The X factor in Virginia's gubernatorial race this year is a short, slightly rumpled state senator whose reputed thin skin, volcanic temper and quirky delivery call to mind Ross Perot on his less polished days. Sen. Russ Potts of Winchester -- a renegade Republican dubbed "Crackpottsy" by some of his belittlers -- has enraged his party's leadership by mounting a campaign as a moderate "independent Republican."
There are competing takes on how much support Potts can attract, and whether he might siphon off more votes from the likely Republican candidate, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, or the Democrat, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. Potts has virtually no chance of winning, but he could well be a spoiler. Hence the GOP leadership's fury (and some Democratic anxiety, too) about his decision to run.
What's seldom discussed is that his quixotic, shoestring campaign is also striking a clear, common-sense chord in a race that badly needs it. Whatever you think of the messenger, right now his message is the clearest-headed in the field.
I knew the rap on Potts before I interviewed him the other day; to hear some Republicans tell it, he's barely fit for polite company. I found him plain-spoken, gracious and strikingly modest as politicians go. What was most refreshing was his grip on reality.
Take the reality of Virginia's transportation mess, and how to find money to fix it. Kilgore -- when he isn't talking airily about spending more of the state's budget on roads while cutting, um, nothing -- would let regions of the state vote on the option to tax themselves, a device that lets him off the hook of formulating his own plan. Kaine's proposal, to the extent you can call it that, appears to do next to nothing to raise new revenue. Think where that would leave traffic-choked Northern Virginia, whose unfunded transportation needs are estimated at almost $1 billion annually for the next 20 years.
Potts, by contrast, talks sense. He notes that the $848 million earmarked by the General Assembly this year for transportation barely covers the cost of the Mixing Bowl project at the Springfield interchange. He would convene state lawmakers for a special session on transportation, as Gov. Gerald Baliles did a generation ago. And he'd press them until they devised a long-term financing package to address a problem that cannot be wished away by tricks. "I'm gonna keep those guys there till the cows come home," Potts told me.
Nor is he shy about the need to invest in public schools, higher education, mental health and public safety, despite the prevailing Republican antipathy to taxes in low-tax Virginia. Unlike Kaine and Kilgore, who would drain the state's coffers by repealing the car tax, Potts understands that keeping Virginia vibrant means robust funding for public services.
"I see the Republican Party of my great-great grandfather, my grandfather and my father just torn apart by my-way-or-the-highway [thinking] and no public investment, torn apart by Grover Norquist and this anti-everything, anti-investment policy, and by these social conservatives obsessed with the abortion issue and mixing religion and politics," he said.
At 66, Potts, who owns a sports promotion business, is an endangered species in state and national politics: a moderate Republican inspired in his youth by Barry Goldwater; pro-death penalty but pro-choice; tough on crime and appalled at Washington's mounting deficits.
A former college athletic director, he was elected to the state Senate in 1991 along with a class of mostly moderate Republicans whose influence is now rivaled and often eclipsed by that of much more conservative Republicans in the state House of Delegates. Along with other Senate Republicans, Potts bucked the party leadership last year and backed Gov. Mark R. Warner's tax increase to fund public education and other needs. Their votes encouraged just enough Republican defectors in the House to clinch the passage of Warner's package.
Republicans had hoped to paper over that split this election year. Instead, Potts's candidacy lays it bare, thereby imperiling the GOP's chances statewide. Even if he draws just 5 to 10 percent of the GOP vote -- including longtime supporters in his district near Virginia's northern crown, plus a smattering of moderate, pro-choice women and disaffected Republicans elsewhere -- that might be enough to cripple Kilgore's chances.
In a thoroughly Soviet reaction to Potts's candidacy, the state's Republican Central Committee accused him of "betrayal," tried fruitlessly to strip him of his committee assignments in the legislature and insisted that he resign his seat. (Never mind the voters of the 27th District, who have elected him four times.)
Potts accorded the party big shots the attention they deserved, kept his Senate seat and committee assignments, and set about organizing his campaign for governor. He has assembled a small staff that knows a thing or two about how political mavericks win gubernatorial campaigns. They include a media chief who handled advertising for Jesse Ventura, winner of a third-party race for governor in Minnesota in 1998, and a campaign manager who ran former U.S. senator Lowell Weicker's successful 1990 race for governor in Connecticut after Weicker quit the Republican Party and became an independent.
Now some Democrats are worried that if Potts's message catches on, it might hurt Kaine even more than Kilgore.
To date Potts has raised about $500,000, including a $10,000 donation from Til Hazel, Northern Virginia's most renowned developer. But even if Potts can reach his goal of $3 million to $4 million, that's a pittance compared with what Kilgore and Kaine have already mustered; it's certainly not enough to buy television ads in major media markets such as Northern Virginia.
For Potts, this race is a last hurrah. In any scenario his political career is probably on its last legs, because shifting demographics and creeping conservatism are steadily prying his Senate seat from his grasp. Let's just hope his ideas outlast his candidacy.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.