Former longtime federal prosecutor Gene Rossi is one of three Democrat seeking the lieutenant governor nomination in the June 13 primary. If he wins next month and in the general election in November, he envisions using the position as a Teddy Roosevelt-type “bully pulpit” to travel the state advocating for Medicaid expansion, public education investment and criminal justice reform.
In his decades working for the Dept. of Justice, mostly in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria, Rossi, who retired last year, said he prosecuted some really bad people.
“Cartel members, a man who killed 35 people and remembered every murder, violent drug dealers,” he said during a recent sit-down interview. “But I also worked with and negotiated immunity and plea agreements with hundreds of individuals caught up in the web of addiction.”
Addiction is a disease, Rossi said, and mass incarceration is not the cure.
“We don’t need to build more prisons and we don’t need to build more private prisons,” he said. “We have 5 percent of the population and 20 percent of the prison population. That’s morally wrong.”
Rossi advocated for more drug courts and a sensible approach to how the justice system charges people accused of relatively nonviolent drug crimes.
“Probably half the people in the local jail are addicts or overly dependent on a drug and when they get out they have that propensity to go back to the drug they are addicted to,” he said. “You need more programs that provide assistance and rehabilitation so they can make that transition to the community.”
Rossi serves on the board of directors of the Friends of the Guest House in Alexandria, an 18-month reentry program for post-incarceration women that teaches job skills while providing daycare and mental health treatment. Of every 100 females who complete the program, 85 percent go on to get jobs, pay taxes, take care of their families and become successful members of society, he said.
Rossi would like to see similar long-term programs established in places like Culpeper, Richmond, Bristol and Norfolk. Instead of spending money on incarceration, spend the money on actually helping people recover and rebuild their lives, he said.
Rossi wasn’t always of that opinion. Back in the 1990s, he advocated for the highest possible sentence for any drug crimes.
“Even if it was nonviolent and they were addicts and just selling,” Rossi said. “I was wrong.”
His epiphany came after working the past 15 years on “Operation Cotton Candy,” a large scale federal investigation of the opioid crisis that resulted in the conviction of a Northern Virginia doctor who was prescribing painkillers like candy, Rossi said. Netflix made a documentary about it called, “Dr. Feelgood.”
Programs like Friends of the Guest House cost $12,000 per year per client versus much more to imprison them, said the candidate.
“What do they do in jail? Not a lot, and the programs aren’t there,” said Rossi. “Correctional officers will admit they are not experts on treating addiction. We should not have severe sentences for drug crimes.”
The war on drugs in the 1980s spawned mandatory minimums for users and sellers of drugs like crack cocaine, predominantly African-Americans, he said.
“If they were predominantly white, you wouldn’t see a mandatory minimum,” Rossi added. “If you were arrested with a five-gram piece of crack and you have a certain criminal history, you can get five years minimum for that little lump. That’s horrible.”
Rossi, who survived a rare blood disease, is also passionate about expanding Medicaid. His daughter, Leigh, in addition, almost died of cancer at age 18. It was during own illness that he vowed to retire at age 60 and run for office.
“Healthcare is one of my biggest issues,” Rossi said. “All these others states with Republican governors are expanding Medicaid and stupid Virginia is letting $8.4 billion go. They need an advocate like me to bring that football across the goal line.”
If elected lieutenant governor, he said he would drive to Washington to meet with every member of Congress about the issue. While Rossi said he’s committed to also tackling fraud in the system, the program doesn’t have to be destroyed in the process.
The grandson of Italian immigrants, he grew up the son of a small businessman and a hairdresser turned stay-at-home mom of four boys. Rossi’s dad died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 10.
“My life was crushed,” he said.
The young boy went from being a very good student to not caring about school at all, but Rossi was very good at basketball. That’s where he met Coach Danny Jones, who he said became like a surrogate father.
“I got a second chance and I am a firm believer in giving kids and young adults a second chance,” Rossi said. “I want to have more emphasis on at-risk kids like me because if we don’t get to them early they wind up in a file on a prosecutor’s desk and they enter the criminal justice pipeline.”
The first time candidate for elected office supports universal kindergarten for all children statewide – it’s not offered in Loudoun, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, he said – as well as expansion of public preschool.
Rossi is proud of the fact that he hasn’t previously held political office.
“I wear it like a badge of honor because I think people want someone who is new, vibrant, has experience and a lot of passion,” he said. “I haven’t run for elected office, but for 33 years I’ve been a public servant.”
Also seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor are Justin Fairfax, also a former federal prosecutor, and Susan Platt, a former Washington lobbyist, aide to then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden and a longtime party activist.
Three Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination in the June primary – Del. Glenn R. Davis, Jr. of Virginia Beach, State Senator Bryce Reeves of Spotsylvania and State Senator Jill Vogel of Fauquier.