Story by Chris Graham
Russ Potts is running for governor as an independent – to the consternation of Republican Party officials in Richmond and elsewhere in the Old Dominion.
The state party asked Potts to resign his Virginia Senate seat – and declared that Potts is no longer a member of the GOP.
Potts, for the record, doesn’t consider himself a former Republican – and he sees his campaign as a move to bring the party of his father back to the political center.
“I calculated that, because I wasn’t going to let anybody run me out of the Republican Party,” Potts said of his decision to mount an independent gubernatorial candidacy.
“It’s my party, too. I was a Republican before those guys were born. I was a Republican before Phil Griffin and Kate Griffin and Jerry Kilgore and Brad Marrs and that crowd were born,” Potts told The Augusta Free Press.
“The only person who’s going to run me out of the Republican Party is God himself,” Potts said.
“I felt that it was so important to get this train back in the middle of the track of where you govern. And I believe in my heart that at the end of the day we’re going to have a major influence,” Potts said.
Right now, Potts’ influence on the 2005 race is expected to be mainly as a Ralph Nader-type spoiler. The most recent statewide poll to include Potts, done in July by Mason-Dixon, had him running a distant third behind Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jerry Kilgore.
Kaine had a slim 38 percent to 37 percent lead at the top of the race. Potts had the support of 9 percent of those polled.
But the numbers could actually be a good sign for the Potts campaign. When Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998, for instance, he was at 10 percent in early October before impressing voters with a strong performance in televised debates with his major-party opponents.
Potts might have a similar opportunity next month – in the lone televised debate of the 2005 election season. Potts is not guaranteed inclusion in the debate – he has to register at least 15 percent support in two statewide polls – but he is confident that he will be there alongside Kaine and Kilgore.
“The other guys hear the footsteps. They know that once the dynamics of this thing change, and we’re up there in the high teens and 20s, all bets are off. I absolutely believe that,” Potts said.
Potts has been an “underdog” all his life, as he describes his upbringing in Winchester. He got his first job at age 8 and worked himself through the University of Maryland before going on to a career in the sports-promotions business.
He made his first run for the Senate in 1991 in Winchester. His toughest political campaign was his most recent – a narrow 106-vote win over challenger Mark Tate in a June 2003 primary in his home district.
That he would follow that close contest up with an upstart run for statewide office is part and parcel to being Russ Potts.
“I thought about it, prayed about it. But you know, it was the darndest thing. Sometimes in life, something almost puts you on cruise control,” Potts said.
“Once I made the decision to do this, it was like I was in cruise control. I never looked back. I never regretted it for a second,” Potts said.
“The hardest thing for me was the Republican Party thing. That was the hardest thing. But I had a deep, passionate feeling, a core feeling, that not only could I help Virginia, but I could help my Republican Party. That we had to get the Republican Party back to the middle. You can’t have a party that gives you that in your face, my way or the highway verbiage,” Potts said.
Potts said there are two issues splitting the Republican Party – “one, the social issues have begun to take this predominant role, and then two is this totally irresponsible fiscal policy that’s mirrored right up there on Capitol Hill.”
“Our country is headed in the wrong direction with the policies that they are running on Capitol Hill. If we’re at war, talk to the people, communicate with the people and say that we can’t do these things now because we have to do this war. People can handle it,” Potts said.
“We’ve got to face this, look this right in the eye. As a national Republican Party, we’ve gotten away from our roots. We’re very, very irresponsible in the way that we govern. Gov. Warner has been a good governor. I don’t care if you’re an R or a D. He’s been a good governor. He’s governed from the middle. Give him credit. Don’t be a small person and not give him credit,” Potts said.
“I believe that in life you have to appeal to people’s best instincts. I believe in coaches and people and teachers who say to you that you can be anything that you make up your mind to be. Think big. The glass is half full, not half empty,” Potts said.
Potts isn’t afraid to say that he thinks the state needs to find ways to make more revenues available for public education, public safety and transportation. He even related at an event in Buena Vista on Monday in which he shared the stage for the first time with Kaine and Kilgore that he was proud to have supported last year’s move in the Virginia General Assembly to raise taxes to provide new money for core government services.
“We’re on the right side of the issues here. There’s no question that these two guys have taken the page from the political playbook. It could be the political playbook for the United States Senate race in South Dakota, or the governor’s race in Maine, or the governor’s race in Alabama. It’s the same thing. Don’t use that tax word. Don’t ever address that subject. Try to be all things to all people,” Potts said.
“See, that can work in a two-way race. That can work. I’m the first to admit to you that if this were a two-way race, and the Republicans’ message or the Democrats’ message was my message, you couldn’t win. But this is different. There’s a dynamic here that’s different,” Potts said.
“What would be the easy thing for me to do on this transportation thing? Hey, trust me, we’ll fix it when I get elected. Trust me. I’ve got a plan. When in fact, the only way you pay for anything is with new money. Show me the money,” Potts said.
“It’s as simple as this, and this is the message that I’m going to be repeating between now and November. If you don’t want your roads fixed, if you like this congestion, then you ought to vote for either one of those guys. And if you believe that you can fund the full elimination of the car tax out of the general fund, do all these other things, without adding new money, vote for those other guys,” Potts said.
Getting that message across to Virginia voters will be easier said than done. Potts is well aware of this.
“The way I looked at it was, I’m going to devote this nine months of my life, give it everything that I’ve got, and I can honestly say that I’ll be able to look you in the eye the day after this election and have no regrets,” Potts said.
“I would hope in my heart that if you were to write something about me 10 years from now or 20 years or 30 years or 40 years, you could say, ‘The guy took his best shot. He didn’t whine, he didn’t complain, he wasn’t intimidated by being the underdog.’
“I do believe this, I do believe this in my heart, that you throw everything that you’ve got into something, every fiber of your being, every talent that God gave you, and then let the chips fall where they may,” Potts said.
“This is my seventh campaign, and it’s by far the toughest. But one thing that helps me is my life experience,” Potts said. “I’ve staged almost 700 events in my career. I’ve had eight- or 10- or 12-hour knockdown, dragout meetings in New York or Chicago or L.A. getting ready for them. I have a lot of experience in managing time and working long hours. I have a good work ethic. And I love meeting new people.
“One of the most interesting things about a campaign is being able to hear about people’s dreams and goals and aspirations. Or to talk to a young lady who says, ‘One day, I want to sing in Carnegie Hall.’ And say, ‘Well, why not? Somebody’s going to sing in Carnegie Hall. Why not you?’ All things are possible,” Potts said.