The political industry is grappling with the death this week of Virginia Democratic consultant Rich Savage, who is being remembered as a “class act” devoted to his twin daughters.
Savage’s death Sunday has shaken the consulting community from Virginia to New Jersey to Texas and Illinois, where a regional meeting of the American Association of Political Consultants in Chicago took a somber tone after the news broke.
“There was nothing boilerplate about Rich,” Ed Traz, a New Jersey-based Republican consultant, tells C&E. “He really embodied the fact you can be a gentleman in this game and be friends with someone across the aisle. And he was great at his craft.”
Traz and Savage were both panelists at conferences organized by C&E in the early 2000s. Traz remembers their presentations as “part rock show, part vaudeville and a little bit of learning in there, too.”
“There was that real back and forth to it,” he says.
After their presentations, Savage would stick around and chat with attendees. “He spent time with every single person and made them feel like they were the only person in the room,” says Traz. “He was one of the most down-to-earth guys you’d ever meet in the business.”
Savage’s generosity with his time made him popular with his clients, many of who were state legislators or city councilors running on tight budgets and with little staff. Chuck Batten, a photographer who worked with Savage after they met over games of darts at Perly’s in downtown Richmond, remembers just how much candidates would “lean on him for advice.”
“You guys pay for the mail but the advice is all free,” he remembers Savage telling his clients. “He made a lot of campaign managers’ jobs very easy. Rich was never more at home than when he was solving someone else’s problems.”
Dale Emmons, a Kentucky-based consultant who heads the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC), remembers working with Savage on state House races. In one contest in Kentucky, they were trying to unseat then state-Rep. Milward Dedman, a Republican who’d crossed the aisle to the Democratic Party in 2007.
Savage worked up a mail piece with a cartoon elephant in a police lineup holding a sign that said, “Caught Impersonating a Democrat.”
“It was so funny,” says Emmons. “He just had a great way of getting to the essence of what the argument needed to be.”
Still, Savage wasn’t out to make enemies. After unseating Dedman, Savage and Emmons later teamed up to help get him elected in Mercer County.
“I really enjoyed working with Rich,” says Emmons. “He brought joy to his work.”
Outside of work, friends recall Savage’s devotion to his daughters, Nicole and Catherine, who are sophomores at the University of Virginia. “He loved those two daughters of his and he was so proud of them,” says Emmons.
Savage was also a youth sports coach for underprivileged kids in central Richmond. For many years, he led the Randolph Community Center Dragons, a football team for junior high-aged children. During a recent season, he noticed the team’s equipment was in disrepair so he raised close to $3,000 to buy new uniforms and helmets.
“You’d have thought it was Christmas morning” for the players, says Batten, the photographer. “It was really a blast to see. But that was his nature.”
“The size of his heart was only challenged by the size of his personality,” recalls Jaimey Sexton, a principal at Chicago-based Sexton Group. “He was almost hyperactive energy-wise, which would drive you crazy sometimes but he would do anything for you. If you got arrested at 3 a.m. for a DUI and all you had was Savage’s number, he would show up with $1,000 to bail you out.”
Savage had recently run for school board in Richmond, trying to put his passion for education into practice.
“He had real ideas for how to help Richmond schools and he thought that would be the next phase of his life,” says Jason Stanford, a Democratic opposition researcher in Texas who considered Savage a friend.
In November, Savage lost the race for the 4th District Richmond School Board seat to Kristen Larsen. It was his second attempt to run for office, having briefly sought his party’s nomination for lieutenant governor in 2009.
“He was willing to put his name on the ballot. There aren’t a lot of consultants out there who would do that. But that’s the way he was. He was going to try to make a difference,” says Traz, the GOP mail consultant. “I just wish I had one more day to have a drink with the guy.”
Richmond police confirmed to C&E they responded to a call about 12:41 p.m. on Sunday to a residence in the 9000 block of Cherokee Road and discovered the 51-year-old Savage’s body. No foul play is suspected and a cause of death is pending.
Friends say funeral arrangements are still being made. In addition to his twin daughters, Savage is survived by his parents, two younger brothers and his former wife, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.