It was Gladys Keating's big moment, the hour of her maiden speech in the House of Delegates. On her desk was a bouquet of snap-dragons, blue flags, pink carnations and white chrysanthemums, a gift from her staff.
Speaker John Warren Cooke turned in her direction and gave the traditional signal, "The gentlewoman from Fairfax . . .," and Democrat Keating rose in the chamber to tell her colleagues why they should pass a law to prohibit recorded telephone solicitations that people can't squelch by hanging up.
While she read from a prepared statement - something that delegates rarely do when they present bills - a veteran legislator leaned over his desk and muttered, "She's talking it to death."
But not quite, for House Bill 203 passed by a 95-0 vote, its success virtually guaranteed by the support of A.L. Philpott, chairman of the Corporations, Insurance and Banking Committee, and other members of the House panel who had scrutinized it beforehand.
While Keating and the six other new delegates from Northern Virginia are technically still freshmen, they have gone through some intensive on-the-job training in the first four weeks of this 60-day session of the General Assembly.
Collectively they have sponsored 61 bills - the most prolific among them being Del. James E. Almand (D-Arlington) with 25 - and immersed themselves in a daily and nightly rounds of committee and sub-committee meetings where legislation is crafted. One night last week, Almand showed up at a 9:30 p.m. sub-committee meeting dressed in black tie regalia, which he had put on for an earlier reception.
Some of the freshmen have already come to know the sweet taste of victory when their bills have won approval in the House, but there have been other, not so satisfying moments too. Last Friday Martin H. Perper (R-Fairfax) thought he had the votes in the finance committee to report out a bill that would raise the tax on cigarettes sold in the county from 5 cents to 10 cents a pack, creating $4 million more in hard-to-find revenue. A few minutes before the vote was taken, Del. Richard C. Cranwell (D-Roanoke County) - one of those Perper had been counting on - left to attend an important joint House-Senate subcommittee meeting on another bill across the street. With Cranwell absent, Perper's 10-cent county cigarette tax failed by one vote.
Through a parliamentary maneuver, Perper managed to save the bill from extinction by getting it "passed by for the day" - which means he will get another chance at the next meeting of the finance committee.
While they spend most of their time sitting and listening to their more experienced colleagues, occasionally the freshmen rise to challenge a bill that has obviously broad support. That happened last week when Del. J. W. O'Brien (D-Chesapeake) offered a bill that would relieve public school systems of any responsibility for students they expel. Fairfax Democratic delegate, Keneth R. Plum, who heads the vocational program in the Fairfax schools, asked O'Brien during House debate, "Do I understand that the child expelled would be left without benefit of a public school program?"
"Yes, I think that's so," O'Brien said.
Plum didn't press the issue then, and the bill passed by voice vote easily, but the next day, he proposed an amendment that would require a school system and other public agencies to work out an alternative program for an expelled student. The amendment was tacked on to O'Brien bill by the House.
One of the freshmen who has provoked the most curiosity is Republican Gary R. Myers from Alexandria, who toppled former majority leader James M. Thomson in last November's election. When Myers appears before committes on behalf of his bills, the chairmen, who had generally worked closely with Thomson - many of them for years - more often than not will take out a few seconds to point out what Myers had done to Thomson.
"They're trying to see if I can walk and chew gum at the same time," said Myers, who has seen two of his bills protecting condominium owners survive examination in committee and one of them carried over for further study.
One of the quietest of the freshmen has been Elise B. Hines, the Democrat serving as Arlington-Alexandria floater. Until last Thursday, when the House Privileges and Elections Committee kiled the Equal Rights Amendment, probably for the rest of the session, Hines was "up to my eyeballs" on the issue.
On occasion, she finds herself preoccupied with what she admits is "trivial junk," like trying to persuade the clerk of the House to prepare official stationery that doesn't identify her as "Mrs." (she prefers "Ms."), or getting a nameplate for her door that doesn't have the same "Mrs." on it.
She has introduced a couple of bills to strengthen the financial disclosure rules for candidates, all of the measures going into the hopper on deadline day last Monday.
In addition, she says, "I've done some useful things in committee, working out acceptable compromises and cleaning up draft language . . . I'm developing a reputation as a proofreader.
With almost 1,200 bills introduced in the House this session, there will have to be many that will scarcely make a ripple even if they are enacted into law, and yet serve "to fix something that's broken," in the vernacular of the rural legislators.
One such bill has been introduced by Arlington's Almand. He had discovered that because taxicab and bus drivers and election registrars are considered "conservators of the peace," along with judges, they are permitted to carry concealed weapons. That exception would be ended if Almand's bill is passed.
Robert L. Thoburn, a conservative Fairfax republican who freely admits he ran to have a better platform for a second race against Congressman Herbert E. Harris II (D-Va.), said his first month in the House confirms what he had said during his campaign: Legislators meddle where they don't belong. He said the Virginia Code could be compressed and streamlined by replacing much of the language with the Ten Commandments.
But even maverick Thoburn is attentive to the ways of the General Assembly. "I haven't made any proposal like this yet," he said. "I don't think as a first-term person I should change the whole system all of a sudden. It takes time."