As the sailor's wife told her story of giving birth to a deformed baby because she was too poor to pay for an abortion, a Virginia legislator began to weep.
"The TV cameras caught me crying," says Del. Norman Sisisky (D-Petersburg), whose tears flowed during a General Assembly hearing on Medicaid funding for abortions. "But my feeling is this: You take the heart out of me, and you might as well take me out of here."
While some of Sisisky's colleagues frown on emotion playing any role in the Capitol's committee rooms (Sisisky says he received "some comment" afterward), others say that all too often the pleas of disadvantaged constituents are drowned here in the flood of bills designed to help the organized and the influential.
Given the state's legal immunity from most lawsuits, they say, those with a claim or a hardship and no strings to pull have nowhere to turn but the assembly, which ended a 38-day session yesterday.
"I've had people who are elderly or blind come to my office, and it takes me 15 minutes to calm them down, they're so scared," says Sisisky. He usually calls the appropriate state agency while the people are still in his office, and, because at first he doesn't identify himself as a legislator, he can get the runaround, too.
"There's such utter frustration of some members of the public when they try to get answers," he says. "If I have trouble, can you imagine what it's like for them?"
Joseph V. Gartlan Jr., a Democratic senator from Fairfax, says bureaucrats tend to "perk up" when they hear a senator or delegate is on the line.
Most constituents' problems, according to Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax), "are not earth shattering. You can help them get to the right agency, and in most cases that's probably all you can do."
There are exceptions.
Five years ago, state Sen. Charles L. Waddell, a Loudoun Democrat, was abruptly introduced to the problems of the handicapped. A woman in a wheelchair accidentally ran over his foot in a Capitol corridor.
She was waging what Waddell calls a one-woman campaign to remove architectural barriers from buildings, and up until then, "a lot of legislators had not had the patience to listen to her."
Waddell did, and her concerns are now state law.
Other times, lawmakers can't help, and they have to say so.
State Sen. Frederick C. Boucher (D-Washington) had no sooner finished guiding a major change in Virginia's marijuana laws through the assembly two years ago than he got a call from a distraught Tidewater man.
The new marijuana law authorized medical use of the drug for patients with glaucoma and cancer. Boucher's caller wanted the assembly to make another exception for persons with his medical problem, a rare orthopedic disease that left spike-like calcium deposits on his bones. He had found that smoking marijuana helped ease his pain.
"I listened to him," says Boucher, but the bill "had passed by such a narrow margin in the first place that I didn't think the law could be broadened. I told him that I would probably support such a bill if someone else introduced it, but no one ever did."
Yet another form of discomfort comes when a legislator sets out to right the world's wrongs and discovers, to his or her chagrin, that a "dream of a bill" is someone else's nightmare.
Del. Martin H. Perper (R-Fairfax) was about to charge into a hearing recently to promote a bill that would require moped operators to be licensed.An hour before the meeting, he says, "This woman turned up in my office, and she was literally in tears about my bill."
It seems the woman's eyesight was too poor to qualify for a driver's license. A moped was her only means of transportation, and she used it to get to work and to take her child to school.
"I felt lousy -- because of the problem my bill created and because I couldn't do anything about it," says Perper. He considered scrapping the measure, but instead took the woman to the hearing to testify. Eventually, he helped arrange for her to get a special daytime-only driver's license.
When it's a matter of tax relief, however, Virginia citizens cannot always count on a happy ending.
"Some of my elderly constituents were down here," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), an advocate of a food-tax repeal bill the assembly rejected again this year. "One lady buys the newspaper on the day the coupons come out, gets on a bus and goes to do her shopping. I don't have to worry about the cost of the newspaper or gasoline to get to the store, but for that lady the food tax represents [the cost of ] the paper and half her bus fare."
Stambaugh fears that in dealing with millions of dollars some lawmakers "forget that for that lady even 25 cents is important."