Before a night of campaigning, state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw slips off his blue uniform with the Amoco logo emblazoned across the shirt, pulls off his brown leather boots and slips into something a little more senatorial: khaki pants and a polo shirt. Then he lowers his lanky frame into his black Firebird and revs the engine.
And right away it's clear: This is not another Volvo Democrat.
"I'm a muscle-car guy," he said.
Saslaw's high-octane personality has pushed him to the top in the state Senate, where he's the minority leader, and in the Northern Virginia legislative delegation, where he's among the most influential lawmakers.
And after 24 years in the General Assembly, the Fairfax County Democrat is driving to gain even more power in the Nov. 2 elections, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot. The Senate is controlled by Republicans 21 to 19, but Saslaw--hoping to become majority leader--has taken a lead role in recruiting candidates, raising money and bringing key issues, such as transportation, into focus for the fall campaigns.
"We have to win two and hold what we have. It doesn't take Albert Einstein to figure that out," Saslaw said. "You're pretty much held hostage if you're not in the majority."
Saslaw, 59, grew up in Washington and represents middle-class suburbs in the Springfield area. He owns an Amoco station at the corner of Braddock and Backlick roads, just over the line from his district, and a second gas station in Montgomery County. It is at work, dealing with customers, that Saslaw picks up what voters are talking about, he said.
And he's not shy about bringing his blue-collar roots into the usually genteel halls of the General Assembly, which is dominated by retirees, teachers and lawyers. Some recall a legislative hearing that Saslaw attended by speaker phone; his comments were punctuated by the sound of an air gun turning tire lugs.
His direct, sometimes raw style has won him a reputation as a tough, partisan battler.
"He is sometimes brutally honest," said Democrat Leslie L. Byrne, who is challenging state Sen. Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax) and used to be in the state legislature with Saslaw. "With Dick, there's no artifice."
State Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) said of Saslaw: "He is fiercely partisan, but not in an unpleasant way. . . . If he intends to stab you, he'll come at you from the front, not the back."
He can be rough with those who testify before legislative committees. State Sen. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax), a longtime friend and former business partner, said Saslaw is one of Northern Virginia's most influential and effective legislators, especially with state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) retiring.
But Barry recalls a public hearing when Saslaw attacked abortion opponents so mercilessly that it made other members of the legislative committee uncomfortable.
"It's more of a street fighter than it is a Virginia gentleman's style," Barry said. "I think sometimes he certainly goes too far."
"You can't raise a single person in the General Assembly who I've ever been mean to," Saslaw said. But he acknowledges tough questioning of witnesses in hearings: "I've gotten impatient when people say the same thing again and again."
Saslaw considers himself a champion of public schools, transportation and public safety, but he bristles when government intervenes in social issues such as abortion.
He also is close with the Northern Virginia business community, which he successfully taps for political contributions.
"The government ought to do what government can do best and stay out of a lot of other stuff," he said.
The mix of issues suits Saslaw well to Northern Virginia, where voters generally prize government services and are wary of conservative social agendas.
Saslaw took a prominent role in the Hugh Finn case, after Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) unsuccessfully sought to block the wife of the severely brain-damaged man from having his feeding tube removed.
Saslaw pushed a plan to repay the widow, Michele Finn, her legal costs against the governor. When that plan faltered in a key House committee, Saslaw quietly resurrected it in Senate budget negotiations. The measure eventually passed.
He had less success with some other partisan issues, particularly Democratic health care insurance reforms that Republicans changed or blocked in party-line votes.
A retired Air Force general, Robert H. "Bob" Neitz (R), is trying to unseat Saslaw from his 35th District Senate seat, saying that Saslaw should have done more to prevent Northern Virginia's traffic problems and crowded schools. "It's time for a change," he said. David D. Goode, an independent, is also running.
Political observers say Saslaw is in little danger in this election, but he still is busily knocking on doors, again wearing out knuckles that never fully healed from a campaign two decades ago.
His attention is also fixed on the bigger prize: winning back the state Senate. Democrats must win the Woods-Byrne showdown and at least one other race for Saslaw to become majority leader. It is a job he wants badly, and it represents Saslaw's best chance for advancement at this point in his political career.
He lost a run for Congress in 1984 and a run for lieutenant governor in 1989.
Saslaw had $116,000 in his campaign account at the beginning of September, according to state reports. And Democrats say he is giving some of that away to other candidates while also making direct fund-raising appeals on behalf of the Democratic Caucus, which will target its money at the closest races across the state.
At one Fairfax door, a voter tells Saslaw, "I hope this is a Democratic year."
Saslaw replies, "You and me both, because I'm tired of being in the minority."