By Patrick Wilson Richmond – SOURCE
Gene Rossi lay in a bed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, dangerously ill, and watched the inauguration of Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2013.
His wife Diane comforted him. Rossi was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare disease, and his doctor said there was only a 50 percent chance he’d survive.
“I said to myself, if I make it through this, I am going to retire when I’m 60, I’m going to end my 27-year Department of Justice career, I am going to do something involving the issues that I care about. And of course health care is among them,” Rossi said. “I thought about lieutenant governor. I did.”
Four years later, the longtime assistant U.S. attorney from Alexandria is one of three Democrats running for lieutenant governor in the June 13 primary.
“I’m taking my case to the voters, and the voters are my jury,” he said. “And I’m trying to persuade them that I’m the best candidate.”
Also in the hunt for the party’s nomination are Justin Fairfax, also a former federal prosecutor, and Susan Platt, a former lobbyist in Washington, aide to then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden and a longtime Democratic activist.
All three Democratic candidates live in Northern Virginia, and the winner will face one of three Republicans: State Del. Glenn Davis of Virginia Beach, state Sen. Bryce Reeves of Spotsylvania and Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier.
The role of the part-time job is to preside over the Senate when the General Assembly is in session, but the statewide office could also be a launching pad in a future run for governor.
Rossi said his try at politics comes naturally.
“I have a passion for protecting people and fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves,” he said.
The 60-year-old received a “brand new blood supply” in 2013.
Lessons of hard work
His life began in Middletown, Conn., where he worked at his father’s lumber business as a boy, handing out paychecks to workers he described as “arms-like-Popeye, tough customers.” Rossi’s first paycheck of his own was for $1.92 for eight hours of work. He has it framed on his wall.
His father died of heart failure when young Rossi was in fifth grade. “My dad taught me a lot of things. He taught me the wonder of hard work. He taught me meaning from hard work.
“For the next seven years, I would be classified as an at-risk kid,” Rossi said.
The reason? He cared more about work and basketball than studying.
Rossi, an all-state player in Connecticut, once scored 41 points in a 32-minute game. “And guess what. There was no three-point shot,” he said.
“I hustled, and when I drove to the basket I was either going to make that shot or you were going to foul me. I took it to the hoop all the time.”
Rossi’s basketball coach, Danny Jones, became a surrogate father, he said.
“Tell him that story about the guidance counselor,” Rossi campaign manager Scott Remley told him during an interview at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
That story is about how Rossi almost flunked out of high school. He needed documentation from his file to get into college, and a school counselor told him he was 100 of 120 in his class.
“I earned it,” Rossi said. “I wasn’t John Belushi, but let me put it this way. ‘Animal House’ has a lot of scenes that I relate to.”
But he did study hard in college at Fairfield University and earned law degrees from American University and Georgetown University.
Inspired by Lincoln
The book, “With Malice Toward None; A Life of Abraham Lincoln” by Stephen Oates, inspired Rossi to study law. He now teaches at Harvard Law School and George Mason University.
“Abraham Lincoln was self-taught. He did not have a formal education. And he applied himself,” Rossi said. “And he had just a beautiful way with words, probably our most eloquent president ever.”
And Lincoln was a great trial lawyer, something Rossi aspired to be.
He joined the Justice Department after working in the Washington office of Connecticut Gov. William O’Neill. During his long career, Rossi trained hundreds of federal prosecutors and handled 110 federal trials.
Among them was the conviction of Dr. William Hurwitz, a pain specialist from McLean who was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 25 years.
An appeals court overturned his conviction, faulting an instruction the initial trial judge gave the jury, but he was convicted again in a retrial.
His sentence later was reduced to less than five years, when federal Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that Hurwitz helped more patients than he hurt, according to a 2007 Washington Post story.
As lieutenant governor, Rossi said, he would educate the public on the dangers of opioid addiction and advocate for rehabilitation services to help addicts.
Aside from policy, Rossi likes to talk about his family and its importance to him. In 2009, his daughter, then 18, underwent successful treatments for a lymphoma over her heart. After that, he thought the family was doing well, until he was diagnosed with his disease.
Diane Rossi worked as chief of staff to Richard Riley, President Bill Clinton’s education secretary. Gene Rossi proposed to her on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial.
“I re-wrote the Declaration of Independence and called it the Declaration of Love,” he said. “And I read it, and that was my proposal. And she said yes.”
Will Democratic primary voters say “I do”?
Gene Rossi said he’s feeling confident.