Richmond Rites of Passage
Thursday, March 16, 2006
House Bill 1002 arrived on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates, and freshman David L. Englin found himself questioned on what seemed to be a routine measure.
A Republican delegate from Amherst asked the Alexandria Democrat to explain an obscure reference in the bill to the state code. Englin was ready with talking points.
"It was a gentle initiation question," recalled Englin, at 31 the youngest Democrat in the legislature. "He was trying to stump me on my own bill." Then the House killed his legislation by a unanimous vote. And within seconds, it was reconsidered and swiftly approved, 87-8.
The House's welcome ritual is a bit of legislative hazing: When a freshman's first bill comes to the floor, on first reading it is summarily killed. "Everyone knows it's going to happen," Englin said. "That doesn't mean you don't get a little nervous."
In their first 60 days as the county's newest state lawmakers, Englin and four others -- all Democrats -- elected in November to the General Assembly have learned some things about legislative life in Richmond. You gain anywhere from five to 15 pounds. You must quickly become an expert on everything from storm-water management to liability coverage for railroads. You miss your spouse and kids. It can be agonizing to be in the minority party. And members of the other party can be great colleagues.
In the House, the freshmen are known as "Four Daves and a Chuck," because they have been lumped with David E. Poisson (D), newly elected to represent the 32nd House District in Loudoun County. He has no Fairfax precincts, but he quickly became one of the gang. The fifth Fairfax Democrat is Mark R. Herring, who joined the Senate after a special election in January.
"We've got a lot of esprit de corps," said Del. C. Charles Caputo, a retired telecommunications executive. The newcomers have gotten to know each other a lot better during the session. They have met about once a week to swap stories over coffee or drinks. They share political philosophies as moderates who reached out to voters on quality-of-life issues rather than the social issues that defined the campaigns of some of their opponents.
Two of the Daves, David L. Bulova and Dave W. Marsden, shared digs, a two-bedroom apartment in a converted tobacco warehouse downtown. Their time there together consisted mostly of watching Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, when they got home in time. It didn't matter that the fridge was empty, because they regularly ingested countless tiny quiches and crab cakes at lobbyist receptions.
"I had this vision we'd get home from work at around 10 o'clock, kick up our heels and talk about important bills," said Bulova, 36, who works as an environmental consultant when he's not lawmaking. "In reality, we get home around 11:30. We barely have enough energy to watch a half-hour of television."
"Dave's turned me on to Jon Stewart," said Marsden, 57. "I'm a little older. I'm attempting to get with it in my dotage." Their wives hit it off quickly when they visited on weekends.
Marsden, who succeeded GOP Del. James H. Dillard II, arrived with the most experience in state government, having served as chief deputy and acting director of the Department of Juvenile Justice. He switched parties when he ran for office, a decision that was a subject of some amusement to Republicans when he accidentally walked into their caucus shortly after the session started.
"They all broke out laughing and invited me to come on in," Marsden recalled. "I said, 'You had your chance!' "
Although some freshmen wait a few years before wading into substantive legislation, choosing instead to submit bills commending local groups or residents, Marsden got several hefty bills through the House and Senate, including one exempting juveniles from confidentiality when they report suspected gang activity to law enforcement officials.
The five men said they're learning to not take it personally when their bills get rolled into others that are similar but have been filed by more senior legislators. Or when they see their bills die before making it out of committee. Caputo's measure to change the state school aid formula to help Fairfax was promptly tabled by a subcommittee.
The freshmen say they're humbled at having to become instant experts on complex subjects before voting on laws that could have profound consequences. And there was that encyclopedia of parliamentary procedure they had to learn.
"It's so easy to forget whether I'm voting on a floor amendment or what the heck I'm voting on," said Bulova, whose previous experience in the public sector was on the board of directors of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District.
He admitted to late-night readings of Thomas Jefferson's manual on procedure.
But Bulova had a head start on floor rules over Herring, who wasn't elected until two weeks after the session's start, after William C. Mims (R) resigned to join the state attorney general's office. A lawyer and former Loudoun supervisor, Herring had missed the bill filing deadline and had to get special permission from the Senate to have it extended. "You're sworn in, and one hour later you're on the floor of the Senate!" he said. "It's kind of surreal."
The freshmen know they're not likely to embarrass themselves, because they have generous mentors, formal and informal. Bulova said he was relieved to have veteran Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax) at his side in emergencies, calling her a "self-proclaimed wonk." Several House members said they had been awed by Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), a master of parliamentary procedure.
Perhaps the biggest frustration, some freshmen said, has been experiencing what it means to be a Democrat in a legislature controlled by Republicans. When both chambers approved a November referendum on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, the domination of social issues important to many conservatives was clear, they said.
"It went way beyond what needed to be done," Marsden said of the party-line vote.
The freshmen said they were eager to get home to wives and children they had seen on only some weekends since mid-January. Still, the experience has increased the political sophistication of some of their kids.
Englin said his 6-year-old son, Caleb, recently claimed that he should be treated as a young teenager.
After a disagreement, Englin said, Caleb asked why his dad couldn't legislate him into maturity. "He asked me, 'Why can't you just make that a rule?' " Englin recalled. "I told him I'm down in Richmond making rules for the commonwealth."