Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria) knows the difference between state government and local government. Having served in both, he has learned that the difference sometimes can be measured by the sight of a street improvement.
"When you walk down King Street (in Alexandria) and see the brick sidewalks and post lamps and know that those were ideas you put into the hopper, there's a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction," says Mitchell, who spent nearly nine years on the Alexandria City Council before upsetting a senior Democratic lawmaker in 1976 to become Northern Virginia's only Republican state senator.
Now in his second term in the Virginnia Senate, Mitchell, 42, is the activist and vocal floor leader of the minority party and involved in a lawmaking process he admits is more laborious and time-consuming than his city council work.
"When I was on the City Council (between 1967 and 1976)," says Mitchell, "all I had to do was convince three other people that an idea was worthwhile, and usually I could get it implemented in two weeks or sooner."
In Richmond, Mitchell has to convince at least 21 of the 40 Senate members and 51 of the 100 House delegates -- "and then the governor" -- before one of his ideas can become law.
"The process of movement is much slower," Mitchell said in a recent interview in his third floor General Assembly Building office. Still, Alexandria's former vice mayor says he has "never done anything more challenging."
His tendency to take to the floor has earned him the nickname of Jaws from his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews.
This session, Mitchell has introduced 28 bills. They range from a measure that would restore full citizenship rights to former prisoners to a bill that would set up a tort claims system to allow private citizens to sue the state.
Mitchell says he gets his ideas for legislation from several sources: Assembly study commissions on which he frequently serves, constituents, community groups, Alexandria's local government leaders and his own accumulated expertise concerning local or state problems he thinks should be addressed.
"My city council service gave me an abiding interest in how we finance local government and in the powers of local government," Mitchell says. In addition, he makes it a practice to attend civic association and other community meetings.
"It gets to be very tiring to go out night after night to all these meetings, but you do get a tremendous idea of what's worrying people," he says. m
A native of North Carolina, Mitchell is a graduate of Wake Forest University. He settled in Alexandria in the late 1960s after becoming a corporate attorney for the Washington-based Southern Railway Co. Though his Richmond office now is decorated with GOP elephants, he was a Democrat in his distant past.
Now firmly enmeshed in Republican politics, Mitchell -- the only state senator who was reelected last year without opposition -- acknowledges a keen interest in running for lieutenant governor or Congress at some future date. But he says his interest in higher office is not part of any grand scheme.
"It's a question of how much you're willing to give up to make that kind of sacrifice." says Mitchell, who worries about the "stress and strain" such a campaign would have on his family and financial resources.
The concerns are moot at the moment since Mitchell is busy being Alexandria's senior representative in Richmond and a legislator he hopes "has some sympathy for local government."
Besides his interest in the city and his proposal on tort claims, Mitchell's other legislative goals include uniform property tax relief for the elderly, criminal sentencing reforms and revamping the state housing authority's mortgage support program.
Mitchell, who ousted long-time Democrat Leroy S. Bendheim, thinks he has established his ability to "spot flaws" in legislation and has reached the point where he is someone "whose opinions are respected and sought."
If he also has a reputation as an eternal optimist, Mitchell says it's because he won't "go around preaching the benediction over things that aren't dead."
Mitchell says his ability to "keep working at it" is the reason he gets "put on so darn many study commissions and subcommittees. I'm optimistic about most things because I like people as a rule and feel we'll all approach an issue largely on the basis of where the best solution lies."