Republican gubernatorial candidate and retired Army Colonel Sergio de la Peña seeks to bring his personal and professional experience to the executive branch of Virginia. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and worked various agricultural and trade jobs prior to a 30-year military career that led him to work in the Pentagon during the Trump administration. De  la Peña says he has the varied experience needed to be Virginia’s next governor. 

Dissatisfied with the more liberal direction Virginia’s executive and legislative branches of government have taken in recent years, de la Peña decided to jump into the race. 

One of several GOP candidates with no elected experience who cite that as an asset to their campaign, de la Peña also aims to implement term limits on elected seats to “get rid of career politicians in both parties.”

“The way that our system was designed was to be governed for the people and by the people,” de la Peña said. “We have people that stay in politics forever. You have to ask yourself where they get all their wealth?”

As such, he says state legislators’ term limits should not be allowed to extend beyond  10 or 12 years. 

Originally from Mexico, his family immigrated to Roswell, New Mexico when he was five. His home outside Chihuahua, Mexico had dirt floors and no running water, he says. His father utilized the Bracero program, a guest worker program between the U.S. and Mexico that lasted from 1942 until 1964, to work in New Mexico while gaining his citizenship. 

De la Peña’s own lived experience as an immigrant influences his support of programs that can help legal immigrants establish themselves in the workforce and start their lives as U.S. citizens. He also supports state and federal policies that would reduce illegal immigration. 

“As governor, you have to engage with the federal government and come up with mechanisms to put law and order back where it needs to be when it comes to compliance,” de la Peña said. 

De la Pena would also like to walk back some of the changes to election laws that have happened over the past year, including loosened restrictions to request absentee ballots, ballot drop boxes and extended early voting, a concern echoed by some members of the Republican party and fellow GOP gubernatorial candidates. 

“We’ve gone from a voting day to a voting season. We used the pretext of COVID to do that,” he said. “I would start looking at how to get back to normalcy in the voting process.”

On the COVID-19 pandemic, he says that businesses and schools should be fully reopened.

“We obviously have some more vulnerable populations, but we can trust the science and take precautions,” de la Peña said. “If you look at states that have opened up already, their infection rates….at some point you’ve got to live with something like this.”

As a conservative Republican, he plans to reduce government spending where possible and vows to oppose any tax-raising legislation that should make its way from the General Assembly and onto his desk as governor.

“There’s plenty of bureaucracy to be trimmed back a bit,” he said. “In the Army you do a mission analysis, and there’s always room for reducing bureaucracy. We were always looking at how we could reduce manpower and expand efficiency.”

With his candidacy, de la Peña hopes to appeal to a larger voter base and help his political party regrow its representation in the state, which has not held the governor’s office in almost a decade.  

“We keep putting forth the same type of Republican candidates and we keep losing,” he said.  “We’ve got to stop that. We have to expand our voting base, and it’s been changing due to changing demographics.”

He noted growing Latino communities in Virginia and how he can relate to some of those communities through understanding the perspective of being an immigrant, being a native Spanish speaker, and having organized to help bolster Latino turnout in Virginia during Trump’s elections. 

In his youth, de la Peña worked various agricultural and trade skill jobs: picking cotton, harvesting wheat, hauling lumber, and welding. He says his parents instilled in him both a focus on work and education, and de la Peña went on to become a Reserve Officer Training Corps graduate from University of Iowa, later serving in the U.S. Army with duty assignments in several states and countries. After that, he became the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemispheres, where he focused on security, defense, and policy issues as well as oversight of funding for defense programs from within the Pentagon. 

De la Peña says his experiences in various sectors and leadership roles in the military make him qualified to lead the state. He feels he will  connect with a broader range of constituents than his fellow gubernatorial candidates can. 

“Do they have a candidate that can reach out to immigrant communities and relate to them on a one to one level like someone who’s been through that assimilation experience? I would say no. Do they have someone who can relate to the military? No. How about someone who has actually done hard labor? No,” de la Peña said. “It’s that kind of connection I believe is essential to represent the people of this Commonwealth. This is why I differentiate myself.”

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I was Charlottesville Tomorrow’s government reporter from 2019 to 2022. Thanks for letting me be your resident nerd on how local and state governments serve us. Keep up with me @charlottewords on Twitter. If you haven’t yet, consider subscribing to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s FREE newsletter to get updates from the newsroom on the things you want to know.