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In Session, Out of Sorts

The Improvised Lives of Northern Virginia's Lawmakers in Richmond

By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page H01


By day, Virginia State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax) takes to the floor of the Senate to champion his resolutely conservative positions on such flashpoint issues as same-sex marriage, abortion clinics and gun control.

By night, he takes to the floor of a modest lake house -- one bedroom, one full bath, sleeping loft -- that he shares with his two legislative aides. The other men get beds. Cuccinelli sleeps on a twin mattress near the foot of the stairs, sandwiched between a dining table and a love seat.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) relaxes with his Fender guitar in the guestroom of friends Fred and Polly Helm. (Jay Paul for The Washington Post)

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His basketball shoes, fragrant from a weekly pick-up game, rest mere inches from his pillow. The blades of a broken ceiling fan hang overhead. The hum of a refrigerator just steps from his pallet lulls him to sleep.

"Let's be honest," says Cuccinelli, 36. "I'm more frugal than anyone else in the legislature." The house, owned by a friend and rented out to the senator and his staffer-roomies, is "a hell of a good deal. [He won't say how good.] Relative to the other options, it's a lot cheaper."

But has Cuccinelli run the numbers on a standard double at the Days Inn? Or driving 200 miles each day to work and back? Or -- most economical of all -- crashing on the futon of a sympathetic old friend?

Such are a few of the inglorious opportunities presented to Northern Virginia legislators in search of living arrangements during the Commonwealth's famously short sessions -- six-and-a-half weeks during odd-numbered years, eight-and-a-half weeks during the even-numbered ones.

Virginia state lawmakers from the Washington suburbs don't spend enough time in Richmond to merit buying property there, but neither do they live close enough to commute each day. Like contestants in a decidedly unglamorous reality show, they scramble before each session to secure decent living arrangements, armed with little more than their $117-a-day expense budget, their connections and the Yellow Pages. Legislators from the area's Maryland suburbs, by fortunate contrast, can commute home from the state capital in Annapolis.

A hotel room is the obvious first choice. Most Richmond hotels offer a special "session rate" that leaves legislators just enough per-diem cash for a grande latte in the morning and a bowl of Brunswick stew for lunch. (Dinner often comes providentially, in the form of nightly receptions at which the hors d'oeuvres flow freely.)

For a good chunk of the 14 years he's been a lawmaker, Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien (R-Fairfax) has made Richmond's Holiday Inn Central, two miles from downtown, his home-away-from-home. In years past, the married father of five has tried heroically -- some would say quixotically -- to keep his family life intact during the annual interruptions.

At one time, he says, this meant renting a furnished apartment, taking his children out of school and enrolling them at St. Bridget's, a local Catholic school, for as little as two months -- then moving everybody back up I-95 once the session was over.

"But you can't really do that once they get into high school," says O'Brien, 53. "It's too disruptive for SATs and sports." (It's also impossible to do on $117 a day, he soon learned.)

Instead, he leaves his home in Clifton at the crack of dawn on Monday, stays one night, then drives the 100 miles back on Tuesday evening. He leaves for Richmond again early Wednesday and returns home on Friday for the weekend.

"The toughest part is the family situation, how difficult it is for my wife," O'Brien says. "She'll call and ask, 'What did you do tonight?' and I'll say that I went out to dinner with this person or with that person. Meanwhile, she's done nothing but pick the kids up from school, take them to sports events, get them home, and help them with their homework all night."

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