John Schell moved to the cement patio in the backyard of a suburban home here to make his speech to people who had gathered at a party to meet him. He started with what was probably on most people's minds: his age, which is 31.
"People say I'm too young to be attorney general," he said. "I like to remind them that I'm the same age Sarge Reynolds was when he was elected lieutenant governor and I have the same years of experience Andy Miller had when he was first elected" attorney general.
Schell, who is running agaist Dels. Edward E. Lane, John L. Melnick and Erwin S. (Shad) Solomon for the Democratic nomination for attorney general in the June 14 primary, does indeed look young. He sometimes gives the impression he is running for senior class president instead of for one of the only three elected statewide offices.
But one of the surprises of this campaign is that Schell has created as much interest as he has. He has received the endorsement of significant black groups, as well as enough pockets of support to convince him that he has a chance to win.
Since Schell was virtually unknown when he started his campaign, his inroad into the state's so-called liberal voting bloc has impressed many, although he still is considered to be an underlog in the race.
Still, Schell has found the campaign somewhat difficult. Some groups are less acessible to him, he has learned, since he is not a member of the General Assembly with its network of supportive legislator-to-legislator relationships. He also said the generally unorganized Democratic Party in the state concerns him and that one of his long-range goals is to help make it more efficient.
There are no bumper stickers or chartered airplanes in the Schell campaign. With less than $50,000, he will have a smaller budget than any of the other candidates. He travels in an Audi station wagon littered with brochures and candy wrappers.Accompanied by one worker, he shares the driving. Schell estimates he has driven about 20,000 miles to meetings, picnics an other political events around Virginia.
What seems to impress the voters is his aggressively anti-utility approach. He talks to audiences about his experience as a lawyer for different consumer groups arguing against rate increases for telephone or electricity service.
One of his first priorities as attorney general, he says, would be to ask the General Assembly to finance a larger staff for the consumer protection division of the attorney general's office. He says this funding has been thwarted by one of his opponents, Lane, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
He also rails against the utility-regulating State Corporation Commission. "The economic lifeblood of our state is sitting in the hands of these people," he says, "who all happen to be lawyers. They all happen to be white male lawyers and they all happen to be from Richmond."
In addition to making the SCC more diverse in its composition, Schell said he would work for the passage of legislation that has already been introduced to change the commission's procedures.
Schell, who has been on leave from a Washington law firm since February to campaign full time, speaks with an articulate energy, colored with the down-home accent of his native Alabama. He said he thinks he can "galvanize people around issues" with this energy and is thus electable in November. He said he views the job of attorney general as "being the people's lawyer," and says he would also fight to get administrative procedures that allow regular citizen involvement in governmental decision-making.