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.
"I absolutely cannot stand an arrogant judge," he said recently about that effort. "As a kid growing up, I had people make fun of the clothes I wore and the little ramshackle apartment where I grew up. I didn't like that. I don't appoint judges that don't have humility."
He has employed his hard-charging speeches most often in defense of public education, sponsoring bills to pay teachers at the national average salary and pushing hard, with other Republican senators, for the 2004 budget deal that raised taxes and pumped $1.5 billion over two years into schools, public safety and health care. In support of such measures, he often tells formative stories about his schooling, which he credits with saving him from a poverty-stricken childhood.
"We've had no better friend among the 40 senators," said Virginia Education Association lobbyist Robley S. Jones, though the group's political action committee has endorsed Kaine.
Potts's bubbling rhetoric on the topic has at times angered Virginia's vocal home-schooling community. It's one of series of issues that made Potts a major irritant to the conservative wing of the Republican Party long before he challenged a fellow Republican for the governor's mansion, Holsworth said.
In 1999, he sponsored a bill that would have required students to be enrolled in public schools to take part in school-sponsored extracurricular activities. During discussion of the bill, which was defeated in the House of Delegates, he suggested it was unfair for home-schooled students to play sports when they spend their time lounging on their couches at home instead of studying of in class.
"It raised a firestorm," said Joe Guarino, who at the time was a lobbyist for the Home Educators Association of Virginia. "Senator Potts became persona non grata in the home-school community, and that went on for quite a few years."
Potts now calls those words a "big mistake" and says he admires families who choose to teach their children at home. The senator's new support has healed some rifts, Guarino said, but others say he switched positions only after he realized how many home-schooling families live in his district. Guarino credits them with mounting a powerful Republican primary challenger against Potts's reelection in 2003.
Antiabortion groups have been angered by what they consider his shift on abortion. After backing a measure to require parental consent before a minor can get an abortion and voting to ban abortion procedures during the last part of pregnancy, he has now become a key vote in killing new restrictions on abortion in the committee he chairs.
In recent years, he has voted against legislation that would require parental permission for minors to get emergency contraception and several bills that would further regulate abortion clinics.
"The sad truth is that Russ Potts is not the first politician to abandon his positions on important issues," said Victoria Cobb, a lobbyist for the Family Foundation, which does not endorse candidates. "In terms of being pro-life and pro-family, he has become openly hostile."
Potts said he supported measures he thought were reasonable but thought more recent bills have gone too far.
"It's a moving target," he said. "You tell me who's changed. They keep pushing the envelope."
And whose views on abortion, which he often cites in speeches, inspire his?
"My wife has had a major influence on me on this," he said. "My three daughters have had a major influence on me."