Committee boss Hardaway Marks has a male clerk, a dimpled servant with slicked-high hair who sits at the right hand of the old man and takes great comfort in the proceedings of the day. In an oak-paneled room on the fourth floor of the Virginia Capitol, the members of the Corporations Committee are settling in for an afternoon of business and, to this most loyal of the legislature's human appendages, everything seems to be in its proper place.
A little page, freshly scrubbed and packaged in navy blue blazer and dark yellow pants, is off fetching an ice cream sandwich for The Honorable Delegate So-and-So. Hardaway is blowing smoke, adding another "baca butt to his ashtray's ample collection, and sticking the needle to distinguished colleague Tom Moss. No way, says Hardaway, that he's gonna run through the previous roll call just so late-comer Tom Moss can figure out which way to vote.
He may be a power in his own right as chairman of another committee that meets across the street, but here in Corporations Tom Moss must bumbly defer to the old man, and that is just what he is doing now, taking the needle without rebuttal. This uncommon exercise in rhetorical humility brings a touch of anguish to Moss, whose retorts usually match or surpass those of any gentleman in the commonwealth.
But what a rush of pride comes over Hardaway's dimpled drone when the boss sticks that needle. He leans back in his chair, his face a study the room. To his left are the bespectacled bank lobbyists, perched in a row along the radiator cabinet, from whence they can swoop down to the committee table and answer any little question the esteemed delegates might have about the bills of their special interest.
And there, moving in through the crowded doorway, is the lobbyist for the retail merchants, who on this day is teaming up with the bankers in an effort to push through a measure that would raise the allowable interest rates on credit card accounts. The entrance of Sumpter Priddy is duly noted by the male clerk who sits at the right hand of Hardaway Marks. First he catches Priddy's glance, then he sticks his right thumb into the air, and then, in silence, he moves his lips to the shape of five victorious words: "Thumbs up. We've got it."
The "we" in this case is a generous coalition including the clerk, his boss, some other delegates and the lobbyists. What they've "got" -- or so it is presumed -- are the votes to push the credit card bill out of the committee.
So much for things being different.
For two years I covered the Maryland General Assembly and for two more years I edited stories from Annapolis and for all of those years I kept hearing that Richmond was another country, if not another century. Of course I knew before I ever visited the Virginia capital that there had to be some truth to that. Maryland had more indicted governors, Virginia had more boring governors (at least until the cavalierish Harry Hughes ho-hummed his way into Annapolis); Maryland had muldoons and slugs and hacks and broads, Virginia had orators and gentlemen and captains of industry and ladies; Maryland had blacks and women and a few crooks and a few lefties, Virginia just had Virginians; Maryland sweated over the cities and poor people and farmers and freshmen and prisoners, Virginia sweated over state seals and flags; Maryland called its leader "Guv," Virginia was known to favor "his excellency."
Such are the stereotypes, and there is an essence of truth to many of them. But still, deep down, when it comes to the uses of power, Richmond and Annapolis are twin cities. The style is different, even the substance is different, but the game is the same. Every legislative body has an inner circle of powerful committee chairmen, sycophants and lobbyists who run things and get their way as often as not. It took only a few hours in Richmond to realize that Hardaway Marks and Tom Moss and House Speaker A. L. Philpott in their own way are no different than Harry (Soft Shoes) McGuirk or Fred (The Hammer) Rummage or Joe (The Bill Killer) Owens or any of the other legislative leaders in Annapolis.
It took even less time to realize that Charles S. (Chuck) Robb, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, is as out of it in his own way as Maryland's inimitable lieutenant governor, Samuel (Sudden Sam) Bogley. Sam may have his head somewhere else, but at least his office is in the State House. Do you know where Chuck Robb, heir to the LBJ dynasty, great hope of the Virginia Democratic Party, second-in-command of the commonwealth, works? He works in a small red-brick guard house down in the southwest corner of the capitol grounds. This modest abode, a historic landmark known as the Bell Tower, has a fire alarm bell on the top, a white door with a "Lieutenant Governor" sign on it, and room inside for a secretary and a few desks. From 1861 to 1865, it was used as a lookout for local defenders of the Confederacy. Some say it has never been used since.
Of course, Sam and Chuck have different styles. Bogley spends much of his time cloistered in his office, brooding over his stately position, which he sometimes feels is a bit much for a man of his demeanor and ability. Robb, who would prefer not to be seen in that gol-darn guard house, spends much of his time presiding over the state Senate, a function that requires little more than a fast tongue and a steady hand when pouring ice water from a silver pitcher into a Dixie cup. Sam ponders aloud as to who would be his best replacement when Hughes seeks reelection in 1982, Robb stiffly plods along toward his dream of moving up to the governor's office on the third floor of the Capitol, from where he could peer down the hill at some poor Republican slaving away below the fire bell that clangs every hour.
The public scene inside the Virginia Capitol seemed no different than what I had witnessed for two years in Annapolis. The place rocks with a steady murmur and the lobbyists can be found planted firmly in any spot where two hallways intersect. The galleries of the House and Senate are graced regularly by high school classes and ladies' groups, who are ushered in at five minute intervals and act as though they are visiting Grant's -- excuse me, Virginia Lee's -- tomb. And the press, as always, is quartered in the basement.
Even the journalists of Annapolis and Richmond have something in common -- a favorite old character. In Annapolis it was Eddie Fenton, a blustery, foul-mouthed, red-faced, one-eyed radio reporter from Baltimore, who hated nothing more than idiot politicians who thought some hearing was more important than an Orioles game that was about to start and he was about to miss. Eddie retired a few years ago and they held a testimonial for him and the wire reporters could no longer type out phony stories and place them on his desk.
The Eddie Fenton of Richmond is Melville Carico, aka Buster, who wears a red baseball cap and talks in what might best be described as a conspiratorial "grawl," a delightful merger of a growl and a drawl. Buster's been holding down Richmond for a Roanoke paper for 23 years, but now he, too, is moving on. Breakfast With Buster is the big event in Richmond this week.
This year, at least, Annapolis and Richmond also share a certain dullness. While the Virginia are having a little to-do over attempts to cut the state food tax and Marylanders are scrapping over prisons and interest rates, neither session could be classified as the knock-down, heavyweight variety. But on this court, there is a wonderful divergence of styles. To many Virginia politicians, doing nothing is government at its finest; too much action makes them nervous. Maryland's polls are just the opposite.
So bored and depressed was Prince George's Del. Gerry Devlin the other day that he said he was thirsting for a little sleaze to liven things up. The closest he could come was the night when he and some other delegates huddled secretly up on the fourth floor of the Lowe House Office Building with a band of race track owners and lobbyists. But there were no deals to be cut that night, and even before any of the guys could get their feet up on the table the gathering was interrupted by a woman who opened the door, took a look around at the vested, cigar-puffing throng, and asked, ever so seriously: "Is this the meeting of the Ethics Committee?"