"Being an elected person is not about partisan politics to me," says New Hampshire State Rep. Brandon Phinney, one of 170-plus Libertarian Party members who hold elected office in the United States. "It's about public policy and being able to provide the maximum freedom for all individuals in this state, and not worrying about the bullshit of anything else."
Phinney, a 30-year-old Army reservist, atheist, and occasional rock musician (he was once in a band called Godcrusher), is conducting a rare electoral experiment his year—trying to win re-election to a state legislature under the Libertarian banner after switching parties while in office. His case to the Republican voters who initially put him in office? He was more interested in cutting government than New Hampshire's GOP leadership, and he successfully purged two anachronistic, freedom-infringing laws from the books.
The most notable of the latter was strange quirk in New Hampshire employment law that classified visiting performers as employees, thus putting them in the cross-hairs of the state's all-powerful Liquor Commission. As a result of Phinney's exertions, beginning this month, bands have more latitude to drink on stage. Freedom!
I wrote about Phinney in the L.A. Times last month, and interviewed him two weeks ago on SiriusXM Insight's Stand UP! with Pete Dominick program. The conversation ranged from his law-purging efforts, to his belief that kids should think twice about joining the Army, to his leeriness of a premature coronation of Bill Weld as the L.P.'s 2020 presidential nominee. The following is an edited transcript.
Welch: Walk us through a little bit about how you legalized the drinking of booze on stage by bands.
Brandon Phinney: I'm going to make one quick correction on that: So what the bill actually did, it didn't stipulate in the law that such and such a band or comedian or whoever that performs in this state will be able to then drink alcohol. What the bill actually did was change the employment status of entertainers in the state, from employees of the venue to private contractors. So that would, essentially, remove them from any stipulations under the employment laws that say things like, well, you can't drink on the job.
I had had some conversations with some friends of mine that book shows at places down here, and they said that they've had bands either turn down the opportunity to play here, or they've come here and haven't come back…because the state won't allow people to drink while performing. That may not seem a huge deal to a lot of people, but we're a pretty small state and it's hard to compete with the Boston market for bands when we're trying to bring some of that stuff back up to New Hampshire. We have big country tours that come up here and play as well, and that's a part of their act—they want to be able to toast to the audience, take a shot and whatnot. But we have a state agency that would shut that place down or revoke the ability of the venue to serve alcohol.
So it's a big, government-controlled environment that I'm trying to remove their influence from. We successfully got the bill passed, and they actually supported it, which I was kind of surprised by.
Welch: Who's "they"?
Phinney: The Liquor Commission. All of our stores in the state are owned by the state, so we don't have any private competition up here, and they keep a pretty tight ship.
Welch: Wait a second here—this is the Live Free or Die State! There's a whole Free State Project that's happening up there! And you only have state-run liquor stores? What kind of heathens are you?
Phinney: Well, we've been trying to change that for many, many years, but because the state makes so much money on it, they're incentivized to keep it going. I was planning on putting some more bills to try to weaken their power over that, but it's really an uphill battle, because as long as the other two parties in office want to have that money, that's not going to change.
Welch: So you discovered this issue through playing in bands and talking with venues, or through your [work] as a politician?
Phinney: I have been influenced by playing in a lot of bands over the years. I've been playing in bands since I was like 16, so we're talking like 2004, and that's always been an issue: I'm anxious when I get on stage and perform. I don't do it very often, so I might want to have a beer while I'm up there, to kind of calm my nerves. And that's the case for a lot of people.
But then if the Liquor Commission comes in and sees you with alcohol on stage, they can shut the entire show down, they can fine the owners up to a thousand dollars or more. It's crazy! To me, it's a scam: You're coming in here and trying to say what I am and am not allowed to do with my own time and with my own body? You don't own alcohol. Give me a break!
This was coupled with my first-term philosophy of trying to repeal erroneous and unenforceable laws. That was an unenforceable law. We have hundreds of bars in this state, and a lot of them provide live entertainment. [The Liquor Commission doesn't] have the manpower to go into every bar and say, "Oh, don't drink on stage," or only in one arbitrary part of the venue where if you move five feet and you go to this area, you can't drink alcohol anymore. To me, that was ridiculous.
Welch: You talk about repealing unenforceable laws, or laws that can be arbitrarily enforced as well. Talk to us about your heroic work of legalizing milk bottles.
Phinney: So we had a law from, I think, 1907, that essentially said that only milk products can go in milk containers. And my thought process was, well, in those days they were probably still delivering milk to your house in some way, so they were concerned about sanitary issues.
The way that I interpret the law in 2018 was that now they're more concerned about commercial use on farms and whatnot, where there'd be cross-contamination in the bins and containers that they use. But from what I've seen, that's never been an issue. And I'm not sure about you, but I trust farmers to know how to sanitize their stuff. They know how to maintain their product, and they're not going to do anything that's going to put their ability to make money on a product at risk.
So I put in a bill to essentially repeal the criminal penalty for using a milk container for things other than milk. Didn't see any opposition to it, seemed pretty cut-and-dry. What was in my favor was that I was told the day that I was going to talk about the bill to the committee, was that it was being attached to a Senate bill that was overhauling the entire code anyway. So it was a pretty easy win there.
Those two bills that I applied and sponsored passed unanimously, which was crazy to me. They know I'm in a third party, quote unquote, and they still support the idea of the policy change. And to me, that's what I'm trying to convey as a representative. I'm not only in the party, but also just being an elected person is not about partisan politics to me, it's about public policy and being able to provide the maximum freedom for all individuals in this state, and not worrying about the bullshit of anything else.
Welch: You weren't always a member of the Libertarian Party. You were elected in 2016 as a Republican, even though in this entire conversation you've sounded as Libertarian as they come. Talk about why you ran as a Republican, and then why you switched parties.
Phinney: Being an independent at that time required petitioning and signatures and whatnot, and being a first-time candidate, I really didn't have the ability to do that. So I begrudgingly signed up as a Republican. Because all in all, we have some similar economic ideas. So I ran under their banner, and I got elected as a first-time candidate, just hitting doors and talking to people and just kind of being out there. I won by like 116 votes. 2016 was part of the federal cycle, and I think that because it was the year of Trump, it was pretty easy to get a lot of those hardline Republican people to come out and vote for the ticket.
When I got to the legislature, things were fine for the first month or two, and then I started to notice that the caucus was very fractious. There was a small part of small-Ls in that party that really didn't get any headway with leadership; they were trying to push some policies and issues that were trying to maximize personal freedom and cut a lot of spending and taxes. I think a lot of people in leadership were more worried about what the other party was going to be doing and trying to counter that. But the House, the Senate, and…the governor's seat are all controlled by the GOP in New Hampshire now, so they're more concerned about trying to keep the other party from gaining any ground than really focusing on any public policy issues.
That year happened to be the budget year of 2017, so I saw how they wanted to spend all of our money, and that immediately set off every red flag imaginable. There was a concerted effort by the House Freedom Caucus, which is the political ultra-conservative wing of the party, which had a lot of small-Ls in there. They tried to get the budget cut even more, but they just weren't getting any headway. And I just kind of, over the course of the month, realized that there was no cohesion, and there was no leeway for promoting the ideas of the Liberty Movement up here, and I just got tired of it. I had wanted to switch way earlier in the year, but I was the last one to switch. Caleb Dyer was first because he got sick of it right off the bat.
Welch: Fellow state rep.
Phinney: Yes. And getting bullied by the Speaker of the House in front of me, and seeing how they kind of operate with their own people. I was just horrified. But being the last to switch, I just waited until after we were finished with the session here, and I was like, "You know what? This isn't my home. I don't belong here. I don't like anything that they're doing."
I had a meeting with Gov. [Chris] Sununu in his office, and I said, "Look, I think you're a great guy, but I really don't like your budget. I don't like anything that you're doing policy-wise as far as trying to implement full-day kindergarten and all these social programs that are just going to ramp up spending and raise property taxes over the next ten years, at least….I'm sorry, but I've got to leave, and I'm switching parties in two weeks."
I have to give him some credit, he was actually pretty cool about it. I'm [also] a nobody in that party; being a first-time rep, I probably didn't pose any threat. But I can promise you I've been a lot more public and a lot more big-mouthed since I've switched parties, where I don't have those strings attached to me anymore. I can kind of be my own person—you're not worried about someone calling and complaining about something that you've posted.
Welch: So has the Republican Party sent someone to take you out at the knees in the election here in November? What's it like to actually campaign with the "L" embroidered on your pink sweater?
Phinney: It hasn't been as bad as I thought it would. I've got people who are saying, "Oh, I'm never going to vote for you." I don't care about that anymore. I've had other people tell me, even with them knowing the party affiliation that I have, that they focus more about what I'm talking about. I've heard people from other wards in my city say, "Oh, I wish you were in my ward so I could vote for you!"
In New Hampshire, a lot of older folks, they tend to be more conservative up here. And to have that kind of support from people that know what party I'm in; they don't care about that, they hear what I'm saying, and they see the issues that I care about. It's been easier to talk to people who aren't in public office. But for a lot of people that are in public office, they can't get past the party affiliation, the fact that I switched. I've been called a turncoat, I've been called a traitor, I've been called all kinds of silly things, for the simple fact that I care more about my principles than any party that I'm in.
And that's why I got elected in the first place. I never lied to anybody about what I stood on. I have always had these principles of individual liberty and cutting spending and taxes. I know it's kind of a cliché thing to say, but I lived it and I've proven it by way that I've voted and the bills that I've sponsored.
There are people on the ballot against me, but I don't think it's strong opposition, I think it's just people to put names on the ballot.
Welch: You referenced Trump earlier in connection to your own initial election. What are your views on him?
Phinney: Oh, Jesus. Well, look, I don't hate the guy, but…it's not about policy, it's about trying to get people triggered and offended, and calling out the media constantly, and then starting Twitter wars with other countries. It just really gets tiring, and I stop paying attention to it. Now we're talking about a Space Force? I just have lost all hope that this administration will do anything in the interest of people or in the interest of common sense.
People had asked me when I was first campaigning, "Oh, are you going to vote for Trump?" And I'd say, "No, sorry, I'm not going to vote for Trump. I think he's a joke." I tried to give him a chance, I really did, and I tried to be wary about some of the things that I criticized him on. I want to be open minded. But he's been president for almost two years now, and I'm just so over it.
But now that the socialists are kind of taking over the other party, I'm concerned that he's going to win election again in 2020. And that's why the L.P. has to put up somebody that knows how to debate, that knows all of our platform ideas and can speak to them properly to the public, to try to take down some of that influence. I don't want to see authoritarian government anywhere, federal or state, and I'm worried that that's kind of the trend that we're going, because everyone's so against the socialists and whatnot that they're just ramping up the other side of it by being the more conservative. Not for our interest, but for interest of the government.
It's going to be an interesting event in 2020, for sure.
Welch: What kind of person are you looking for the Libertarian Party to put up in 2020? A Bill Weld type? Maybe someone like Justin Amash, a current Republican who's clearly not feeling comfortable in the party? Maybe some outside billionaire like Patrick Byrne from Overstock, or Mark Cuban, or someone like that? What's your typology of the person that you think would do well or best represent the party going forward?
Phinney: I really would like to get out of the cult of celebrity idea, the whole cult of personality thing, and I think that even the L.P. is succumbing to that with the whole Bill Weld thing. He has endorsed my campaign officially, and that's fine, I'm very grateful for that. But at the same time, I don't want another person that's going to divide the party when we should be uniting and trying to change our focus from internal conflicts to changing the way people vote, and getting our candidates elected. I think if people can see me and Caleb get elected again, Sen. [Laura] Ebke in Nebraska—if we can show that our candidates can get elected, I think people would be more open minded toward our party.
But at the same time, the field of [presidential] candidates I'm not confident in at the moment. They have to raise a crapload of money to be able to get the media time to make the kind of initial pushes in all of the states that we know we can get a lot of votes in. Bill Weld is kind of the person on top of that, but I'm not ready to give him my vote at the moment. I'm not against Bill; I think he's a great person, I've met him, I've talked to him a bunch of times. But I'm not confident that he'll get the nomination from our party that easily. There's a lot of conflicts with the things that he said in 2016 that I think people are just not OK with.
So I'm not sure yet, but I really am not concerned about that at the moment—I'm concerned about the campaign I'm currently on, if I can be selfish for a second, because I think it's important that we get a win somewhere. Just give me a win that's more than just a little water board thing or even city council. Give me something more, where people can say, "Hey, our candidates can get elected! I want to vote for that guy, and I'm more open to his party." I'm tired of hearing that we're just the Republicans who like weed and guns. I want to be more than that. And if somebody can effectively promote an idea that is not cliché and is not stereotypical and is more than just about marijuana, then I think that we can make some headway.
Welch: You're an Army vet. Famously in 2016, the moment that people always talk about, probably more than is warranted, is when presidential nominee for the Libertarian Party Gary Johnson said, "And what is Aleppo?" on MSNBC. There is a caricature of Libertarians as being out of touch with foreign policy and military culture and life. It is a caricature. There are a lot of Libertarians who came to it by serving overseas. Can you speak briefly to that and your own journey and exposure to libertarian ideas as a veteran?
Phinney: Well, I've been in the Army since 2009. I'm actually still currently serving—I've got three years left in the National Guard. So I've been in for a big chunk of my adult life, and been able to see a lot of that foreign policy up close and personal. Thankfully, I've never been to combat, and I don't think it's a badge of honor to say that you have. There was a time where I wanted to get that experience so I could understand where people are coming from a lot better, and to just feel like my service had purpose, but since my philosophies have changed, I'm super in favor of non-intervention as foreign policy. I want to close down all of our foreign occupying bases around the world, especially in places like Germany. I'm not afraid of a Soviet invasion as much as other people are. Get us out of Japan. Get us out of places where we're kind of just hanging out for the what-ifs.
I think that if we're going to believe in a country's sovereignty, including our own, then we let them deal with their own affairs….They need to kind of figure things out for themselves. And that's not to say that we want to be isolationists in any way, but I think that the way that we're taking care of them by giving them money gives us the green light to say, well, we can come to your country and do whatever we want.
I don't want be that guy in the world. I don't want to be the world police. I want people to be able to take care of their own affairs and not put our people in the line of fire when it doesn't have anything to do with us. I know that's not really a popular opinion, but people are dying every day, including our own. For what? There's no purpose for us to be in Afghanistan anymore.
But it's been cool being able to talk to people in the unit that I'm in. I'm in an engineer company, so I'm a construction engineer, I'm an electrician. And we get to talk about some of the things that I've been doing in office, and I've been able to provide some of my ideas on what our role as a military is, and it's been pretty cool to be able to influence a lot of them and get them to agree with my stance. But we have to follow regulations, and we could be called up at any time to go anywhere, so it's that kind of conflict that I have internally whenever I go to drill.
I've served my time, and I'm proud of what I've accomplished. I've done a lot of humanitarian projects in El Salvador, I've been to some cool places. But I'm ready to move on in my life, and I would encourage anybody that wants to serve their country to do it in another way. I think, right now, being in the military isn't…I won't say it's a bad thing, but there's got to be a better way to serve people than being a part of the government.
Welch: Representative of the government warns about being a pawn of the government….
Phinney: I know, it's kind of hypocritical and I understand that. But I was in this long prior to me being interested in politics and being a candidate for office, and my eyes have been opened a lot to a lot of things. It's contradictory to continue to wear the uniform when I don't support anything that our government does overseas in other countries, and I don't want be a part of it anymore. But I need to fulfill my obligations and get out the right way.