention in 2017 and not see the affable former Marine and 2018 candidate for governor of New York laying out his seven-year plan to transform the party from a distant third-place finisher to the country's decisive swing bloc at all levels of government. When I asked former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld how Libertarians could best build on their momentum, he began his reply with: "You want to get out more candidates like Larry Sharpe."
Of course, Bill Weld is the only reason a normal consumer of politics might have heard of Sharpe in the first place. Weld was the Libertarian vice presidential nominee in the 2016 race--by far the most famous and electorally successful candidate for that office since the party's founding in 1971. And in May 2016, at the Libertarian Party's national convention, Sharpe came this close to beating him. A measly 32 votes on a hotly contested second ballot separated Weld's 50.5 percent from Sharpe's 46.9, much to the bafflement of the assembled national press corps. At a raucous moment, the party's radicals and anarchists rallied behind Sharpe, even though he is decidedly not one of them.
So who is Larry Sharpe? Basically, everything your stereotypical L.P. member is not. A relentless communicator in a party represented in the last two elections by a man known for his rhetorical stumbles. A black face in a mostly white sea. An adoptee and poor kid from the Bronx whose father died when he was 11 and whose German-born mother became a convicted drug felon, in a political movement often unfairly maligned as a privileged few defending their spoils. A veteran in a party whose vice chair recently argued that joining the military to pay for college is like saying, "I agreed to kill innocent people because I wanted the money."
Above all, Sharpe is a fast-talking management consultant and sales trainer fond of saying things like, "culture change is the answer in any organization, period." Sharpe's "common-sense and empathetic communication style" is "opening up hearts and minds to a new kind of politics," national Libertarian Party chair Nicholas Sarwark enthuses. "His campaign is raising the bar for... candidates across the country."
In a decentralized party of disheveled dreamers, Sharpe's strategic patter can feel like a bracing shot of adrenaline. It also comes at a time when there are no other obvious new Libertarian frontmen, despite the party's record-shattering vote totals in 2016. Two-time presidential nominee Gary Johnson has declared that he's never running for office again. Nomination runner-up Austin Petersen has become a Republican. And Weld is even more controversial among L.P. members now than he was in May 2016.
In the matter of two short years, Sharpe has become the most effective fundraiser in the Libertarian Party. His particular specialty is raising money from the very people who complain they don't have enough of it. He'll grab anything--a "Johnson/Weld 2016" T-shirt, or some discarded campaign poster--and give it the cattle-auctioneer treatment. I've witnessed him take a book I co-wrote and, by virtue of me being in the room with 25 L.P. activists, squeeze out $200 for the damned thing. "I'm out there now because no one else is doing it," he explains.
"The Libertarian Party's been through three iterations," Sharpe tells me in late November in midtown Manhattan, not far from his office. "I'm the vanguard of 3.0, right? The end of 2.0 was Gary Johnson... This is more of a universal phase. We're now open to the world."
If Sharpe pulls 10 percent of the vote in his gubernatorial run against incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo in an over-whelmingly blue state, that will be an early indicator of the position of the Libertarian Party in the next election cycle. If he ends up closer to the 0.4 percent his predecessor garnered in the 2014 race, the L.P. brass should be worried indeed.
'You Don't Have to Have a Rule for Everything'
Reason: How did you first get exposed or introduced to libertarianism, and did it take right away? What was that process like?
Larry Sharpe: I was raised in a complete Democratic New York City household. Politics, for my family, was very easy. If you had a D by your name, you're awesome; if you had an R, you're evil. Period, done deal.
But I was more interested in other things. So when I became 17, I joined the Marine Corps. My examples of leadership and manhood were mostly Republicans, and my first commander in chief was Ronald Reagan, so I think I became more of a Republican...