At the time, Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax) recalls, he didn't know a good thing when it was handed to him.

It was 1974, and Dillard, a high school government teacher from Springfield, was beginning his second term in the House of Delegates and determined to improve his committee assignments. Already a member of the Education Committee, Dillard had requested a spot on the Conservation and Natural Resources Committee so he could get more involved in environmental issues.

So when the House minority leader excitedly reported that Dillard was to be named to the prestigious Privileges and Elections Committee, Dilliard was disappointed.

"I hardly knew what P & E was," says Dillard, using the abbreviated name for the committee that overseas election and campaign laws and decides crucial redistricting questions.

Dillard persisted in pushing for his first committee choice -- and thus ended up serving on three top House committees, including one he hadn't sought.

Dillard, interviewed recently in his office in the General Assembly Building, says he would love to be in that situation again.

Targeted for defeat by his party's right-wing faction, Dillard, a moderate, was turned out of office after a bitter primary in 1977. He sat out the 1978-79 term, but was returned to the House last fall, one of eight Republicans and two Democrats representing Fairfax.

"Stripped of his legislative seniority, with the standing of a freshman, Dillard knows what it means to start over.

"I lost P & E, which I really loved," says Dillard, now 46. Not only had he learned the committee's importance, he had gotten himself on some of its key subcommittees during the four years he was a member.

He's back on the Education Committee but disappointed that he couldn't recapture his Conservation and Natural Resources post. Still, Dillard -- on leave without pay from Hayfield Secondary School until the session ends -- is plunging into the tougher legislative crusades that marked his earlier General Assembly service.

"I have tried to find some major piece of legislation to work on each term that would significantly benefit my constituents and the State of Virginia," Dillard says. "Usually, these turn out to be bills that people say don't have a chance."

That was the judgment eight years ago when he introduced a statewide soil erosion control measure that took "two years and a lot of amendments and comprises" to get enacted. The process was a real learning experiece, says Dillard, particularly in those days before the open meetings laws when subcommittees met in secret on any controversial issues.

"They wouldn't even let me testify on my own bill or tell me what they did to it -- which was to amend it down to one sentence," said Dillard. He spent the next two years salvaging the measure.

In his second term, Dillard tried to establish a consumer protection agency so local governments could act on consumer complaints. That legislation, too, was considered a hopeless endeavor -- until Dillard got the bill enacted.

Dillard spent his third term beefing up the state's Freedom of Information Act so it applied to the General Assembly -- then an unheard of and unpopular concept with legislators. The bill he sponsored opened up all committee meetings and gubernatorial commissions to the public and press.

Now that he is back in Richmond, Dillard is still attempting the difficult. He's intent on establishing a small claims court in Virginia so that laymen will have a inexpensive, informal setting for taking their grievances before a judge.

A native Virginia, Dillard taught for seven years, became more involved in politics and was very nearly elected to the legislature in 1965. In 1966, he moved to Atlanta for three years where he was regional director of school services for the private, non-profit Foreign Policy Association.

"But as soon as I came back to Northern Virginia, I put my hat in the ring again. . .and won," said Dillard.

The father of four daughters, Dillard is a stauch supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and his backed collective bargaining for teachers and other public employes.

These and others moderate to liberal stands got him in trouble with his party's more conservative members. But Dillard says he hopes the party in-fighting "is over and done with." Republicans (in Fairfax) banded together last fall and carefully avoided any public criticism of each other's philosophies.

Dillard says his defeat two years ago shocked his supporters into no longer taking him for granted. During his recent campaign, he had his own organization for the first time and attracted about 200 volunteers.

"I wanted to be back," said Dillard, who plans to earn his seniority anew and hang onto it this time.