Senate's Blunt Majority Leader Walks a Tricky Path
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008; VA04


And people think Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) is known for "straight talk."

Virginia Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) has long had a reputation around the Capitol for his blunt approach.

If Saslaw, who has been in the Senate since 1980, has an opinion about something, he isn't afraid to speak his mind.

But Saslaw has never been a statewide figure. His style has been a nice fit for his Northern Virginia district.

After orchestrating the Democrats' effort in the fall to retake control of the state Senate, Saslaw is the second-most-influential Democrat in the state after Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. Saslaw hasn't changed a bit, despite his higher profile and the fact that Democrats have a narrow 21-19 majority.

In a 90-minute meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters last week, Saslaw held little back. He said Senate Democrats will block, and in fact have started blocking, efforts by conservative Republicans to pass bills to crack down on illegal immigration.

Saslaw called it a "losing issue" for the GOP, so he and other Senate Democrats plan to stand up to what they perceive as immigrant bashing.

"It's been pretty fashionable around here for the last four or five years to pound gays into the ground," said Saslaw, referring to efforts to enact a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions, even though both are banned in Virginia. "That has kind of fallen out of public favor. So now it is immigrants, and when that falls out of Dodge, that crowd will find another group. They make a living off it."

Saslaw also took aim at Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), who led a successful effort last year to cut some county services to people in the country illegally.

Pointing to real estate values in Prince William, which are plummeting compared with those in other counties, Saslaw said Stewart "has pretty much trashed that county."

On transportation issues, Saslaw vowed to fight for a 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax over five years to help pay for highway maintenance costs. Many GOP legislators say they oppose the plan.

"I don't know how much longer this crowd can put their head in the ground and continue to kill this stuff," said Saslaw, who refers to some House Republicans as "clowns."

If House Republicans don't agree to a tax increase, Saslaw predicted they would "have a nightmare of unimaginable proportion on their hands" in the 2009 elections because the business community would work hard to defeat them.

Saslaw also said Virginia's overall tax structure doesn't work because the state doesn't invest enough in its schools and infrastructure.

"We are an urban state now with a rural tax structure," he said. "It doesn't work."

Some Democrats might view Saslaw's candor as a refreshing change after a decade of GOP control of the legislature, but it does raise questions for the Democratic Party.

Saslaw, a wealthy businessman, isn't a standard liberal, as evidenced by his hesitancy to embrace efforts to cap interest rates on payday loans that hurt many Virginians with low incomes. But he embodies how liberal-leaning Northern Virginia has risen into prominence in state government.

And on the types of issues that usually generate the most passion on Election Day, such as immigration, gun control and taxes, Saslaw might become a tempting target for Republicans in many parts of the state.

Although he discounts the role illegal immigration played in the election, the issue appears to have at least rallied the GOP base last year, which might have prevented Democrats from winning two or three additional Senate seats.

And because he is so frank, it could be only a matter of time before Saslaw makes a blunder that worsens the divide between rural and Northern Virginia.

Two weeks ago, several hundred activists on both sides of the gun control debate crammed into the General Assembly office building to lobby for and against closing the "gun show loophole."

John Pierce, cofounder of the discussion forum, said he and other gun rights activists got into the same elevator as Saslaw.

According to Pierce, Saslaw said, "I see we're debating a gun bill. Half of the cast of 'Deliverance' is in town," a reference to the 1972 movie about a group of friends who survive being stalked by mountain men during a canoe trip in rural Georgia.

In an interview after the incident, Saslaw didn't deny making the remark but asked, "How do they know I was referring to them and not the other side?"

During his talk with The Post, Saslaw made an another comment that might make Democrats downstate shudder.

"We are West Virginia if we pull Northern Virginia out of the equation," Saslaw said, referring to the difference in the tax base between Northern and southern Virginia.

In the short term, Saslaw's controversial remarks probably won't have that much of an impact on the state's political environment, except maybe to bolster GOP fundraising.

But legislative leaders can become fodder for campaigns, as evidenced by efforts at the national level to link some conservative House Democrats to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

If Democrats lose just one of the two Senate seats they hold in southwestern Virginia, Saslaw will once again be the minority leader, unless he can defeat Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax) in 2011.

Moreover, even though Saslaw and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) have gotten off to a cordial start this year, Saslaw's attacks on House Republicans could set the stage for political gridlock.

Saslaw's challenge will be to find a way to speak for progressives and Northern Virginia residents, who have felt shut out of their state government for years, while acknowledging that Virginia is a relatively conservative state where Democrats this decade have had to run as moderates to win the state.

One thing is sure, however. Saslaw will continue to make great copy. He might even help persuade other Democrats to speak up about what they really think about Virginia Republican leaders, giving voters a clear choice between the two parties.