Some call him the Parris mouthpiece, others the brains behind the man.
He is Richard B. Leggitt, the alter ego and political confidant of Rep. Stan Parris, the Northern Virginian who currently is vying for the Republican nomination for governor.
Leggitt, 43, is one of a breed of congressional aides whose role goes beyond administrative paper pushing and number crunching. He is an aggressive, witty and politically savvy adviser who is credited with charting the career of his boss, a former automobile dealer and little-known Fairfax County supervisor.
A bear of a man who constantly frets about dieting, Leggitt scoots around town in his Jeep -- which he considers appropriate to his origins in a dusty little town on the Oklahoma border. Leggitt's hearty laugh and ready repertoire of entertaining political stories belie what some say is a rapier-sharp sense for the political jugular.
In 1982, when Parris was locked in a tight race with Democrat Herb Harris, Leggitt's secret weapon was sick mothers. Leggitt had learned that a Harris campaign aide regularly visited his mother in the hospital and conducted campaign business over the phone there.
When he discovered that the mother of a Republican activist was sharing the hospital room, Leggitt arranged for the activist to visit his mother at the same time the Harris aide was visiting, and to eavesdrop on the telephone conversations.
"We had excellent information for the balance of the campaign," said Leggitt, who said the sick room spying was crucial to the success of the campaign. "We have always prided ourselves in any Parris campaign on having excellent intelligence."
Leggitt's style has made him a lightning rod for the discontent of some Parris critics, who privately blame him for many of Parris' ills. Recently, Leggitt has been at the center of Virginia's latest political storm, simply referred to by many as: The Letter.
The disputed letter, which was released to the news media by Leggitt, suggested that Republican gubernatorial candidate Wyatt B. Durrette was only using conservative Christians to win the GOP nomination, after which he planned to drop them. Durrette's campaign organization blasted the letter as a fake. Leggitt said that the letter, left at the Parris campaign headquarters, was believed to be authentic when released.
When reporters asked Leggitt about the flap, he replied: "Whether the letter is valid or not, the letter is newsworthy . . . . We are as interested as you are to know the truth of the matter." The response was vintage Leggitt, whose usual style is to face controversy head-on and come out swinging.
The style has served him well in Northern Virginia, but Republican politicos say the jury is still out on how his aggressive approach will play in parts of the state where politicians still value Virginia gentility.
"You either love him or you hate him. There is no middle of the road with Dick Leggitt," said one downstate Republican, who said he likes and respects Leggitt. "Any time you are a mover and shaker like Dick, there are going to be harsh feelings . . . but if I were in a tough race, I would want Dick Leggitt on my side."
Leggitt's admirers say he is a premiere political operator who loves a good fight and who always seems to have his finger on the pulse of Northern Virginia politics. They credit him with Parris' survival in the politically volatile 8th Congressional District, which includes Alexandria, southern Fairfax, eastern Prince William and northern Stafford counties.
"Stan has a good man in Dick," said a Republican administrative assistant. "And he has given him a leash from here to California . . .because Stan trusts him."
"I'm very lucky compared to a lot of the administrative assistants on the Hill in that I have a close personal relationship with the congressman that was developed over 13 years," said Leggitt.
But Leggitt says he, like any administrative assistant, must always remember who is congressman. "You serve at his pleasure," said Leggitt, "and he is always right."
"Dick is intensely loyal," Parris said of his aide. "And his mind is very active. About three times a day, he comes charging through the door with a new idea. Two out of the three times, the idea is too bizarre, or too imaginative or too extraordinary to use." But other times, Parris said, the idea is terrific.
"There's a certain amount of theater in politics," said Parris. "You just can't do the same thing and stay in the public eye." And Parris said he believes Leggitt has the imagination and flair to keep a politician visible.
Leggitt was hired by Parris over the telephone in 1972, when he was a press assistant to Winfield Dunn, then governor of Tennessee. He worked in other Capitol Hill jobs when Parris was defeated in 1974, but returned to Parris when he won reelection in 1980.
Before joining Dunn's gubernatorial staff, Leggitt worked for six years for United Press International, but left when he was not sent to cover the Vietnam War.
"But the political combat somewhat fulfills that desire," he said. "You have to make decisions under great pressure and perform in the face of great adversity."
Currently, Leggitt says he spends half his time on the congressional staff and half on the campaign staff, receiving half of his annual $60,000 salary from the payroll of each operation.
He says he finds the slow pace of the legislative process tiresome compared to the excitement of a campaign.
"It's a cumbersome process that I prefer to leave to others," said Leggitt.
Staffers who handle the news media for other politicians in Virginia often complain that Parris receives more than his fair share of ink or air time because of Leggitt. Reporters usually respond that Leggitt knows well the art of feeding the press.
He uses his intelligence tentacles to gather information on who hates whom and why, who is scratching whose back, who's in and who's out in Virginia politics -- making him a valued encyclopedia for reporters.
"You didn't hear this from me, but . . . " he says, in his Texas drawl, and then proceeds to race through his story. And his Rolodex is a ready source of hard-to-get numbers for desperate reporters on deadline. "You didn't get this from me . . . ," he says before he spews out the numbers.
Leggitt has also learned the art of the "sexy" quote. While one official referred to the feud between Fairfax County and the District of Columbia over Lorton prison as "a longstanding interjurisdictional battle," Leggitt called it "the correctional version of the Hatfields and the McCoys."
And last fall, he told a reporter for the Detroit Free Press that putting Michigan's Republican National Committeeman Peter Secchia "in charge of campaign financing is like putting Evel Knievel in charge of a driver's education class."
Secchia was finance chairman for Michigan Republican Jack Lousma, a crew member on a 1982 flight of the space shuttle Columbia who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate last year. Leggitt temporarily left Parris to run Lousma's campaign, but after an overwhelming primary victory, Leggitt left the campaign and returned to Parris.
Lousma lost the general election, and the Lousma campaign organization pointed the finger at Leggitt. Lousma aides said that Leggitt had amassed such a campaign debt during the primary that they had insufficient money during the general election.
Leggitt responded in his usual style, telling a reporter that the real problem was that Lousma's fund-raisers were inept at raising money.
"They promised to raise the money, and I promised to spend it," he told a reporter. "I kept my promise. They just didn't keep theirs."