Potts Pushes Forth After Failed GOP Rebuke

"I did what I did in the governor's race to save my party," Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. said after a failed vote to end his committee chairmanship. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

RICHMOND -- Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. had hoped that right about now he'd be settling into the Virginia governor's mansion.

Instead, more than two months after his independent candidacy for governor captured only 2.2 percent of the vote, Potts (R) is exactly where he was this time last year: sitting in the Senate as chairman of the powerful Education and Health Committee and a key ally for the body's moderate Republican leadership.

That, in itself, is a victory for the Winchester lawmaker.

Incensed by Potts's run against Republican nominee Jerry W. Kilgore, party activists had screamed for his blood. They demanded that Potts's Republican colleagues throw him out of their caucus, kick him off his five committees and strip him of his chairmanship.

Shortly after the General Assembly convened, GOP senators declined to do so. A maneuver to remove Potts as head of his committee -- a panel that traditionally has blocked new abortion restrictions each year -- failed by one vote. Among Potts's backers were all 16 of the Senate's Democrats and the body's most imposing figure, Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), president pro tempore and chairman of the Finance Committee.

With the vote behind him, Potts said he would like to become a central player in the debate over how to improve the state's transportation network, which promises to be the most pressing question of the 60-day legislative session. Transportation was the focus of his run for governor, and he takes credit for thrusting the issue into the public eye.

"Neither of the candidates were discussing transportation," he said. "It was a virtual phantom issue. I do believe we influenced that issue and brought it to the forefront."

He is carrying few bills in the session, he said, to give himself more time to work through the intense lobbying and backroom dealings that will be necessary to get a transportation package through the Senate and the House of Delegates.

A bipartisan group of Senate leaders introduced a spending program for roads and rail Friday that called for higher taxes on car purchases and gasoline. Potts was not among them, instead submitting his own plan to increase the sales tax on all goods by 1 percent. He said he will work closely with his colleagues in search of an aggressive solution.

"I hope we think big," he said. "I think that's critical. In my opinion, if we don't fix transportation this year, it will be another decade before we have the political courage to face it again."

Whether fellow Republicans will let him take on any important role in the discussion, however, is a question that remains.

Conservatives are still seething over their inability to exact revenge for Potts's run at their candidate. Although his vote tally didn't cost Kilgore the election, Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax) said, there's no way to know whether Potts's rhetoric hurt Kilgore's campaign. Potts repeatedly slammed Kilgore as an extremist whose anti-tax positions would harm state finances. He once said Kilgore "would be the most horrible governor in my lifetime."


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