Northern Virginia's legislators were delighted when a most influential committee chairman rose on the floor of the Senate last week and said a few kind words about increasing state funding for Metro.
But when, just minutes later, State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) made an impassioned plea against expanding that same chairman's authority, lawmakers in the Capitol chamber winced.
"God, his timing was awful," a key General Assembly leader noted incredulously."Sometimes those guys can be their own worst enemies."
The incident was, by all accounts, only the latest example of how Northern Virginia's legislative delegation is crippling its own effectiveness at a time when the region critically needs downstate support for measures to aid its beleaguered transit system.
In addition to such political faux pas, the 27-member delegation is operating practically "rudderless," as one of its own members puts it, and wasting energy on petty personal disputes and minor party or philosophical differences.
Nearly three weeks into the session, the Northern Virginians have yet to unite around one bill or a legislative strategy that could give the region what it needs most -- a "stable and reliable" source of operating revenues for Metro, as mandated in a $1.7 billion federal public transit aid package for the Washington suburbs.
"There's no question that there's a lack of cohesiveness in the delegation and no consensus on the issues facing us," said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "We're still going in 10 different directions."
Saslaw, echoing what has become a common fear in the delegation, worries that unless its members "come up with something in a real hurry, we'll be left at the starting gate. We can hardly expect help from the rest of the assembly unless we can get together ourselves."
The region's eight senators and 19 delegates -- who make up a fifth of the assembly -- have scheduled a delegation meeting Monday in hopes of finding Metro measures the group can endorse as a whole. Prospects for that are not good.
At the members only other gathering two weeks ago, Del. Martin H. Perper (R-Fairfax) left muttering aloud that divisions among the 17 Democrats and 10 Republicans were so apparent, "I'd be happy just to settle for a stable and reliable delegation let alone a stable and reliable revenue source."
The delegation is expected ultimately to support Gov. John N. Dalton's proposal to increase the 9-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax by 4 cents, replenishing the state's highway construction fund and providing new money for Metro construction. But there has been no agreement on what supplemental tax measures the delegation should seek if the Dalton gasoline tax proposal fails or proves insufficient to help meet Metro's rapidly rising operating costs.
Problems facing this year's delegation are numerous:
The ouster of Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) as Senate majority leader, a political defeat that had left the veteran Northern Virginia legislator downcast and embittered, hampering -- some say -- his performance as the delegation's chairman.
An almost embarrassing lack of seniority or political clout in the assembly's legislative decision-making.
Increasing partisan overtones in the delegation's operations, particularly now that an unprecedented number of freshman Republicans have joined a regional delegation once dominated by Democrats.
Barely disguised personal bickering and jealousies, even among the delegation's senior Democrats, whose political philosophies are virtually identical.
Added to the delegation's internal disarray in the penchant some of its members have for alienating the assembly power structure and traditional way of doing things.
Besides Gartlan's gaffe, Sen. Charles L. Waddell's (D-Loudoun) attempt to make a Loudoun Republican a judge has infuriated his fellow Democrats. And, legislators here are still giggling over freshman Del. John S. Buckley (r-Fairfax), who memorably began his first day in the assembly by sponsoring an amendment to the Richmond city charter that was opposed by the city's senior legislator.
"He showed me the error of my ways," said Buckley, smiling faintly. Worse luck, the offended Richmond lawmaker turned out to be the same powerful committee chairman who will be passing judgement on Metro bills."
Still, the run-ins Northern Virginia legislators have with other members of the General Assembly are no where near the number of run-ins they have among themselves.
"We have the same problem all of Northern Virginia does -- we pretty much cover the gamut of political philosophies," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington). "The delegation has almost the entire range, with one or two on the extreme right," Stambaugh said. "I don't think anyone is on the extreme left, though I've been accused of it on occasion."
In the House, for example, an ultraconservative like freshman Del. Lawrence D. Pratt (R-Fairfax), executive director of the Gun Owners of America, can be expected to oppose Stambaugh's every position -- from his stand against the death penalty to his manueverings for a Metro sales tax.
Division among Republicans in the delegation are equally sharp. Del. James R. Dillard of Fairfax is probably the best example of that, having been purged by conservatives two years ago and now back in Richmond, minus valuable seniority.
In contrast to Northern Virginia's division, legislators from the Tidewater and Southwest areas of the state have managed to unite when it comes to getting what their regions want out of Richmond.
In the Washington suburbs, Stambaugh complained, its different. "We've first got to overcome the philosophical differences, then overcome the party differences and then overcome all the prima donnas who think their way is the only way of doing things."
Stambaugh, considered perhaps the ablest and best thought of members of the delegation, bemoaned the continued erosion of the region's seniority, particularly in the House. Only six of the 19 delegates have remained in office seven years or more, he said; moreover, the influx of freshman Republicans this year has weakened the area's overall influence in Richmond.
Even when the delegation had more Democrats, he said, "we couldn't do much about that kind of diversity. I don't think Abe [Brault] could pull us together even if he tried."
The 70-year-old Brault, who replaced former State Sen. Omer L. Hirst (D-Fairfax) this year as delegation chairman when Hirst retired, has proven to be controversial. The diminutive, normally kindly Brault has a "crotchety" side to him at times, his supporters concede, and so far he has failed to exert the kind of delegation leadership provided by Hirst or his legendary predecessor, James M. Thomson.
Brault's loss of his leadership post in the Senate robbed him of an "insider's role" in handling tax legislation that will directly affect Metro.
"I think Brault's pride has been wounded," said state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (D-Alexandria), who speculated that the region's elder statesman may have lost his enthusiasm for politicking.
"Somebody's going to have to reach out and involve the individual delegation members in the decision-making," Mitchell said. "He can't just call all of us in and say he's the senior man and he knows what's best for us."
Brault for his part, has complained that the delegation could hardly formulate strategies of its own until the governor's gasoline tax legislation had been introduced. Now that that's happened -- with Northern Virginia Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) as the sponsor -- the delegation can consider back-up measures for Metro funding. t
Agree? Probably never.
Some delegation members want to seek a supplementary regional sales tax, others are having enough trouble backing Dalton's proposal, let alone any new tax.
Among those supporting a sales tax, some would impose it only with the approval of area voters. Others are totally opposed to having such legislation hinge on the outcome of a referendum. Still others are bent on pushing entirely different tax proposals.
"There's just far less cohesiveness in Northern Virginia than Anywhere else," said Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax). He argued, however, that the "real disarray" seems to be among the region's Senate Democrats.
The reference, he said, was to the squabbling among Brault, Gartlan and State Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax) over DuVal's new role as caucus chairman for the leadership.
"They're crazy to be mad about that," said Stambaugh. "At least it keeps Northern Virginia's hand in it."
Mitchell, while acknowledging the delegation's divisions, remains optimistic, saying there is still time for the region's legislators to get together. "Judge us not by where we are now, but by where we are by the end of the session," he said.