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Monica Gary talks running independent and growing in up low-income family

Fredericksburg Today

Monica Gary is an independent candidate for Virginia’s 27th Senate District, which includes Fredericksburg City, most of Stafford County, and the northeast portion of Spotsylvania. She has served on Stafford County’s Board of Supervisors since 2021.

Quotes are lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Could you tell me about your childhood, your education, your career up until you ran for office the first time?

I feel like I could write a book on the whole thing because it’s a little long. But you know, the things that I’ve gone through in my life have really informed what I do now, so thank you for asking that because it’s so important.

I grew up in a single parent home. I have three sisters. We survived on assistance. We had government assistance, help from charity, lots of different organizations, and that’s how we survived. I really was the beneficiary of a lot of those services that I think people don’t understand how much are needed. Having that experience and growing up in minority-majority communities really helped me to have a different lens and how I look at the world and care for people, right?

So the housing vouchers that I grew up with my in my mother’s home, and then when I was 17, I became pregnant with my first son, so I moved out. I was in a low-income neighborhood and reliant on the same services. I started working in gentlemen’s clubs waitressing and my son’s father came back around and encouraged me to start dancing and stripping in the clubs. His plan was to live off of me. I didn’t know that. I thought I was in love, so it was a very difficult situation there. It turned incredibly abusive. I worked in the clubs for several years and really just experienced a lot of things that no person ever should, and through that I realized how people behave for money and when they’re desperate.

As I got out of that situation some years later, I met my now husband. He was a very good friend to me and helped me leave that then very abusive relationship, and we’ve been married for 14 years now. We have seven children altogether: my two sons I had with that previous relationship, his son, we have three daughters and we’re raising my niece as well. She’s been with us for about 6 years, so she’s our daughter.

I’m from Northern Virginia. We moved down to Stafford about eight years ago and we love it here, and I just started getting involved in the local government, because I was in ministry for about a decade. After I got married, I wanted to do something different with my life. I had my own spiritual experience, and then COVID hit, so my plans to start a church and complete my theology degree and all of that could not go forward the way I had planned in my mind.

So I started walking with people when they were marching after George Floyd was killed and just connecting with people in the community that wanted to be part of the solution. One, because we knew there were problems. You know, we all disagree about what the problems are, but we know there are problems, so I wanted to find people who wanted to be an answer. Through that I connected with many local pastors. We formed some great relationships and other leaders in the community and then I started going to the local board meetings and I realized that there was a lack of wisdom to help us navigate these times. And that led to me eventually running for office here locally.

Tell me also about your decision now to run for state Senate. Why did you decide to make such a big jump?

Sure. I guess it does look like a big jump from the outside.

For me, this is the next natural progression because a lot of what we do locally is very limited by what the state does since we are a Dillon’s Rule state. Not only that, but [we have] rampant unfunded mandates. Right?

I go to VACO, which is the Virginia Association of Counties, and you can just have a conversation with any supervisor or Council member across the state saying, “Yes, we are required to do A, B and C, but we don’t have the funding for it.” It’s many things, but it really starts with education. Obviously I’m very passionate about that.

I have seven children. One of my sons is in the Marine Corps now, another one in the Army, another one going to the army. But we have 4 girls here still in public schools, and they’ve all been through public. And there seems to be this politicization. People are politicizing our public education, and it’s to the detriment of our children. And personally, with my children, I’m seeing that.

So, for example, this year the governor said we have this surplus of billions of dollars, but my 8-year-old is learning in a trailer. That’s not a surplus to me. That’s us not funding things that we need, especially for our children.

There’s a lot of things that we disagree on as a community overall about what should be going on in our schools. But at the bare minimum, we need to make sure there is not asbestos in the walls and sewage in the hallways. I mean, there are basic things that we are failing to meet for our children, while we’re arguing about all of these other things. It’s not that they’re not important, but we’re not hitting the bare minimum, so that’s very important to me.

When I was elected [to Stafford’s Board of Supervisors], it was the same time as Tara Durant was elected to the House [of Delegates], and I sat down with her and we’ve had breakfast. We’ve prayed together. We’ve talked about things. And I said from the beginning, “Can you please help us with the COCA?” which is the cost of competing adjustment.

She said, “I don’t know, I’m not on that committee.” And then it went quiet for a while, and then there was this idea of school choice. Well, that’s the opposite of what we need because that’s defunding public education and giving vouchers to families who, for the most part, can already afford that private school.

And there’s many other things, I won’t go too much into that issue, but we need people who are in office who understand the impact of the decisions that they make, and I absolutely understand because I have to live it.

So I am passionate about these things. Education for one, reproductive rights. We saw Roe v. Wade overturned. As a woman of faith, I believe that God knew me before I was formed. But life is complex, right? It’s precious, but it’s also very complex, and we need to make sure that people have the right to make decisions for their own lives, for their own bodies, with their family if they want, and with their doctor. That is incredibly important. It’s a fundamental right for every single one of us to be able to have autonomy over our bodies. And so that’s something that we need to protect and make sure is codified in law, so those are just a few of the things.

Transportation is a big one too. It’s very hard to get transportation funding. The grocery tax was cut, and that funded transportation. People don’t know that. When I knock on doors, they’re like, “Why can’t we fix this.” Well, your grocery taxes were cut, right? And they’re like, “yes, that’s wonderful.” And well, that funds your transportation.

So being on the regional boards for transportation, I understand those things. I’m well equipped and I understand the things that we need, and I know how to get there because I am independent. I have relationships with people across the aisle and I can get things done because in this hyper partisan climate you don’t have to vote against me because I have a different letter next to my name. It’s an “I”. So it’s a little less threatening. That’s been very effective locally too.

Why do you choose to run independent?

Yeah, I’ve always been independent. I didn’t vote for many years. I was one of those people that still exists. They’re very disheartened with having to choose the lesser of two evils and just going, “Well, I’m not going to pick something I don’t believe in just because I feel like it’s less bad than the other option.” But I do feel a burden to participate after seeing some of the things I saw.

And so while I did get involved in politics, I chose to stay independent because, one, I believe in it. I am beholden to the people that I serve, not to a party, and they are billion-dollar-a-year companies if you look at them, and I just don’t want any part of that.

I know that there’s a lot of resources available. I was asked to run with a party. I was offered lots of resources and endorsements, but my choice is to represent the people and continue on the path that I got elected to in the first place. People were very excited to elect an independent who was not just going to do what they were told by other people in leadership, but what was really in the best interests of the community. Not that those things don’t overlap, but I think more often than not, people are disheartened that they’re not being served as well as they could be because of that dynamic.

If you are elected, what is the first piece of legislation that you would want to create and sponsor this coming January?

So that’s really difficult because I’m a multitasker. In my mind, there’s, like, a million things going on.

I think that really depends on the dynamics about who’s elected. We have a huge turnover, right, so it’s really going to be what can we get done that’s important on my list of priorities.

Obviously there are things to fight for. Reproductive rights, hands down, we’re fighting for that no matter what, we’re going to push to get that through. So I guess you could say that’s number one.

Beyond that, we really have to figure out, I mean myself and whatever staff I would have, what can we actually achieve? It’s going to depend on the makeup of the Senate and the House, obviously, but I’m very passionate about getting a retail market set up for cannabis. We’re missing out on a lot of tax revenue, it’s legal.

We have needs. Like I mentioned, transportation, education, mental health, we need workforce training for people to actually be in those positions to help people with mental health issues that they’re dealing with. So that funding is going to be incredibly important. That would be one thing I would go after.

If I were to order them, I’m going after reproductive rights first and then I’m going after generating some revenue so we can fix a lot of these other things. So I think that would be important. I gave you two.

You’ve come out against the two-party system and you’re also running on some policies that would reduce the influence of the Democratic and Republican parties. So, could you talk to me about your voting and your campaign finance policy proposals?

Sure. I think one of the biggest things that we need upfront for campaign finance reform is we need to have some kind of limits on contributions.

Right now, anyone from anywhere can give any amount. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there’s something not great about that and how it can influence our elections, and I think we’ve seen that even in this race. Not to say that the better candidates on either side didn’t win. I’m not going to participate in that discussion. But it did so happen that those who had much more resources were able to prevail, and that’s not an uncommon situation.

The unfortunate thing with that is that people’s voices matter less than they should because the money matters so much. You can get your message out more, whether it’s true or not, or good or bad, you have that extra leverage.

I think that we need limits on donations. Not so much on individuals. We do need it on individuals. We do have some wealthy individuals who will just give under their name instead of an organization, but that’s less of an issue. You see it sometimes, but we need that for organizations, we need it for Super PACs. That’s a whole other issue to address. I think we could go into it another time, but understanding where the money is coming from and making sure that people are not disproportionately disadvantaged just because they don’t have resources is very important.

As far as voting reform, I think there’s a few different things to explore, and it does take away some of the influence of the parties, but I think these are things that people in the parties, there are sitting representatives who would agree with some of this stuff, and they’ve seen it over the years. To be honest, I think the millionaires are tired of getting in their arms race too.

So I don’t know who wouldn’t be in favor of these things, but limiting those contributions and then looking at different voting systems. I know that it can be confusing for some people, so education is going to be very important if we did change anything. I’d like a campaign of education for a year or so at least before we actually implemented something.

But we need to look at ranked choice voting, we need to look at STAR voting. There’s a lot of different options that we could use instead of what we have right now that would allow your voice to go further instead of just feeling like you have to choose the lesser of two evils. And it would, in effect, open up opportunities for more independents to run and actually have a chance.

I think that my situation is unique because I’m already a sitting supervisor and I understand the issues. I’m very capable of learning many things at one time and doing things in my campaign that you typically have to pay someone for, but that’s an exception. We need to make sure that other people have opportunities.

I’d like to talk to you about education as well. We’ve talked about it a little bit, but this is a very salient issue in this Senate district and something that all the candidates are talking about. From your point of view, what are the most serious problems that are facing our local public schools and what are the solutions from the state level?

Yeah. So that’s going to be different with the localities.

I think in in my locality I’m in now, in Stafford County, it’s funding. I know there’s similar issues in Fredericksburg, but we get down into Fredericksburg, we’re dealing with some more violence as well. They’re dealing with that in the community and in the schools.

And then we get out into Spotsylvania and it feels like our public schools are just ground zero for a political war, and our children are getting caught up in it. When you get to the point where you’re talking about taking away school libraries, we’ve gone too far. We’ve gone way too far. And that’s not a funding issue. That’s definitely another politicizing our schools issue.

I’m very aware from, like I said, having grown up in some minority-majority communities that there are people who do have bias. We all have bias, right? You might look at me and think if I have red hair, there’s something different with me, or if you drive a Fiat or a Tesla. We all have these things and I think recognizing that, but that it’s gone too far in some ways and it impacted our schools. The way that people in leadership are dealing with them is hurting our children. So bias and racism is still an issue.

I had one person call me and say, “I don’t want my taxes to go up to pay for children who can’t speak English to learn.”

And I said, “I think you and I disagree about the fundamentals of what public education is and how we should care for children,” as respectfully as I could, but that was heartbreaking and angering because these are children and people are people. We ought to care and care for and love one another.

I think that, without getting too deep into the weeds here, there are some people in positions in Spotsylvania that are not qualified to be there. And that’s something that needs to be dealt with at the state level. As a Senator, there’s not a vote or something I could do, but there are things to be done to deal with that for one.

And really, the funding, I think it does come down a lot to the funding because we can get quality educators and leaders in place when we can pay them appropriately. That’s a struggle we’ve had. In Stafford, we finally have all of our bus drivers staffed. We didn’t have that years ago. We had to make drastic pay increases to make sure that we could take care of people so they could work here. So funding is a huge issue. It’s going to keep coming down to that. It’s not the silver bullet, but it makes us able to breathe a little bit so we can deal with some of these other issues and higher quality people to put in leadership in all the localities to deal with the other nuances.

So you’ve also brought up transportation and this is also another one of those big issues that all the candidates are going to be talking about, and there are a few ways that we could try to mitigate congestion in the area. But what would you like to pursue if elected to improve our transportation systems here?

We really need to support and fund our public transportation. I’m on the VRE operations board, VAMPO [Virginia Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations], and PRTC [Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission]. And the thing that I see again and again that is an obstacle is some people not wanting to fund these public transportation systems and then being upset about the congestion at the same time. Well, they are in large part a solution to the congestion.

When you build more roads, they will infill. That’s proven, that is a statistical fact. If I build you a road from point A to point B and there was nothing there before, suddenly there will be houses, there will be commercial development, because that makes sense for developers. And then there will be added traffic.

Not to say we shouldn’t have development, but right now in our region and what we’re dealing with, we do need to deal with the congestion. We need to invest heavily in public transportation. I have continually voted to make sure we can move in the direction, as we have been, of getting the third rail on the VRE. That will open up a commuter rail solely so that we don’t have to share the lines with CSX, because right now we’re dependent upon sharing that schedule, and so we can’t have the convenience that people expect, especially going to D.C.

If I work a job where I can work whenever I want, it’s more flexible. Now we have telework, I’m not going to use the VRE if I can’t get on it when I need and get back when I need. So that’s one of the very important things to make sure we become more flexible with that.

OmniRide has done a great job. That’s the PRTC bus that goes to D.C. They’ve done a great job adapting. They have micro transit now that we’ve invested to make sure that that can happen. So I think that public transportation investment is one of the best things that we can do for congestion.

I’d also like to get you to tell me about your experience with and your positions on cannabis. I don’t necessarily know how to phrase that more delicately, but what would be your approach to cannabis [markets] at the state level?

You know, I think a few years ago when the Commission or committee was set up to deal with this, they were really on track to do some great things. The state was going to tax cannabis when they had the retail market set up around 30-some percent. Which I think is high, but people will pay it and it would be for a safer product than what people are probably getting now.

We’re allowing this illegitimate market to continue. If it’s legal to use, but there’s no set up retail market legally.

When we do that, we can invest those tax dollars into things like had been discussed before education. Money going back to HBCUs, making sure that people who were disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs and people of color and their communities and how they were impacted. I mean, we’re not just talking about, you got thrown in jail. We’re talking about someone who lost their father. We’re talking about someone who lost their wages for many, many years. We’re talking about mothers or fathers who had to work 2-3 jobs because the other person was gone, and now it’s legal.

So what do we do to repair that and the impacts we’ve had? We can’t. But what we can do is make sure that we are investing in those communities that were impacted with that resource that’s generated. And also, I really loved the idea of when you apply for licenses, allowing people who had had those nonviolent possession charges to be able to apply first for licenses to actually run legitimate businesses, if that’s something they’re interested in doing. You’ve done it before. We prosecuted you for it. If you want to do it now so you can benefit and rebuild, we support you in that. And for me, that makes a lot of sense.

If there were any one particular issue or policy or tag that voters think of when they think of you and your campaign, what would you want that to be?

It is a big question. Gosh, they’re all so important.

You know, I just want people to have their voice back. I don’t feel like people have their voice. And I think that they don’t feel like they have their voice.

Campaign finance and voting reform, I think, is the most important thing. When I say that at the doors and people hear it, they light up. There’s hope again that we actually matter, because the system’s not working for us.

49% of voters are independent now. There’s a reason for that.

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