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Brash, Scrappy Senate Minority Leader Savors Role in Budget Battle

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."

In his legislative office, scoffing at the claim that allowing regional tax increases is a compromise: "So they're going to let the locals raise taxes? That's mighty big of them. That's no concession on their part. Give me a break."

That tough talk has entertained legions in Richmond, but it has also earned him a reputation as a political brawler. Saslaw jogs in the early morning, and when he took a hard spill in Richmond last year, pals assumed he'd gotten punched when he showed up at the Capitol with a badly bruised face.

"He runs a gas station," laughed Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City). "He's a street fighter."

Saslaw's GOP critics say street fighting is exactly what he is doing when he slams the Republican transportation deal. More than protect services, his critics say, the Democrat wants to derail the deal so he can talk about traffic this fall.

"Saslaw is a partisan," said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax). "He wants a train wreck, which gives him mileage in November."

That's ridiculous, Saslaw and the Democrats say. If nothing happens, they and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) would be just as vulnerable to blame as the Republicans.

But no deal, they add, is better than a bad one that harms education, health care and public safety. Said Saslaw of the anti-tax Republicans: "If you haven't figured out what their general scheme is, it's to deny general government and higher education money."

An irony of such rhetoric is Saslaw's closeness to a number of Republicans, notably the moderate Senate leaders who helped broker the transportation deal that Saslaw finds so objectionable. Although he has long defended government services (his wife, Eleanor, is a retired school guidance director and member of the state Board of Education), he is no bleeding-heart liberal. He is an unapologetic friend of big business and developers. And he regularly partners with Republicans to defend those interests.

"Dick realizes that what's really accomplished is accomplished from the middle," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach). "Some partisan leaders have the ability to cross the aisle and get votes. That's built on personal relationships. Dick has developed a unique ability to do that."

This year, Saslaw sponsored a measure to keep alive the state's payday lending industry, which issues loans with interest rates as high as 391 percent and which consumer groups and other Democrats say exploits the poor.

"Dick is viewed by the lobbyists, but he's also viewed by business generally, as one of the key go-to people," said Thomas, whose clients include home builders, Dominion Virginia Power and Exxon Mobil. "He immediately understands the issues. "

There is a less-flattering view of Saslaw's pro-business positions. Stewart Schwartz, who heads the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, believes Saslaw's open intolerance for growth-control legislation is unrepresentative of his congested Northern Virginia district. Schwartz attributes Saslaw's position in part to the senator's close friendship with Thomas and Thomas's law partner, influential developer John T. "Til" Hazel Jr.

"He fails to recognize what local governments are wrestling with in trying to manage growth," Schwartz said. "In addition, his admitted close friendship with the leading lawyer-lobbyist for the homebuilding industry -- that certainly has to have an influence on his thinking."

Saslaw has a long list of big-business benefactors, but he denies their influence. According to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, Saslaw is the top Democratic fundraiser this election cycle, with $456,000 raised by the end of 2006. He has accepted $30,000 from Dominion, $18,000 from bankers, $17,000 from auto dealers and $13,500 from a Realtors association.

Saslaw accepts smaller perks, too. At his favorite Richmond restaurant, he allowed the owner, an old friend, to send wine to the table. Later, the friend, Jearald Cable, who owns a developable tract of land in plantation country along the James River, asked Saslaw whether road improvements are possible there.

Saslaw smiled and replied that Route 5 is a scenic byway and unlikely to be widened soon.

Such moments, where special interests attempt to influence lawmakers, are common in the General Assembly. Thomas said Saslaw has his own "right and wrong" filter that allows him to say "nope" when he thinks a request is wrong.

Still, it is clear that Saslaw relishes the game of Richmond -- including the game he is engaged in most intensely this year: battling Republicans over transportation. Saslaw insists it is about principle -- about protecting the state's schoolchildren, its frail and its poor. But Saslaw admits a keenness for the political prize as well.

"Do I want to be Senate majority leader?" he asked with a duh tone. "Are you kidding me? Of course I want to be Senate majority leader!"

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