When the next governor of Virginia stands before admiring supporters after Tuesday's election, there will be many people to thank and moments to remember. H. Russell Potts Sr. and his 1939 road trip almost certainly will not be among them.
But the 150-mile journey that began in the small city of Winchester, and the restless son who resulted, may deserve a mention.
"When my mother was pregnant with me, my dad put her in the car and drove her to Richmond," said H. Russell Potts Jr., the independent candidate who will share the top of the ballot with Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine. "They asked my dad why he did that, and he said, 'Because my son's going to be governor someday.' "
Potts's father lived in poverty and died of a heart attack before seeing his son run a maverick campaign for Virginia's top political job, a bid that has included long hours riding in the back seat of a white Cadillac, a strategy session with Connecticut's former independent governor Lowell Weicker Jr. and a messy impromptu debate with unseated House majority leader Tom DeLay.
More than a third of voters, pollsters say, have no opinion of Potts, and many have never heard of him, despite the kettle-clanking masses chanting, "We Want Potts!" in scattered television spots designed to spread his name. But in this extremely close contest, Potts and the few percentage points he may nab on election night could help to decide the winner. This is not the role that Potts, or his father, had in mind.
"You're going to be governor some day," his father kept telling him. "Dream big dreams. Think you can do this."
When Potts says, "We're the best campaigner of the three," he's not talking fancy, like some kind of royalty. It just pours out, an example of the confidence he projects. Part of this is the vocabulary of a promoter. There are flashes of what sounds to his rivals, and almost anyone else, like arrogance.
But he also exposes a raw emotional side that few politicians feel comfortable showing in public.
At times he has opened himself up to caricature. So often has he tearfully told a story about an elementary school teacher -- and how she accidentally humiliated him by leaving a report about his destitute home on her desk -- that even distant associates can recite it.
But to dismiss Potts would be a mistake, say many of those who have watched him the closest.
Steve Schanwald, executive vice president of the Chicago Bulls, interned for Potts 30 years ago when Potts was the first head of sports promotions at the University of Maryland and helped turn college sports into big business. Potts taught his protege how to make an impression -- he once ordered Schanwald to shave off rebellious stubble posing as a beard -- and how to fill stands.
"I've been fortunate enough in my life to be around a lot of great people, great men: Michael Jordan, Jerry Reinsdorf, Bobby Knight, Muhammad Ali, presidents. I've met them all," he said. "It's not hyperbole to say Russ Potts is a great man, not as well known as those other names, but a great man. I don't use the word 'great' lightly."
Tough Early Life
Potts, 66, started working an afternoon newspaper route in Winchester at age 8 to earn money to feed himself. He'd get a toasted cheese at Martin's Drugstore and linger until closing before walking home. His mother, who lived separately on the outskirts of town, worked nights at a cannery.
His father sold concessions for a while at a local ballpark and always had big moneymaking plans. With his son at his side, the elder Potts became the community source for illegal Fourth of July fireworks and was arrested three years in a row. He tried and failed to find boarders for the weatherboard house he shared with his son on Chestnut Street.
"It was, say, 25 or 30 foot wide but maybe 60 foot long, sort of like a chicken house or something," said Bruce Homar, who knew Potts then. "The roof sunk in, like when you go down and look at a barn and you're not sure if it's going to fall down or not."
One Christmas Eve, Potts began thinking about marketing. He waited until revelers were home that night to deliver the afternoon paper. Wearing his cap, he'd knock and hand over a Christmas card. "It takes a hardhearted son of a gun not to pull out a buck," Potts said.
When Potts was 9, his father promised to take him to Thomas E. Dewey's inauguration. Potts cried after Harry S. Truman won. They went anyway, and he's loved Truman since. Potts also tagged along on trips to the local beer hall, where his father led the regulars in a raucous chorus of "My Wild Irish Rose."
Potts added a milk delivery shift at age 14. Robert Cullers stopped to get him at 4 a.m. each day, sometimes stepping inside to nudge him awake at his cot in the hallway as his father slept. "He'd work when he was feeling bad. He'd keep going," Cullers said.
Potts would change his clothes in the truck and wash his face in the school bathroom before class.
Becoming a Driven Person
He never told Cullers how he felt about that job. But it haunts and inspires him still:
"You've got to grit your teeth. You got to say: 'Man, I hate this. I hate having to do this. All my buddies are sleeping -- they are asleep right now. Man, I'm not going to do this for the rest of my life.' "
That reaction -- for better and worse, Potts says -- made him a driven competitor. The 135-pound Potts made first string on the 1956 Handley High School football team by repeatedly routing a 240-pound tackle in tryouts. "I was absolutely possessed," he said. His intensity later made him a force in business, a four-term state senator and a candidate for governor. "That's how I've always approached my life -- somebody that was possessed."
His leadership skills were being used to satisfy a reckless anti-authority streak. He was initially charged with arson after burning a cornfield outside a rival school as the police watched. He slid around mountain roads in a 1949 Chrysler dubbed the Maroon Marauder.
Roar of the "Russ Potts"
Potts ate his first pizza, and his first salad, when he got to Maryland in 1960. He majored in journalism, became a sports editor and started promoting. He proved astute, there and elsewhere, at the gimmicks and relationships that fill seats. "He's extremely loyal as a friend," said basketball's Bobby Knight.
Potts could explode in anger when things fell short. Inattention to detail, a blown deadline or the echo of excuses would set off a roaring verbal barrage Potts calls "using the Russ Potts."
"You haven't lived until you've seen that bottom lip quiver," Joe Castiglione, a former intern and now University of Oklahoma athletic director. Still, he added, "he'd be hugging you five minutes later."
It wasn't much of a leap from sports to politics. The competition, the power of loyalty, the joy of sacking a rival and backing an underdog. Potts thrived on all that.
Long before he was elected a Republican state senator in 1991, Potts had a sense about politics. When he asked astronaut Wally Schirra, a spokesman for the railroads, to be grand marshal of his beloved hometown Apple Blossom parade, Schirra snubbed him, Potts said. But a cold call to U.S. Rep. Harley O. Staggers of West Virginia got Schirra to show up.
Staggers headed the committee overseeing railroads, and he made a call. "That's when I learned something about power," Potts said.
In his nearly 14 years as a Republican senator, Potts has helped constituents in need of medical care, scholarships and other aid. "He'll go to the limit to try to do things for them," former aide Wendell Dick said. That included wielding the Russ Potts.
One recipient was Judge James L. Berry, a Democrat who revoked retired Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's permit to carry a gun in 1994, two years after he had renewed it. Berry called North "not of good character" for lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal in the 1980s. North was running for U.S. senator from Virginia, and Potts saw a smear.
So he eviscerated Berry in a letter and blocked his reappointment.
"Life is about redemption, and picking up somebody when they are hurting and struggling. . . . That's why we'd be a heck of a governor, because we'd be always the governor of the little guy," he said.
His father was right. He could do this.
"Just like with this race, I looked at these two guys and I said: 'Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? You mean to tell me I can't beat these two guys?' "
Potts says Kilgore has "appealed to our worst instincts," Kaine has listened to too many political consultants, and they both promise billions of dollars in programs that they don't say how they'll finance.
Potts wields a bottle of water on the stump, saying his plan to raise taxes to build roads would be worth the sacrifice. It would cost $1.03 per driver per day to do the job, he said.
He has also railed against what he calls the increasingly strident "anti-everything" conservatives who he says have seized the state and national GOP and focused on abortion and gays instead of sound budgets.
When Potts made a campaign appearance on a Norfolk talk show last month, the host cut away from Potts for a live segment with Tom DeLay on national politics. Potts seized the chance to rebuke DeLay and his colleagues for piling up "the largest deficit in the history of mankind."
"I was a Republican, Tom, before you were born. My daddy was chairman of the Republican Party in Winchester," Potts said. "My little grandson, Duffy, a 1-year-old, owes 150 grand. Every single American owes 150 grand in this country. Where does all of this end?"
A frustrated DeLay, irked at the challenge, tried to cut Potts off: "Is this a filibuster or what?" When Potts cut back in as DeLay made his defense, DeLay threatened to hang up. "I'm getting off," he said, before the host gave him the air.
In a campaign that has struggled for attention, it was what Potts called a fortuitous moment.
It May All Be Over
Potts's failure to fill the stands this election has stung. Four percent of likely voters backed him in a Washington Post poll Oct. 23-26.
In the campaign's final days, he sometimes slips into the past tense but quickly straightens up. He says he underestimated the difficulty of raising money as an independent.
"My dad lived a lot of things he didn't get to do in his life through his son," Potts said. "I really wish he could see all this, win, lose or draw. He would be so proud."
After his father died, when Potts was in college, firefighters called to ask whether they could torch the old abandoned house on Chestnut Street for training. As the house burned, Potts said, the cache of bottle rockets and cherry bombs his father had hidden under the floorboards kept blasting for days.
A profile of Republican Jerry W. Kilgore was published Wednesday, and a profile of Democrat Timothy M. Kaine appeared yesterday.