When Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. announced last month that he would run for governor of Virginia as an "independent Republican," challenging the party's nominee for the job, he said he remained as much a part of the Republican family as his father before him.
This week, a Republican committee chaired decades ago by Potts's father formally disowned him.
Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. says he is running for governor as an "independent Republican."
(Scott Neville -- AP)
The Election: The Republican Party, which has dominated Virginia's statewide elections in recent years, is trying to retake the governorship Nov. 8 after losing it to Democrat Mark R. Warner in 2001.
The Major Parties: The Republicans are likely to nominate former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore in the June 14 primary, though he faces a long-shot challenge from Warrenton Mayor George B. Fitch. The Democrats are likely to pick Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
The Potts Factor: Stepping in to complicate matters is Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. of Winchester, who announced his "independent Republican" candidacy Feb. 25. Potts is a centrist who decries what he sees as the rightward drift of the GOP. He could draw votes from Kilgore or Kaine.
Payback: He outraged GOP leaders, many of whom are trying to oust him from the party and from his Senate committee assignments.
What Potts Says: "They don't have the power to tell me whether I'm a Republican or not. Only God and myself have the power to do that."
In a unanimous vote Monday evening, the Winchester City Republican Committee declared that it no longer recognizes Potts as a member and called on him to resign his Senate seat.
Across the state, the Republican Party apparatus is working to formally rebuke the four-term senator for declaring he will bypass the party's June 14 primary and try to get his name on the Nov. 8 general election ballot as an independent. He would probably face Jerry W. Kilgore, the former state attorney general and leading Republican in the race, and Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the probable Democratic nominee.
"You can't have it both ways. You can't be an 'independent Republican.' And he has to take responsibility for that," said Kate Obenshain Griffin, chairman of the state party and a member of the Winchester committee.
Potts dismissed the committee's actions and said he would not resign from the party or the Senate.
"They don't have the power to tell me whether I'm a Republican or not. Only God and myself have the power to do that," he said. "It's the party of my forefathers . . . . I will not yield to this radical, extreme, out-of-touch element in the Republican Party."
Resolutions by Republican committees statewide lay the groundwork for the General Assembly's one-day session next month, when legislators will gather to consider legislation vetoed or amended by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).
Party leaders would like to see Senate Republicans use the occasion to remove Potts from his party's caucus and strip him of his committee assignments, including the chairmanship of the Senate's Education and Health Committee. From that perch, he has led a majority of the 15-member committee in blocking some conservative social legislation from reaching the Senate floor.
Meeting in City Hall, not far from Potts's downtown home, all 33 members of the Winchester committee who were present adopted a resolution on the "abandonment of the Republican Party by Senator Potts." Noting that committee bylaws require members to support the party's nominees for office, they expressed "disappointment" in Potts and said he has "shown continuous hostility toward the core principals" of the party.
"People worked very hard to elect him as a Republican," said Gary Chrisman, chairman of the committee. "To do this, everybody here is very saddened."
Potts believes the party has veered too far to the right and promised a populist appeal that draws votes from both Kaine and Kilgore. He has said he will lay out a plan to fix the state's transportation network and would consider tax increases to pay for it. He also favors allowing local governments to reinstate the full car tax.
Potts's senatorial district also includes Clarke and Frederick counties, as well as parts of Fauquier and Loudoun counties. Fauquier's Republican committee adopted a similar resolution at its meeting last weekend, and Loudoun members will consider action this month.
Potts's "Senate district is probably one of the most Republican districts in the state, " said Loudoun committee Chairman J. Randall Minchew. "People voted for Russ Potts not because he's Russ Potts, but because he had that 'R' after his name."
Under Senate rules, a lawmaker forfeits the right to a committee chairmanship should he "cease to be a member of the political party of which he was a member at the time of his election." The assembly's April 6 meeting could feature a parliamentary tussle over whether forfeiture should take place automatically or require a two-thirds majority vote. Senators may debate, too, whether Potts's action means he is no longer a party member.
Griffin said the resolutions from committees across the state should leave no doubt. "We're saying unequivocally that he is no longer a Republican," she said.
Meanwhile, Potts said he is working to gather the 10,000 signatures he needs to get on the ballot and appealing to longtime supporters, such as Winchester City Council President Charles T. Gaynor. Gaynor, a member of the Republican committee, said he could not attend Monday's meeting but would have voted against the resolution.
"I'm a moderate Republican, and there are a lot of us around here," Gaynor said. "Russ has abandoned the Republican Party, but I'm not so sure the Republican Party has not abandoned a lot of us."
Kilgore will face Warrenton Mayor George B. Fitch June 14.