To listen to the campaign dialogue in Virginia this spring, you would think you were listening to a group of interior designers.
There is Democratic gubernatorial candidate Henry E. Howell taking to the stump to decry the such excesses as "Hepplewhite, fluted leg chairs" and "flat cut, African mahogany" desks.
Even the more somber Andrew P. Miller, Howell's opponent in the June 14 Democratic primary, worries aloud about some antique bronze table lamps.
Del. Richard S. (Major) Reynolds, a candidate for lieutenant governor, complains about "bronze-plated swivel" chairs and "Chippendale" sofas. And Del. Robison B. James, another Richmond Democrat, cries in astonishment, "Why one Republican just announced and do you know what he talked about - furniture. That's all."
The reason for the furniture furor is the discovery by some Virginia politicans that a little-known legislative subcommittee has quietly decided to stock 134 offices here for the state's part-time legislators with more than $400,000 worth of what Howell calls "fancy furniture."
Since the Virginia General Assembly does not meet more than 60 days a year and prides itself on frugality, the issue has become an intense one in this spring's primaries. "If I could veto it, I would," Howell claimed during a recent debate here. Miller does not go that far, but he admits he is troubled by "some of the furnishings."
Although some legislators defend the decision to buy $626 hand-rubbed mahogany desks and sets of $77 and $115 bronze lamps as economical, Del. Lewis A. McMurran Jr., (D-Newport News), chairman of the furniture-purchasing "Interior Design Subcommittee," conceded that some of the criticism may be well-founded.
The legislators have only themselves to blame, he said. "The whole concept is extravagant, but they authorized it," he said the other day.
Admittedly, the furniture is not the cheapest, agreed Sen. Omer L. Hirst (D-Fairfax), another committee member. "It would be poor economy to do it cheaply and then have the next (legislative) session come in and do it all over again," he said.
What the legislature has authorized, over a period of years, however, is far more than $400,996 worth of furniture. There is the $10.1 million the Assembly agreed in 1973 to pay for a life insurance building that will house the Assembly offices. And the $400,996 is only part of another $6.5 million that the state is using to refurbish the entire 11-story building.
Nor does that figure include $21,000 the Assembly has agreed to pay the Richmond Corp., an insurance holding company, for a suite of six maple and walnut-paneled offices it left on the sixth floor of the building for the Assembly's leadership. Under those plans, House Speaker John Warren Cooke (D-Mathews) would have an office almost three times the size of his present office in the Capitol, complete with an executive washroom and shower.
In all, the building and its furnishings will cost the state more than $16.6 million, or about $118,300 for each of the 240 state legislators. That does not include the cost of borrowing funds for the project from the state employees' retirement fund.
Given the reluctance with which the Assembly approved a "provisional" pay raise for state workers this year, that makes some lawmakers, including James, fearful of a voter backlash this year. "They're saying if you can't pay the workers a decent wage, why are you living like kings?" James said.
"I don't think they're building any Taj Mahal," countered Robert J. Le Forte, whose Washington, D.C., firm, Interspace Inc., selected the office decor. "We went into it from the beginning knowing that the legislature was a very traditional and conservative body and we wanted to portray that image," agreed Interspace designer Fran Berit.
That's not the way Howell and some others see it. "It's not easy to say to the General Assembly that this is not the time to buy Hepplewhite flutedleg chairs at $300 a piece . . .," he said, "but, my friends, they are only there 60 days a year and those are going to be the most un-seated sofas and chairs in the land and I think it's wrong."
To be sure, no one is questioning that the legislature needed to moved out of the old Murphy Hotel here where, for the last seven years, it has had its first offices in history.
The entire building was furnished with prison-made furniture at a total cost of $50,000, according to H. Bryan Mitchell, a legislative aide. Lawmakers and their aides were crowded into small offices there and legislators considered themselves lucky if they had a room with an abandoned bathtub in which they could store their office files.
That will all change with the new building, which should open this December. Each legislator will be given an office for himself and a separate one, about the size of his present office, for his aide. Each legislator's office will come quipped with a view of Richmond, a seven-drawer mahogany desk, a $1,172 credenza, sofa, three a $352 camel-backed traditional - chairs, end tables and color-coordinated lamps.
McMurran said he believes the furnishings are needed. "It's essential," he said the other day, "that if we're going to have an amateur legislature that we have adequate quarters."