Revenge of Russ Potts: Holding Virginia's Center
The easy column out of Richmond is always the yahoos in the House of Delegates running away with red meat appeals to Virginians who can't get enough of guns and restrictions on immigrants and abortion. The House delivers on these issues every year, and the rest of the state looks on in (mock) horror as the delegates gleefully celebrate their rejection of any doctrine that smacks of liberal tweeness.
Then, a few weeks later, everyone climbs back off the ledge as the Senate, the weary adult to the House's perpetual adolescent, stuffs all the wacky stuff the House has done.
Everything's running according to script in Richmond again this year. This week, the Senate Education and Health committee in a single sitting undid much of the work of the angry right in the House, and that committee's chairman, the still-vaguely-Republican Russ Potts, took considerable pleasure in striking back at the GOP delegates who were calling for his head just a few weeks ago. Potts, whose independent candidacy for governor last fall laid an egg, is considered a traitor by many Repos, some of whom think he undermined Jerry Kilgore's chances to beat Tim Kaine.
But Potts beat back an effort to strip him of his committee chairmanship, and now look who's sitting on top of the world: "We dealt with three topics that were just explosive," Potts said after the meeting at which his committee killed off a big pile of socially conservative House initiatives. "The bottom line is a whole lot of the benchmarks of the far-right mantra went down the tubes today."
Here's what happened: Potts' committee killed the single dumbest bill of the 2006 session, a measure that passed the House by 88-12 that would have banned doctors from asking families about gun ownership or safety--a fairly routine part of any pediatric check-up. (Even in the wildly liberal District, where guns are banned entirely, docs routinely ask that question as part of their safety riff, and lo and behold, there are gun scofflaws even in upper Northwest D.C., and docs say they're pleased to be able to check in with kids and parents about how to assure relative safety in those homes.)
Potts' panel killed both of the House measures that would have blamed the children of illegal immigrants for the crimes of their parents--one would have banned such kids from public colleges in Virginia; the other would have denied those kids in-state tuition.
The committee killed two abortion bills that had passed the House--one, a typically cynical measure by Del. Bob Marshall of Prince William that would have forced abortion clinics to meet the same standards as hospitals, a standard that no one has thought to apply to laser eye, dental or plastic surgery clinics. The only purpose of that bill was to try to shut down the abortion facilities. The other abortion bill would have required doctors to report post-abortion complications to the state.
Potts won't be in the Senate much longer. And many of his moderate colleagues on both sides of the aisle are in the twilight of their legislative careers. The Senate is likely to look more and more like the House in the next few years, as younger members are elected with (and because of their) more polarized political perspectives. Many Senate veterans pronounce themselves worried about their body's ability to act as a check against the House's rambunctiousness in years to come.
But the struggle to hold Virginia's center is already underway at the polls, and this year's special elections in a couple of districts show that the fight against extremism will take place within the House as well as the Senate. Most Virginians don't particularly care for the hardcore liberals or the steadfast conservatives; they crave politicians who will hew to a sensible center. That's why they found Mark Warner so appealing. That's why they rejected Jerry Kilgore's mean-spirited death penalty campaign last fall.
Once Russ Potts and his fellow moderates in the Senate retire, the only way their function can continue is if voters demand and find candidates who eschew the easy road to a polarized politics and present themselves instead as the pragmatic centrists that most Americans, if not necessarily most voting Americans, find simpatico.
By Marc Fisher |
February 24, 2006; 12:41 PM ET
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