You have to trust a sheriff’s candidate who rides a horse, wields a sledgehammer, and shoots a .45 at metaphorical lobbyists in his ads. And if he does all these things while wearing a Stetson hat and rapping, well then … you have to meet him.
The campaign headquarters is located off of Route 50 West, past the strip malls and cash4gold joints at Fairfax Circle. The 1,000 square foot structure, a gas station in a past life, stands in the orange glow of a Patriot Harley Davidson dealership. When I arrive on Saturday night, the campaign’s entire staff is crunching numbers. Which is to say Chris DeCarlo is alone at the headquarters of Fairfax Propane.
The independent candidate for Fairfax County Sheriff doesn’t have time to knock on doors or coordinate a phone bank. You don’t survive 30 years as a small businessman by running off on pet projects. And even if he had the time, he doesn’t have the money for a traditional campaign apparatus. His war chest consists of a single $175 donation from one Christopher F. DeCarlo.
The only evidence that DeCarlo is running for Fairfax County Sheriff is a viral music video that he shot in less than two days.
"We need a jolt to the system/Like a Sheriff that raps," he says over an upbeat hip-hop tune. Gangster rap this is not, though he does battle against two bandits—one dressed in red, the other in blue—in a shootout at the video’s climax.
DeCarlo’s insurgent campaign isn’t driven by Fairfax’s insurgent drug or gang-related violence. He’s taking aim at political corruption, which he says begins with the party system and political donations.
"Being a candidate lets you see how the machine—Democrat and Republican—works. It’s all about the money," he says.
That’s the theme of his latest ad, "Democracy Rides Again." It went live on October 3 and has garnered more than 100,000 views on YouTube. The poll numbers are promising with 154 positive votes out of 166 cast—a 93 percent approval rating—as of Monday. Not bad for a man who started rapping two years ago and relied on thrift shops and an old Jimmy Stewart ad for wardrobe.
He has the respect of other viral political filmmakers. Ladd Ehlinger Jr., whose ads have garnered more than 5 million YouTube hits, lauded the genius of parlaying old school hip-hop into political messaging.
"DeCarlo’s ad has an originality and uniqueness that sets it apart. I’d describe it as charming, a latter-day Jimmie Davis ‘You Are My Sunshine,’" he says, referring to the gospel singer-turned-Louisiana governor. "Song is perfect—wouldn’t change it a bit."
And why would you? It contains gems like "Honest everyday worker/Instead of being controlled/not like the bankers and the brokers/who are born without a soul" and "Taking our hope and stealing our trust/Put a star on my chest and I’ll shackle these mutts."
Ehlinger’s sole critique of DeCarlo focuses on wardrobe. At one point the prospective sheriff draws and fires a .45 into a can from several meters out—done in one take, according to the video’s filmographer. The words "one less lobbyist" flash across the screen. But DeCarlo’s brown vest, costume cowboy badge and Dockers don’t jibe with the video’s masculine overtones, according to Ehlinger, who introduced the world to Dale Peterson, everyone’s favorite shotgun-wielding candidate for Alabama agricultural commissioner.
"You want a tough son of a bitch protecting you from hyper-government, not a singing rodeo clown," Ehlinger says.
DeCarlo is an unassuming man off-camera. He wears conservative button-downs, faded jeans, and plain beige boots. His beaver Stetson hat covers itinerant wisps of white hair, which stand in stark contrast to blue eyes.
His shop is littered with spare grill parts, overflowing manila folders, three-ring binders—some empty, some full—and phonebooks from 2008. There’s a set of football pads on one shelf, despite the fact that he won’t let his gigantic 13-year-old son play football. The room is overflowing with paper, but it’d be a mistake to call DeCarlo disorganized. Throughout hours of conversation he’ll run on with philosophical tangents and pull source material from the shelves without delay.
There’s the 2011 Board of Supervisors candidate petition next to the Accounts Receivable dropbox, which he withdraws to demonstrate how an independent candidate could muster the 125 signatories necessary to get on the ballot: "lots of farmer’s markets."
There’s the Webster’s 7th New Collegiate Dictionary buried next to propane safety pamphlets. He pulls it out to show me the difference between an everyday politician—"One who engages in party politics"—and a statesman—"one who exercises political leadership wisely and without narrow partisanship in the general interest."
"I went to George C. Marshall High School—he was a true statesman. Like me, he wasn’t out strictly for a party, but for the general interest," he says.
DeCarlo has always been effective at gauging the general interest. He founded DeCarlo Enterprises in 1979 while studying accounting at George Mason University. While classmates were figuring out how to lease off-campus housing, he scooped up the lease on an old gas station at Fairfax Boulevard. He began purchasing old cars for $1,000, rented them out for $10 a day, and started dealing propane because he got tired of giving people directions to the propane shop up the street. He dropped out of school to focus on the business.
"I learned to listen to people, what they want, what they need, what their problems were, so I could find the solution," he says.
Fairfax Propane needs only three computers to manage the 1,000-plus households that rely on DeCarlo for heat. He never would have run for office if the city of Vienna didn’t block him from buying a piece of property for his business. He took Vienna to court and won.
"They said no because they had the power to say no," he says. "I read textbooks on rap that said you had to rap about your experience to get the passion you need. I didn’t sell drugs, so I wasn’t qualified to rap about that—but political corruption, that I experienced, that I could be passionate about."
You would think a man running to become Fairfax’s 77th sheriff with no law enforcement experience would avoid questions of qualification. Republican candidate Bryan Wolfe and Democrat Stacey Kincaid have four decades of combined police experience between them. But sheriff is a unique position, DeCarlo says, grabbing a flow chart—his only campaign literature—from the anarchy that is his desk.
The sheriff, as the chart points out, is "our only elected law enforcement official, takes oath to protect Constitution." Arrows connect this to the proposition that "people [are the] source of power."
His opponents are focused on running the county jail and guarding the courthouse, the issues that have informed every sheriff’s race since the department opened in 1742. DeCarlo will leave that to his staff. He plans on "elevating the office to focus on protecting the Constitution against corruption and bribery."
He retrieves his dog-eared copy of The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope from a stack of miscellany. Sheriff Richard Mack’s 49-page manifesto details the peril of modern politics. Mack took the Clinton administration to the Supreme Court over gun control and won.
The case showed that the sheriff could shield the Constitution from crooked politicians, DeCarlo says.
"The sheriff is supposed to protect the Constitution/so why is he the problem/and not the solution," he raps. "We figured this out/I know where they’re hiding/I’ll deputize the truth/And we’ll all start riding."
The novel legal theory appealed to viral marketer Ehlinger.
"If I lived in his district, I’d certainly consider voting for him, simply for having the courage to float the notion in his campaign," he says. "Kudos to his team."
Team? DeCarlo couldn’t fill a NBA roster with his campaign advisers, and that’s counting his wife Kathleen and five kids, ages 7 through 15. Mike, 12, handles the choreography on the videos, but that’s the closest any of them come to politics.
The song-writing process began August 8. DeCarlo drafted a campaign announcement on his aging computer. It’s never delivered publicly, but helped focus his message and shape the lyrics.
He then brought the song to Weinberg, his children’s guitar teacher. The pair spent long hours in Weinberg’s basement studio, editing lyrics, sampling guitar riffs, and tweaking the tempo of the beat to match DeCarlo’s flow. After weeks of adjustment, DeCarlo recorded the entire track over six hours.
The pair delivered the song to Reinsel, a freelance videographer, in September. Reinsel has recorded music videos for D.C. go-go legend Chuck Brown, shot news packages for every outlet in the metro region, and delivered campaign ads to numerous NoVa politicians over his 30-year career. Chris is his favorite of them all, if only for the fun they have on set.
"I’ve shot so many ads, Republican, Democrat, Independent. They’re all the same thing: a candidate talking into a camera," he says.
Reinsel handled the lighting, sound, and video on the shoot, which kept costs down. To say the video crew is barebones is an affront to anorexics.
"Chris does something completely different with his campaigns and on an actual vote-by-vote basis, I’d say it’s more effective," Reinsel says.
DeCarlo points to the refrain from "Democracy Rides Again" as an example of effective messaging: "Yippie yi yaye/a straight shooter by your side/yippie yi yoh/he can fight crime and he can ride/yippie yi yaye/this ain’t his first rodeo."
It certainly isn’t. DeCarlo has sought some form of office every year since 2009, ranging from U.S. Congress to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
He wasn’t always so stingy about the campaign budget. He spent more than $85,000 on direct mail during his 2010 congressional campaign against Rep. Gerry Connolly (D., Va.).
"I think it went out the Thursday before the election," he recalls with a laugh. "It was too late and the message wasn’t right."
The expensive mailer helped him edge out the Libertarian and Green Party candidates, but netted him just 1,846 votes out of 226,951 ballots cast. Connolly beat Republican Keith Fimian by less than 1,000 votes.
The perennial candidate determined that massive personal spending wouldn’t make a difference and resolved to keep it simple. He budgets $5,000 to $6,000 for his campaign each year to pay Reindel and Weinberg.
"Democracy Rides Again" is the fifth music video the trio has shot since 2011 and has the highest production value by far. He has honed his rap and lip-synching skills over that time.
He shot his first video, "True Democracy," during his run for chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The video features offbeat gyrations, out-of-sync lip movements, and off-putting lyrics. He opens with "My name is Chris DeCarlo/I’m just an average fellow/candidate for chairman/vote Twenty-Eleven" and few will ever make it past "No fundraising/It’s just amazing."
DeCarlo managed to tap into something whatever the lyrical deficiencies.
"[Every] politician should make ads like this!" says Tynen-McLeod Horn in the video’s top-rated comment.
DeCarlo doesn’t disappoint.
"If I thought knocking on doors would make a difference, I’d do it," he says. "I keep it short and entertaining because no one wants to listen to anybody in politics anyway. Rap is my medium."