BRISTOL, Va. — Former federal prosecutor and Alexandria resident Gene Rossi made the decision to run for lieutenant governor while lying in a hospital bed four years ago.
On Jan. 20, 2013, Rossi said he was at Johns Hopkins Hospital with his wife, Diane, at his side. He was receiving treatment for a rare blood disease known as amyloidosis.
Rossi, 60, said he was watching then-President Barack Obama’s second inauguration and recalled that his two sons were in the audience.
“I’m watching President Obama take the oath for the second term and I said to myself ‘If I make it through this, I am going to do something with my life’ and I have a lot of issues that I’m passionate about, including health care, education and criminal justice reform, and that’s probably when my decision crystallized to run for lieutenant governor,” Rossi recalled while visiting the Bristol Herald Courier on Tuesday. “If I beat that disease, and I have, I was going to run for office.”
Rossi is one of three northern Virginia residents vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination for lieutenant governor. Another former federal prosecutor, Justin Fairfax, and Susan Platt, a former lobbyist in Washington, aide to then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden and a longtime Democratic activist, are also seeking the nomination.
The Democratic nominee will face one of three Republicans, including state Delegate Glenn Davis, of Virginia Beach, state Sen. Bryce Reeves, of Spotsylvania, and Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, of Fauquier.
Rossi, who was born in Middletown, Connecticut, retired last year in Alexandria from a 27-year career as a U.S. attorney. The prosecutor worked on 110 federal trials, including 90 jury trials, in the U.S. district and bankruptcy courts.
Rossi, who believes it’s important to identify at-risk children in middle school, wasn’t always a successful student.
“My life came crashing down when I was 10,” Rossi said. “My dad died very, very suddenly. He had a heart attack without any warning.”
After his father died, Rossi said he became unruly and didn’t care about school.
“I went from being a straight A student to graduating high school and almost flunking out,” he recalled. “I didn’t care about school. I did care about basketball and the lumber business [his father’s business].”
Rossi said reading a book about former President Abraham Lincoln, who was self-taught and a lawyer, led him to law school.
His own personal health problems, as well as his daughter’s lymphoma diagnosis, have caused him to be especially interested in health care. He said he supports the expansion of Medicaid in Virginia and also believes pre-existing conditions cannot be used against patients.
Rossi also supports public schools, noting that his children have each attended public schools in Alexandria.
As a prosecutor, Rossi was lead counsel in two criminal trials involving a pain doctor who intentionally prescribed 1,200 oxycodone pills daily to one patient. He said Operation Cotton Candy was the largest investigation of prescription pill trafficking in U.S. history.
A documentary, “Dr. Feelgood,” was created on the investigation and can now be viewed on Netflix. Rossi noted that he receives no money from the documentary.
Rossi said the opioid epidemic has affected the entire state, including Southwest Virginia, and as lieutenant governor he would focus on the issue. He said he believes more programs are needed to assist addicts, rather that constructing more jail cells. Rossi serves on the board of Friends of Guest House, an Alexandria-based re-entry program that helps northern Virginia women transition from jail confinement back into the community.
Rossi, who also stopped Tuesday for a tour of the former Alpha Natural Resources building in Bristol, will continue his visit to Southwest Virginia today with meetings in Wise County.