Fifteen former chairmen of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce are urging the business organization to include independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr. in its gubernatorial debate next month.
The group of top business executives, which includes Democrats and Republicans, has written a letter to the chamber's current leadership expressing "concern" about the decision to exclude Potts from the Sept. 13 debate, the only one scheduled in Northern Virginia.
"We strongly believe that chamber members and others in our community deserve the opportunity to be fully informed about their choices for governor of Virginia," according to the letter, which went out Friday.
Potts, a Republican state senator from Winchester, was shut out of the first debate between Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine on July 16 and will be allowed in a Richmond debate Oct. 9 only if polls show his support at 15 percent.
Potts has said that because he submitted more than enough signatures to win a place on the Nov. 8 ballot, he has earned the right to participate in the debates.
The letter from the Fairfax business executives puts new pressure on the debate sponsors and the candidates to let him in.
William D. Lecos, chief executive of the chamber, said that he has not seen the letter but that the chamber would not revisit the issue. "Everybody is entitled to their opinion. These chairs are an important part of the chamber's past," Lecos said. But he added: "We have no intention of changing the ground rules of the debate for this year."
The letter is signed by 15 of the past 20 chairmen of the chamber, which represents more than 1,000 of the county's businesses, including some of its largest. Chairmen serve one-year terms.
The letter urges the chamber's current chairman, SunTrust executive George Cave, to review the issue with the chamber's executive committee and with the two major party candidates.
Kaine spokeswoman Delacey Skinner said the Democrat would welcome Potts in the debate. "We welcome the opportunity to share the stage with both of our opponents," Skinner said.
"In our opinion, the rules have been agreed to; the deadline for changes has passed," said Kilgore spokesman J. Tucker Martin. "The debate over debates is over."
If Potts is not included, the ex-chairmen said, they intend to band together to buy a table at the luncheon debate and ask Potts and his wife to be their guests. The group is also talking about other ways to provide Potts a forum to speak that day if he is not in the debate.
"Sen. Potts has spoken with candor about his commitment to addressing serious challenges facing our Commonwealth," the former chairmen said in the letter. "He's been steadfast in his commitment to substantial investment in transportation infrastructure, a top priority of the chamber."
Lecos said the chamber followed its 14-year tradition of inviting only the candidates for governor who had earned their party nominations. He said the chamber's executive committee met July 20 and chose not to make any change in policy.
"There's no super council that directs the chamber to do things that have not been vetted by the board of directors," Lecos said. "I'm not quite clear as to how this consensus among a very narrow, albeit formerly active, group of chamber members was developed."
Michael G. Anzilotti, one of the former chairmen who helped organize the writing of the letter, said some of the region's business executives are dismayed by what they see as inadequate transportation proposals by Kaine and Kilgore.
He said those concerns were exacerbated by reports that Kaine would veto any gas tax increase until the state's transportation fund is secured from potential diversion. And the executives were discouraged by Kilgore's response at a recent meeting of another business group, the 123 Club, that he would not support passage of a regional tax increase if Northern Virginia attempted to pass one, Anzilotti said.
"If we could just move them off of their positions and get them to recognize the problem," Anzilotti said.
"We have nothing against the chamber. All we are trying to do is give Russ a platform."