The General Electric Co. recently gave Del. Elise B. Heinz (D-Arlington-Alexandria) a little token of its esteem -- but it wasn't easy.
"They tried to give me a calendar, but I told them I already had a dozen of them," said Heinz in describing a General Electric reception for legislators here. "Then they tried to give me a ballpoint pen set, but I said I didn't like ballpoint pens -- they smear."
But General Electric was undaunted, Heinz said, and "finally rustled around and came up with a nice letter opener." Heinz said she accepted the gift graciously, but later wondered if she "should have held out for a home computer."
Hopes aside, General Assembly members have come to expect a certain share of the relatively inexpensive "freebies," usually sent them in the early weeks of the session. Hardly a day goes by that representatives in the House of Delegates or Senate don't receive some modest trinket or advertising item intended to promote a Virginia product or company, or to call attention to special requests or legislation.
Recently, for instance, Sen. William A. Truban (R-Shenandoah) had two pages hand out apples grown in his home district to each of his fellow senators. And two weeks ago, lawmakers were sporting yellow "Pride in Tobacco" caps from Sen. W. Onico Baker (R-Danville), whose district depends heavily on its tobacco crop, the state's oldest industry.
Over the years, legislators say, they have accumulated bottles of peanut oil, rubber-tire ashtrays from Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., hats from coal producers, money clips, movie passes and turkey sandwiches.
As might be expected, the gifts often have political overtones. Each year, abortion opponents place a red rose on every desk in the House and Senate, to mark the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down laws prohibiting abortion. Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment once gave all legislators apple pies, as in "ERA is as American as apple pie."
Northern Virginia rarely give their colleagues freebies, primarily because there are no industries back home to supply them.
"The industry in our area is the federal government, so maybe we could pass out red tape or copies of the budget," joked Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington)."Or we might pass out little Metro cars at the end of the session to everyone who votes with us (on Metro financing)."
Stambaugh recently took inventory in his office, dragging out all his freebies and piling them on his desk. They included the usual tobacco cap, the tire ashtray (his second), a coffee mug and peanuts "to feed the press and the lobbyists."
He reluctantly added a tiny, gold-colored bell to the display, explaining that he had received it for a speech he gave to a Kiwanis Club. "It was my honorarium," he said.
Del. Mary A. Marshall (d-Arlington) pronounced recent gifts "nothing compared to what they used to be in the '60s."
The veteran legislator reminisced about the days of free tobacco, free turkey sandwiches, free jars of peanut butter and jelly and free tins of maple syrup.
Marshall said lawmakers used to be treated to a "very elegant" dinner at the Commonwealth Club here until the club refused to invite the General Assembly's first black member and many legislators decided to boycott the event.
One legislative treat that has remained intact is the sojourn to historic Williamsburg. In ceremonies so grand that they are held only once in four years, General Assembly members and their spouces visited the birthplace of Virginia democracy last weekend, attended a special session in the reconstructed House of Burgesses and were wined and dined at a fancy-dress ball Williamsburg gave in their honor.
Marshall is one of the few Northern Virginia legislators who has given her Assembly colleagues a gift: bumper stickers reminding them that "George Washington was a Northern Virginian."
Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria) last year helped pass out cherry pies, to publicize Alexandria's annual George Washington birthday parade.
Mitchell has fond memories of some gifts, such as chocolate-chip cookies from the wife of Sen. Virgil H. Goode (D-Franklin County) and the coal producer's hat he "wore all through Colorado last summer."
He said he once received a gallon of peanut oil but, "It spoiled before I could get it home."
Legislators who smoke say they love the tire ashtrays, which a Goodyear spokesman in Danville says come from the firm's corporate advertising offices and retail for $2.50 each.
The most coveted gifts this session, however, are the free disco membership cards that came to legislators' offices two weeks ago -- marked "use with discretion." They entitle each lawmaker and two guests free admission to a private disco in town and preferential seating in the restaurant upstairs. The cards expire March 9, the day the General assembly session ends.
Legislators usually do not pay for the gifts they distribute to their collegues, but Sen. Ray L. Garland (R-Roanoke) made an exception this year.
"It's a way of break the ice in the Senate to come bearing gifts," said Garland, who is starting his 13th year in Richmond but his first year in the Senate. He paid $1.75 each of 40 prints of a painting of "the last farm in Roanoke."
The prints were purchased to benefit the Roanoke Valley Arts County. Garland added a sad footnote when he stood on the Senate floor and described his gift.
"Unfortunately," he said, "the last farm in Roanoke will soon be a shopping center."