Politics

In an unconventional US House run, Liam Madden takes on a popular Democrat and a ‘broken system’

Madden is an adamant critic of the two-party system, but is a major-party nominee in Vermont’s open congressional race. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In a rare open race for Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. House, Republican nominee Liam Madden is an unlikely contender.

Madden is full of contradictions. He served in the Iraq War as a member of the Marine Corps, then organized the nation’s largest anti-war coalition of Iraq veterans. He currently works as the solar director for HB Energy Solutions but doesn’t think solar should be the “backbone” of energy reform. He is an adamant critic of the two-party system, but is a major-party nominee in Vermont’s congressional race. He is running as a Republican but insists he’s not a conservative. He says that America’s political system is broken but is campaigning to serve at its epicenter, Capitol Hill.

One afternoon in late September, the 38-year-old Bellows Falls resident climbed down from the roof of a client’s house in Weathersfield to discuss his congressional run. As he walked the nearby meadows, fiddling with a screwdriver as he talked, Madden’s Australian shepherd Huckleberry tested how far he could wander before his companion called him back. When Madden passed a shrub on the perimeter of the meadow, he plucked some autumn olives off its branches. He tried some first before offering them to a reporter, explaining, “If they’re not ripe, they’re kind of gross.”

In the grand sense, Madden said, he decided to run for Congress because he’s concerned about the planet, the future his two children will inherit, America’s increasingly polarized political systems and economic inequality. After the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, he said, the government and societal response prompted him to run.

“It was maybe a straw that broke the camel's back after years and years and years of seeing the reflex to just have socialism for the rich, and ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ for everybody else, and war after war,” Madden said.

Steve Mortillo of Tunbridge met Madden around 2006 or 2007. Mortillo, an Army cavalry scout, had recently returned from his own service in Iraq and bonded with Madden over their opposition to the war’s mission.

“As you might imagine, it can be really difficult to go against the grain, and this was back in the early stages of the Iraq War when it wasn't necessarily a popular opinion to come out against it,” Mortillo told VTDigger. “And Liam emerged as a leader in that movement because he's just got this remarkable moral courage, and he is able to let people know that it's OK to disagree with something that's an unpopular opinion.”

Mortillo continued, “I think that that helped a lot of veterans really come to terms with what they witnessed with the realities on the ground in Iraq, and, you know, when they tried to pair that with what the narrative was back in the United States.”

On his campaign website, Madden describes the “hatred, fear, and humiliation in the eyes of most of the Iraqis I saw” while deployed. He wrote that he witnessed “an 18 year old kid in my unit… all machismo and Napoleon complex” shoot his machine gun at a car full of innocent civilians. Another time, he writes, he was “dazzled” by a Marine Corps Reserves captain’s classical guitar playing at a Christmas talent show. The next day, the captain’s arm was blown off, according to Madden.

Madden wrote that, in 2006, he “returned from Iraq angry and ashamed I had been part of such senseless violence and coercion.” Sixteen years later, he told VTDigger that he remembers returning to the States and seeing yellow “Support the Troops” bumper stickers on what felt like every car.

“What went along with that, or how it was used as a propaganda meme, as a cudgel, was, ‘Support the war or you don't support the troops. If you don't support the troops, you're a traitor,’” Madden said.

After returning from his deployment, Madden, along with Navy sailor and organizer Jonathan Hutto, launched a campaign for veterans to write letters to their members of Congress. Madden would be involved for years in the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Mortillo quipped that it’s surprising to see a friend running for Congress, but said, “Of all my friends, it made the most sense to be him.”

“I think that's kind of core to part of his identity, is that he's someone who works … to make things right,” Mortillo said. “So in that way, it didn't surprise me. I think if anyone would have the kind of resolve to put yourself out there and weather the type of criticism and mudslinging that can happen in a political campaign, I think it makes total sense for that to be him.”

Madden lets his dog Huckleberry out of a van at a job site in Andover on Thursday, September 29, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘The label means nothing to me’

Madden’s rise to major party nominee for Vermont’s lone U.S. House seat is ironic: The crux of his philosophy, which he has repeated ad nauseum since entering the race in April, is his opposition to the two-party system in American politics. Madden maintains that he is an independent.

On his campaign website is a square graphic, half red and half blue. Madden is in the middle.

“Both sides are right. Both sides are wrong. Both sides are broken,” the text reads. “Vote for honesty. Vote for courage. Vote for solutions. Let’s free ourselves from the 2 party system.”

So why is he running as a Republican?

When Madden registered for the Republican primary contest for U.S. House this spring, he said he’d done so in order to build name recognition and garner media attention in the primary phase of the campaign, during which independents are sometimes ignored.

He pledged throughout the primary campaign that, should he win the Republican nomination, he would reject it and appear on the ballot as an independent. But after defeating conservative competitors Ericka Redic and Anya Tynio in the Aug. 9 primary, he told VTDigger at the time, he realized he had failed to register as an independent candidate with the Secretary of State’s Office ahead of an Aug. 4 deadline.

Madden called it a mistake and said his newfound Republican nomination was “really a foregone conclusion.”

“I would happily take the Republican label and keep it a two-person race because the label means nothing to me,” he said in August. “The actual chance of winning means a lot more.”

Madden’s victory in the GOP primary sent the state party into a tailspin. Vermont Republican Party chair Paul Dame publicly mused about whether the win could serve as a lesson to the party establishment.

“People came out and voted for (former President Donald) Trump that had been ignored by the party establishment,” Dame wrote in a statement after the primary. “One of the things I’m trying to evaluate is whether Liam is tapping into a voter base that had been ignored by everyone previously and may be harder to categorize as being right or left — depending on the issue.” 

At an August meeting of the GOP state committee held after the primary, the party decided it would not support Madden in the general election — a decision members attributed to Madden’s refusal to commit to caucusing with congressional Republicans, should he win in November. Madden said he was unsurprised by the party’s decision and only requested its “polite neutrality” as he proceeds to November. 

“I went in eyes wide open that they are part of the two-party system that I am deeply critiquing, so it's not a shock to me how this turned out,” Madden said at the time.

Now, with an R next to his name on the ballot but no institutional support from the party, Madden finds himself in a unique position. In August, he said he chose to remain the Republican nominee for the “actual chance of winning.” But now, as he campaigns for the general election, the label is a black mark for some of the voters to whom he is trying to appeal.

“It's like I'm in proximity to the word ‘Republican’ and I'm written off,” he told VTDigger in September.

[Learn more about who's on the ballot and how to vote in VTDigger's 2022 Election Guide.]

Not in it for the long-haul

Madden’s refusal to caucus with Republicans could mean sacrificing more than support from the state GOP. Redic, who will appear on November’s ballot as a Libertarian candidate, asserted at VTDigger’s Sept. 15 U.S. House debate that his refusal to caucus with any party could cost him committee assignments. 

Madden said in response that he would caucus “with either both parties cyclically, or neither party.” And he disagreed with Redic’s characterization that he would provide “no value” to Vermonters in Congress by refusing to caucus.

“I think that there could actually be a tremendous amount of leverage when both sides actually see you as someone that could be a useful vote,” he said, calling it “a misrepresentation of the facts to say that someone who is truly an independent would not be an asset to Vermont. I think it's quite the opposite.”

Redic doubled down, asking if Madden believed party leadership in D.C. “will want someone who is going to just flip-flop back and forth and not be committed to them or to a cause.” And if he wasn’t granted a committee assignment, how would he build tenure and work meaningfully on policy?

“I don't really care what the leadership of the Republican and Democratic Party want,” Madden retorted. And the tenure question was moot: “I believe in term limits, so I'm not trying to build tenure for the long haul like Patrick Leahy or Peter Welch.” (Leahy, a Democratic U.S. senator, is retiring after nearly half a century in office. And Welch, also a Democrat, is leaving the U.S. House after 16 years to run for Leahy’s seat. Madden is seeking to succeed Welch.)

Asked later by VTDigger what term limit he would support for House members, Madden said six to 10 years, and eight would be “the sweet spot.” But any limit is better than none, he reasoned. There are currently no term limits for members of Congress.

The perennial argument against such limits is that, with time, members of Congress accrue institutional knowledge, policy expertise and long-term relationships with their colleagues. Madden conceded that, yes, that would be a trade-off.

“But you would get way more benefit in that trade-off from ... the increased flow of ideas to people and the liberation from entrenched money control,” he said. “I'm not going to say that's not true, that there is a lack of continuity of that institutional knowledge, but it's worth it to me if you get less of an iron grip of oligarchy.”

Madden’s chief rival for Vermont’s House seat, Democratic nominee Becca Balint, is also a first-time congressional candidate. But Madden has nonetheless painted Balint, who currently serves as president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate, as the political establishment’s pick and himself as the outsider who wants to shake up the system.

“The reason I think I offer a more needed perspective and skill set is that, I think Becca Balint puts a really kind face on a really broken system,” Madden said. “She's clearly the more experienced in legislative work, but to me it's the experience of a doctor prescribing Band-Aids. That's not the experience we need. Maybe we need a whole new way of looking at the problem … more than we just need someone who can go there and make sausage in the sausage factory.”

Madden works as the solar director for HB Energy Solutions. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Somewhere in the middle

As for where Madden stands on pressing policy issues, he claims to occupy a lane somewhere in between Democrats and Republicans. In recent debates and campaign emails, much attention has been paid to his views on abortion.

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, ending federal abortion protections, Madden decried the high court’s ruling but said he would support “compromise” federal abortion regulation based on fetal viability.

Balint seized on Madden’s openness to some level of federal abortion regulation. In a Sept. 12 email blast, her campaign accused Madden of holding beliefs that are “wildly out of step with the views of the average Vermonter, who believes that abortion access is an essential right that needs to be protected.”

At a debate alongside Balint days later, Madden said abortions performed before a fetus is indepedently viable — or can survive outside the womb — “should be protected choices.” But he said he believes government regulation is appropriate in the remaining “extremely rare instance of elective abortion in the last term.” (Medical professionals say such procedures are not performed.)

On the debate stage, Madden shot back at Balint over her campaign’s messaging.

“I'm realizing that I don't think you actually see that there's nuance here, Becca,” Madden said. “And I'm so happy to be a voice for the middle 80% of Vermonters who want a voice in this discussion.”

Madden told VTDigger last month that he is open to changing his mind as he learns more information. It’s rare that his views flip from one extreme to another, he said. Instead, he tends to land in the middle.

Take, for example, climate change. Madden said that he has read studies and literature over the years that have led him to “be very scared” about the Earth’s warming. (Indeed, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues to warn that the impacts of a rapidly warming global climate will be disastrous, deadly and irreversible.)

But as he approaches the topic “over and over with fresh eyes,” he said, “I honestly have to say I'm more uncertain.”

“Do I really understand this well enough to justify the kind of broad, sweeping reforms that politicians either argue for or argue against?” he asked. “I land more in the uncertainty.”

To counter that uncertainty, Madden proposed the government pour funding into “Manhattan Project-style” research and development of on-the-brink environmental technology. A smaller allocation of government funds could go toward existing energy technologies, such as nuclear, wind and solar, he said.

There is another arena in which Madden said he is unsure: conspiracy theories.

In an interview with VTDigger, he gave oxygen to the unsubstantiated theory that the Covid-19 pandemic originated in a laboratory facility in Wuhan, China. And his campaign site includes a page titled “Have a Laugh,” with headlines ranging from the downright silly (“A pony in every driveway”) to the gravely serious and conspiratorial (“JFK, MLK, 9/11 and Epstein”).

Under the latter, he wrote that there is a benefit to “being open to explore conspiracy research,” adding, “I've researched more than a few conspiracies.” He goes on to say that he finds the mechanics of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination “completely implausible” and thinks that aspects of the 9/11 terrorist attack are “very difficult to explain.”

Asked in a follow-up phone interview about the webpage, Madden told VTDigger that it’s a “place to discuss things that are clearly taboo, clearly third-rail subjects.” He said the media and politicians on both sides avoid “valid questions on issues where it's uncomfortable for them.”

He pointed to Kennedy’s assassination and asked, “Do you believe your own eyes or do you believe the government?”

“That's all the conclusion I feel comfortable getting to, is that there's no way that they're being forthcoming with all of the information,” he said.

Asked who “they” is, Madden said the government and “the media that doesn't hold their feet to the fire, asking these basic questions.”

Asked if he believes the 9/11 terrorist attack was an inside job by the U.S. government, Madden said, “I actually do not come to a conclusion about that because it's impossible to.” But, he added, “there are questions to be asked.”

Madden does concede that some conspiracy theories are “batshit crazy” and are easily proven wrong, like flat-Earth beliefs, QAnon or the notion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. But, when probed by a reporter, he called it “laziness” to lump all conspiracy theories together.

“You know what else is a conspiracy theory? That the United States, senior White House officials, intelligence officials, sold weapons to Iran, used that money to buy drugs, used that drug money to fund right-wing death squads in Central America and import their drugs into the inner cities of the United States,” Madden said, referring to the Iran-Contra Affair. “That is a fucking crazy conspiracy theory, and it's true.”

What’s next?

Madden knows he could use another outlet to get his message out. He said he’s been asked, “Why not just start a podcast?”

“I believe if you do that, you end up just talking to the people who are already interested. There's a choir and you preach to them,” he said. “People look to politics to be where ideas that address the challenges we all face are. So I don't want to just go and start a podcast that's listened to by the people who already care about some niche subject. I want to merge those worlds.”

If he does not prevail in November, Madden said he plans to take time to “recalibrate, reorient, reground and see what's next. But I'm not, as of right now, thinking that I'm just going to keep whacking away at politics until I win.”

Asked if he thinks local office is in his future, he said no. His sights are set only on Congress because “the kind of government and political innovations and reforms that I'm interested in… are only relevant in the context of national politics.”

“If you're selling bicycles, you need to go and talk to every individual. If you're selling buses, you need to talk to cities. If you're selling NASA rockets, you really have only one customer,” Madden said. “I only have one customer.”

Liam Madden in September 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: smearhoff@vtdigger.org

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