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Army vet business owner who stood up to Virginia COVID lockdowns running for state senate seat

Matt Strickland. (Matt Strickland/Released)
May 20, 2022

Matt Strickland, a U.S. Army combat veteran and restauranteur who challenged Virginia’s COVID-19 restrictions under for mer Gov. Ralph Northam, is now running for a seat in Virginia’s state senate.

In January, Strickland launched his campaign for Virginia’s 27th Senate district, running as a Republican. In a recent interview with American Military News, Strickland spoke about his military service, his legal battles with COVID-19 restrictions and his eventual decision to run for public office.

Strickland joined the U.S. Army when he was 17-years-old. After Army basic training and advanced infantry training, he arrived at his first duty station on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I spent the next probably ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Strickland told American Military News.

Matt Strickland, with an interpreter in Afghanistan. (Matt Strickland/Released)

Strickland went on to work as a civilian intelligence analyst for around four more years. He chose to go back to Iraq as a security contractor as the ISIS terrorist group was beginning to seize power in eastern Syria and western Iraq. When he returned to Iraq in 2014, he said there was no U.S. military presence.

“It was just the security contractors holding the fort down in Baghdad, in Iraq,” Strickland said. “I stayed there and fought against ISIS for two years.”

After returning to the U.S. for the last time, Strickland started a food truck called “Gourmeltz.” He eventually grew his business to a second and then a third truck, before he and his wife decided to open a brick and mortar location in 2018. Strickland said the business continued to run smoothly until March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world.

“I thought it was this virus that was going to kill half the world,” Strickland said.

Out of his initial concern about the virus, Strickland closed down his restaurant for about three months. But then he started to feel the COVID mitigation measures “were more about control than they were about health and safety.”

Strickland noted one rule that said he couldn’t let people sit at the bar of his restaurant, though he could pull a table up right next to the bar and serve people.

“My bartender couldn’t serve a customer across the counter at the bar,” Strickland said. “He could make a drink right in front of him though, but then they had to walk around the bar and serve it to them side by side. Just stuff like that just didn’t make any sense, so it seemed to be more about control than our health and safety.”

Strickland stopped obeying the COVID-era policies and, in turn, he saw his restaurant license suspended. Strickland continued to keep Gourmeltz open, even as the state ordered the restaurant closed for violating then-Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam’s COVID policies. The Virginia Health Department sued Strickland for staying open on the suspended license, but Strickland continued to fight the state in court.

“We took it all the way,” Strickland said. “I mean they tried to settle with me on several different occasions saying ‘hey man, instead of X amount of dollars and suspension of your license, just give us a quarter of that and we’ll make it go away.’ I declined every settlement that they sent me and we took it all the way to court and we won and we got our health department license back.”

Strickland’s battle with the state caught the attention of several activists and political organizers.

Matt Strickland speaks at a meeting of the Rappahannock Conservative Women’s Coalition. (Matt Strickland/Released)

Angela Olenick, the second vice chair for the Stafford County GOP said Strickland first caught her organization’s attention during his challenges to the Northam’s COVID measures.

“He stood for life, Liberty and the pursuit of freedom,” Olenick said. “He did not waiver, bow or conform but rather led the charge against tyranny, lies, and establishment politics. As if that were not enough he sued, won, and set a precedent for all Patriots to stand on.”

Strickland said several grassroots conservative groups began to encourage him to run for office in the state as he continued to challenge Northam’s policies.

While Strickland garnered the support of grassroots activists, he said none of his elected officials spoke out in his defense until after he had won in court.

“It was until after I won my court case that the elected officials started to come out of the woodwork and you know reach out to me, wanted to come take pictures and present me with flags and awards,” he said.

Strickland said the change in attitude from these elected representatives “disgusted me.” Strickland said that experience was a motivating factor in his decision to now run for the state’s newly formed 27th senate district. While he’s running under the Republican ticket, Strickland said that if elected, his loyalty would not be to the Republican party. “My loyalty is to America and that’s it.”

“I’m still running to make sure that we put some safeguards in place where our constitutional rights cannot be infringed upon so easily,” Strickland said.

Olenick said the Stafford County GOP continued to build ties with Strickland as he went on to challenge COVID restrictions in public schools.

“I was at these school board meetings fighting, fighting for our kids to get back in school, fighting four our kids to be able to come to school without a mask on, just fighting to get back a normal life for our children,” Strickland said. “They missed out on prom, they missed out on sports, they missed out on graduation. Stuff that kids work their whole lives for, they missed out on all of it, and for what?”

Christine Misch, an organizer for a local chapter of the non-profit group Moms For Liberty, has also worked closely with Strickland on issues involving local school boards. Moms For Liberty has advocated on behalf of parental oversight over public school policies and curriculums.

Strickland currently closes his restaurant every Monday and offered to let groups like Moms For Liberty use the space to organize and discuss issues.

Matt Strickland and members of Moms For Liberty pose for a photo at his Gourmeltz restaurant. (Matt Strickland/Released)

“It was a huge asset,” Misch said of Strickland’s decision to offer his restaurant as a meeting space. “We normally have board meetings for our group on Zoom and Meet, but when it came to like the big open meetings, we didn’t have a place. So it really was a blessing for Matt to open up and allow us the opportunity.”

Strickland said one of his main campaign issues will be in reforming public education.

“Gender and race is what they’re focusing on heavily, and the only thing they need to be focused on is teaching our kids curriculum, you know: math, reading, writing, science. That’s what they’re there for. They’re not there to raise our kids, that’s the parent’s job. And I’m going to make sure the parents have more of a say in their child’s education.”

Olenick said Strickland has her personal support “on every and all the possible levels” in his decision to move from challenging Virginia through the legal system to trying to shape the state’s policies from within as a lawmaker.

“He is authentic in every way.  He does not waver, he does not placate nor does he engage in ‘political speak,'” Olenick said. “All of this, along with his service to his country and unwavering love for his wife, children, and community sets him far apart from other candidates in my opinion.”