For Potts, Politics Hits Close to Home

"I believe you govern from your personal experience," said state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester). (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 14, 2005

Just about anyone who has attended a hearing on public education before the legislative committee chaired by Virginia Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. knows a little something about John Handley High School, the school that Potts attended as a youth.

Those who have heard the Winchester Republican's speeches over the years are familiar with his mother, who was mostly deaf and in whose name he has fought to extend health benefits for hearing aids. They know about Maggie, his beloved old golden retriever, on whose behalf he has urged legislation promoting the humane treatment of animals.

They know all about the people and problems of Potts's beloved home town of Winchester, such as the rural lifestyle of the Moose lodges for which Potts campaigned against government regulation of private bingo games in the 1990s.

During his 14 years in the state Senate, Potts has pursued an unusually personal brand of politics, fighting for issues and causes close to his family and the Shenandoah Valley town where he was raised. His experiences and theirs have formed the backbone of the fiery finger-jabbing, raised-voice oratory for which he has been known.

They have helped him gain the reputation as a fierce maverick on which he has based his independent run for governor but also opened him to accusations that his agenda has been too driven by his sensitivities. Political opponents also say he has shifted positions at times to stay in line with the constituencies he values.

"I believe you govern from your personal experience," Potts said.

He said he has fought tenaciously for "the little guy" in the Senate and promised he would do the same if he were to defeat Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic candidate for governor, and former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican hopeful. Recent polls show he has the support of about 5 percent of voters. "I'd be the most accessible governor you could ever imagine," Potts said.

Potts was certainly accessible to the family of Robert Meadows, a Winchester man who died as his relatives were raising funds to pay for an experimental liver transplant his insurance did not cover. Potts sponsored a bill to include organ transplantation as a procedure covered by Medicaid in Virginia. He cites the bill, which passed the General Assembly, as one of the most significant legislative accomplishments of his Senate career.

Potts entered the Senate with a class of freshman Republican lawmakers who battled long-powerful Democrats for a voice in the General Assembly and then assumed the body's leadership when the GOP gained a majority in the Senate in 1999.

He has found a way to stand out from those colleagues with his colorful personality and the zeal with which he has pursued local issues, said Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"He's had a willingness to express his passions, his angers and his beliefs," Holsworth said. "It's made him distinctive in the Senate. It's also colored his legislative initiatives at times."

In 1997, for instance, he opposed reappointing a Clarke County judge who had revoked a concealed weapons permit from former Iran-contra figure and U.S. Senate candidate Oliver L. North, citing hundreds of letters from Winchester residents who had been offended.

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