Brash, Scrappy Senate Minority Leader Savors Role in Budget Battle

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) rules with
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) rules with "charm, humor and an iron fist," says an ally. (By Robert A. Reeder For The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007

RICHMOND -- At one of the busiest intersections in Northern Virginia, where the eight lanes of Braddock and Backlick roads meet, Dick Saslaw has built an empire.

It is a retail empire of the scrappy, roll-up-your-sleeves sort: a BP garage with a carwash on the side, one of three gas stations that Saslaw has owned in the Washington region and that have earned the 67-year-old D.C. native a comfortable life in Annandale.

"Yeah, I've been pretty goddamn lucky," said a typically blunt Saslaw. "I've been told it's the largest secondary road intersection in Virginia."

Saslaw runs a scrappy empire of another sort 100 miles down the road: the Democratic minority of the Virginia Senate. Saslaw's job in Richmond is to keep united the Senate's 17 Democrats, an assorted crew of urban liberals, rural moderates and pro-business suburbanites. His job is also to make trouble for the Republicans and to plot his party's return to power. If he succeeds, a plum prize probably awaits the Fairfax legislator: the post of Senate majority leader.

For Saslaw, that makes the 2007 legislative session of supreme importance. It also makes him a powerful guy. All 140 seats of the General Assembly are up for election in November, and the outcome of that election will rest heavily on whether lawmakers can agree on how to finance transportation improvements across Virginia. Although Republican majorities in both chambers are steering the debate, they are far from unified. Saslaw could deliver enough Democratic votes in the 40-member Senate to make or break a deal.

"His job is to keep our caucus together, and he does it," said Sen. Janet D. Howell, a fellow Democrat from Reston and a longtime ally. "He does it with a combination of charm, humor and an iron fist."

Richard Lawrence Saslaw grew up in Northwest Washington, the son of a pharmacy owner. He attended Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, where by his own admission he was more likely to horse around than study.

Even in the Virginia Senate, where Saslaw has served since 1980, he has been something of a cutup. At a reception last week, he loudly claimed paternity of the late Anna Nicole Smith's baby. He slumps low in his seat in the Senate chamber, popping peanuts in his mouth. He tells jokes. He swears. He puts his feet on his desk. He is, by all accounts, an entirely unlikely successor to the late Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton, the imposing and patrician Democratic leader who led the Senate until 1996.

"He was an interesting, bright, sort of screwy, brash young man," said William G. Thomas, a lobbyist and old friend who met Saslaw in the early 1970s during Saslaw's failed first bid for the House of Delegates. "He was always a little louder than everybody else and a little more outlandish."

He still is. Part sandpaper and part finger in the eye, Saslaw's tough speaking style has served him well in the role of Democratic insurgent. (It did not serve him well as a statewide candidate: In 1989, fellow Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. defeated Saslaw in the primary for lieutenant governor.)

This year, the topic is transportation. All session, Saslaw has snarled at a Republican deal that would in part redirect $250 million of existing state dollars rather than impose new taxes.

After a recent Senate session, while wrestling a sandwich wrap into his mouth: "I have no intention of paying for transportation, okay, with public school money, college money and health and human services and state police money."

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