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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Potts agenda takes turn for the left; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — He has billed himself as the most pro-life candidate in the race. He supports tax increases only after a referendum, and has never voted for a tax increase.

But the candidate isn’t Jerry Kilgore 2005. It’s H. Russell Potts Jr. in 2003.

Changes in the candidate’s views are one reason many former supporters have thrown their support to Kilgore. Gary Chrisman, a former Winchester mayor, has been on a GOP ticket with Potts and shared campaign resources.

Chrisman is now a donor to former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore’s campaign for governor.

“I certainly think that he’s become more liberal over time,” Chrisman said. “He ran as a conservative, and I think in the beginning people thought he was conservative.”

But Potts “made a very rapid turn to the left once the 2003 election was over,” Chrisman said. Evidence of Potts’ retooling his positions on issues isn’t hard to find.

In one piece of direct mail the campaign sent out during the 2003 campaign, Potts laid out to voters why he should be the Republican nominee instead of challenger Mark Tate.

Potts touted his own anti-tax record, while criticizing Tate, the vice mayor of Middleburg, for voting to raise some taxes and fees while in office.

“[Potts] never voted for a tax increase during his 12 years in office, and voted for 55 tax reductions,” the mailer states. Potts was also a signatory to the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, on which candidates promise to oppose any and all efforts to raise taxes.

In 2004, Potts voted for the budget deal that raised taxes by more than $1.5 billion, winning him a place in ATR’s “Hall of Shame.”

In an June interview with the Northern Virginia Daily, Potts said “everything is on the table” to fix the state’s congested transportation system, including a hike in the state’s gasoline tax as part of a major overhaul of the state’s tax code.

“Virginia is one of the lowest tax states in the union,” he said. “If you’re looking for the ‘free lunch bunch,’ I’m not your guy.”
Potts also backed the idea of tax referenda until running for the state’s highest office.

In 2003, Potts chided Tate for preferring to allow “elected officials to force fee and tax increases on the taxpayers without their input,” while calling himself “a believer and supporter of voters’ rights to make decisions on issues affecting them and their pocketbooks through voter referendums.”

“I’d oppose the referendum because you spell referendum C-O-W-A-R-D, coward,” Potts told the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this year.

But there’s a big difference between a statewide referendum and a local referendum, Potts said Wednesday.

Potts supported legislation for a local referendum in 2002 to raise the sales tax in Winchester. He says he supported the measure only after 67 percent of the voters backed the change in 2001. Setting policy by referendum at the state level is an abdication of leadership, he said.

“The referendum in Winchester was passed after the [November 2001 vote],” he said.

“The only reason in the world I supported the transportation referendum in Northern Virginia was it was the only thing we had left,” he said, because the House of Delegates simply refused to play ball.

Potts did have an anti-tax record before 2003, according to Winchester City Council President Charles Gaynor, but the candidate changed with the times.

“I think the man had enough common sense to recognize that the state was in trouble,” said Gaynor, who has donated $884 to Potts for political campaigns since 2002, including $150 for his gubernatorial run.

“Why was the state in trouble? That’s the question that other two [gubernatorial candidates] want to ignore,” Gaynor said.

Ideas like abolishing parole and implementing the Standards of Learning look good on paper, but they cost local taxpayers money.

Potts’ positions represent where most Virginia Republicans find themselves now, Gaynor said.

During his first term, though, Potts supported former Gov. Jim Gilmore’s rollback of the car tax. When the state’s finances turned sour during his third term, Potts said he still supported reducing the tax when financial times got better.

“In no way am I opposed to eliminating the car tax,” he said in a 2001 interview. “We made a promise to the people of Virginia and we are going to keep it terms of eliminating the car tax, but we are not going to go into debt and we are not going to cut essential services.”

“We’re going to cut the car tax as far as we can right now and wait for another year to do the rest,” he said.

Since then, though, Potts has thought better of his support of the centerpiece of the Gilmore administration. At an event announcing his campaign, Potts told reporters that if elected governor, he’d seek to return the car tax to a pre-Gilmore status.

“I’d put it exactly where it was before Jim Gilmore was governor,” he said. “That would be a dead horse.”

“Only a fool doesn’t change his mind and alter his positions after he’s got all the information,” Potts said Wednesday.

“I was in the room when Jim Gilmore came in and said ‘Trust me, the endgame is $650 million’ [in total annual costs],” Potts said. The cost is now more than $1 billion to completely roll back the local tax.

“Do you think for a minute that FDR didn’t change his mind” about sending troops overseas after Pearl Harbor, Potts asked.

“What’s wrong with admitting that I made a mistake?” he said. The car tax cut was a “disgraceful piece of legislation.”

Potts also billed himself as the “first pro-life chairman of the powerful Health and Education Committee in over 200 years,” and touted a “consistent 12-year record of voting to protect life” in 2003.

His legislative record bears that out. During the 1995, 1996, 1997 legislative sessions, Potts voted for bills that would require parental notification when a minor has an abortion.

In 2002 and 2003, he also voted for bills that would require a parent’s permission in some cases before a minor could have an abortion. In 2005, Potts changed his positions and was given “100 percent” pro-choice rating for the session by the
Virginia branch of the NARAL, a prominent abortion rights group.

But its the definition of “pro-life” in Virginia that’s a moving target, not Russ Potts, the senator said.

“I had had a consistent record. When that far right crowd, then tried to push the envelope” in the form of “defining contraceptives as a form of abortion, I said, ‘Nope, I’m out of here.”

Further restrictions on clinics for health and safety reasons, as well as a bill requiring anesthesia for a fetus before an abortion went too far, he said.

“I happen to think that most women in this country don’t like abortion,” he said. But “they don’t like people interfering in their personal lives.”

At the end of the day, it’s the GOP, not Russ Potts that has changed, he said.

“That right-wing extremist crowd invaded my party,” he said.

Election Day is Nov. 8.