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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Potts may face renewed Republican wrath; A1

Senator’s bid for governor roused colleagues’ ire

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

When does a professed Republican cease to be a Republican?

It’s a question that will likely be answered in some form either today or Thursday, as state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. learns whether he’ll get to keep his leadership position.

Potts is the chairman of the Education and Health Committee, where bills on hot buttons like abortion and K-12 schools must win approval before moving on.

But whether Potts will be the chairman when the panel meets for the first time this session on Thursday morning is an open question, according to General Assembly observers.

Potts may well face the renewed wrath of Republicans who say his independent bid for the governor’s mansion in 2005 amounted to leaving the party.

Every Republican in the Senate, save Potts himself, signed a letter last year asking the four-term senator from Winchester to step down from his post. Senate rules automatically strip any senator who changes parties during his tenure in office of any chairmanships he or she might hold. What defines “changing parties,” though, is a matter of interpretation.

Potts, who did not return a number of phone calls for comment on this story, has said he’s a Republican as long as he says he’s a Republican. However, GOP leadership committees around the state disagreed, and passed resolution after resolution last spring expressing their view that Potts’ run against Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore amounted to his resignation from the party.
An effort was made during the 2005 veto override session to give Potts the boot, but Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine ruled that motion was out of order. An effort to override his interpretation of the rules failed.

A number of Republican senators involved in the effort last year to push Potts out of his chairmanship have said they are considering the options they’ll have going forward.

But the GOP majority hasn’t been marching in lock step in recent years.

While the House of Delegates and Senate factions of the GOP don’t always get along, there’s significant political space among the Republicans in the Senate alone.

The fate of Potts isn’t an ideological issue. It’s politics, plain and simple, according to Matt Smyth of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“The GOP breakdown might look like the rift over taxes in 2004 if it came to a vote,” he said, but it likely wouldn’t split along purely ideological lines.

There are members in “all parts of the Republican spectrum that [say] Potts went outside of the party mechanism and caused trouble for a Republican nominee,” Smyth said.

“It’s another instance of disagreement within the party,” he said. It distracts from whatever the Republican or majority agenda would be in this year’s legislature.

Regardless of how they feel about it, fighting over Potts might be bad politics.

Committee assignment “isn’t as big a concern to the average Virginian as what’s going on with the budget or even some of the social issues that could come up,” Smyth said.

No one wants to look like they’re practicing “politics as usual,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re fighting over who’s on a committee, it comes across like that.”

Some involved in the 2005 push have said they’re ready to go again. Others have expressed caution.

Potts’ fate has the electronic chattering class abuzz with possibilities.

Writers and commentators have been throwing around rumors like snowballs, but most have centered on Potts leaving the Senate if forced from his position.

Some had Potts leaving his seat for an appointment by Kaine, now the governor-elect, to lead the Virginia Department of Education. Kaine officials promptly shot that down, both by denying it and then appointing the president of Emory & Henry College to the post.

Others had Potts leaving to become the athletic director of a Virginia college or university. Another has him remaining in the Senate, but moving to caucus with the Democratic minority.

At the end of the day, Potts’ fate may depend on who’s sitting in what chair on any given day.

Under Senate rules, the presiding officer is the person charged with ruling on whether Potts has left his party. Lt. Gov.-elect Bill Bolling has declined to comment on the matter specifically, but has said he will enforce Senate rules.

But Kaine, Bolling and Attorney General-elect Bob McDonnell won’t take office until the following week — Inauguration Day is Saturday in Williamsburg.

Today’s session will open with President Pro Tempore John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, as presiding officer.

The General Assembly convenes at noon.