When J. Marshall Coleman, Virginia's wisecracking, outspoken and supremely self-confident attorney general, appears in the General Assembly, he knows what to expect from most of the state's lawmakers: hostility.
"I just don't trust him," says House Speaker A. L. Philpott, whose sentiments are shared by many of the legislature's Democrats. Like Philpott, they accuse the boyish Colemen of being too political, too inconsistent, and just too publicity-hungry for a state that has traditionally preferred political leaders with low profiles and cautious rhetoric.
The Democrats say they have no desire to boost further the career of next year's likely Republican nominee for governor. There is also an element of professional jealousy. Many legislators resent Coleman's meteoric rise to become, at 37, the first Republican in the post, an office many of them aspire to.
Nor is there much love among Democrats for Coleman as a senior official and ally of the strongly partisan administration of Republican Gov. John N. Dalton, non too popular himself among the legislature's Democrats.
But perhaps the biggest reason stems from the belief of many delegates and senators -- not all of them Democrats -- that Marshall Coleman is a slick, power-hungry political opportunist whose only real interest is self-advancement.
Coleman, who has good looks that many women voters love and a mischievous grin that his elders find suspicious, shrugs off such criticism.
"You know, I could get along fine with those people if I played along with them and suspended my critical faculties," he said recently as he stared out his office window at the Capitol just across the street.
A Virginia legislator himself during the mid-1970s, Coleman earned a reputation as a maverick and a grandstander that many veterans have not forgotten.
"People got to see Marshall operate here," says J. Samuel Glasscock (D-Suffolk), a highly respected delegate who has opposed some of Coleman's legislative proposals. "After a while, there was the impression that he was more concerned about what was politically best rather than what was right."
For Colemen, who is struggling to prove to Virginia's conservative Republican factions that he is acceptable both ideologically and personally, the charges could prove damaging.
They also suggest that a Coleman reign as governor could prove a stormy one. At a time when legislative politics are increasingly partisan, many observers expect the same Democrats who blackballed Coleman's bills when he was a delegate and a senator will do the same for Gov. Coleman. b
Coleman and his supporters attribute much of the bad blood to his refusal to play politics by the gentlemen's rules that dominate the legislature.
"Marshall's never been part of the club," says William R. Royall Jr., a close friend and political adviser. "He's nobody's front man."
But Coleman's legislative critics tell a different story. They argue he has spent more time hunting for publicity than running his office. Whether the issue is gasohol, nuclear safety or school violence, Coleman has made a pronouncement, often in a press release shrewdly timed for the weekend when the press is usually hard up for news stories.
Sometimes the press release mania backfires. Last August, Coleman issued a statement condominion ringing language the Supreme Court's decision allowing trials to be closed under certain circumstances. "The only way to reassure the people that trials are conducted in a fair manner is to allow public scrutiny whenever possible," said Coleman, citing "the threat of a secret system of justice."
Yet three weeks ago, Coleman filed a brief with the Supreme Court defending the closing of a 1978 Hanover County murder trial. Coleman argues in the brief that the public does not have a constitutional right to attend criminal trials and that public hearings could, under some circumstances, threaten a defendant's right to a fair trial.
"Marshall is developing a credibility problem," says Chan Kendrick, Virginia director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It'll catch up to him at some point. People who do that kind of thing long enough get caught at it."
Kendrick and other critics believe Coleman, who two years ago won endorsements from liberal teachers and civil right groups, is now more concerned with placating conservatives who may try to deny him the Republican nomination.
Part of Coleman's move to the right, these critics charge, is his increasingly hard-line stand on criminal justice issues. He has enthusiastically support Gov. John N. Dalton's proposal to spend at least $44 million on new prison construction over the next two years at a time when corrections officials themselves would have preferred to put some of the money into improved rehabilitation programs.
"He's made a calculated decision that he wants to appear as hard and tough as possible," says Del. James F. Almand (D-Arlington), "Whether he really believes in it is a question only he could answer."
Part of the get-tough approach is Coleman's support of uniform sentencing of criminals, a proposal that would eliminate much of the broad discretion judges and juries now have in fixing punishment for crimes. Coleman contends that wide disparities in sentencing help undermine the credibility of the legal system and that the certainty of a prison sentennce would deter some criminals.
But Glasscock and other legislators strongly disagree. They argue that uniform sentencing doesn't take sufficient note of a criminal's past record, and other potentially mitigating factors. And many of them feel Coleman has attempted to shove the prorposal down their throats.
"He presents it as a way to save society," complains Glassock. "And he makes it sound like if you disagree with him, you're somehow soft on crime." h
Coleman supporters deny that uniform sentencing or any of his other proposals are vote-getting gimmicks. "Would he be banging his head against the wall for three straight years on uniform sentencing if he didn't really believe in it?" asks Sen. Wiley M. Mitchell (R-Alexandria).
Coleman's problems with the legislature date back to 1975 when, as a delegate, he aggressively pushed a lobbying reform bill that many legislators felt was poorly written. Several say Coleman pressured them mercilessly to support the bill even though he too was aware of its defects.
"The bill was a mess," recalls Del. Warren E. Barry, a Fairfax Republican. "But a lot of us ended up voting for it because Marshall gave us no choice."
In the end, the bill was killed. The next year, Common Cause, the lobbying group, found a new sponsor for the bill because several members recall, Coleman had become so unpopular his sponsorship would have automatically doomed the bill.
"The word from the leadership was that 'anything that son of a bitch sponsors is dead,'" recalls one Common Cause member.
Relations got even worse in 1977 when then-Sen. Coleman beat long-time Del. Edward E. Lane of Richmond for attorney general. One of Coleman's first acts in office was to remove lucrative local condemnation cases for the state Highway Department from Democratic law firms and give them to Republican ones. Only a veto by GOP Gov. Dalton prevented an incensed Assembly from stripping Coleman of that authority.
His supporters cite Coleman's 1977 senate vote for the Equal Rights Amendment as one proof that he doesn't always do the politically expedient thing. At that time, he faced an uphill fight for the attorney general's nomination at a Republican convention dominated by anti-ERA leadership.
"Marshall isn't afraid to take a stand, he listens to advice and he's a leader," says Mitchell. "He'd make a great governor and if the price I have to pay is to listen to some occasional theatrics, then I'm willing to listen." t