At the front of the room, some of the Virginia Senate's more dignified members were preparing to ponder the matter of reapportionment.
At the rear, it was a somewhat different scene. Republican Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell of Alexandria was crouching on the floor examining a map that showed the Democrats' latest plan for redrawing his district and hollering at Sen. Clive DuVal (D-Arlington-Fairfax).
"For chrissakes, you can't give me half of St. Albans's precinct," Mitchell shouted, his nose almost touching the paper. "It's not adjacent to anything. I may fillibuster you for three days over this one."
For Mitchell, a member of the Senate panel that oversees reapportionment, yesterday marked yet another of the acrimonious political battles that surround Virginia's efforts to be the first state in the nation to complete its redistricting chores.
While Mitchell loudly was criticizing the system through which majority Democrats were restructuring his district, it became clear that a victory for the Democrats also meant a victory for the Republican incumbent -- at least in Mitchell's case. "It's really a good deal for Mitchell, " said Christoper Spanos, a Democratic party regular who was serving as a reapportionment aide. "He's not going to complain too much because everything he picked up is Republican."
Mitchell and his colleagues on the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee travelled to Northern Virginia yesterday as part of a two-day swing to hear testimony on proposals for redrawing the state's senate and congressional districts to keep pace with population shifts that showed up in the 1980 census results.
For over an hour they heard testimony from Northern Virginia politicians and voters, but many who testified did not have much hope that their words would hope much sway with the politicians on the committee, many of whose districts will be affected by the reapportionment. "They'll just listen and grin and cringe and do what they want to do," said Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William.)
Colgan was proposing to divide Prince William County's senatorial district in two and pair half of it with Fauquier County, effectively increasing Northern Virginia's senate representation by one member.
As panel members listened attentively, several acknowledged in conversation that political considerations of individual senators are the deciding factor in reapportionment plans.
"You know you've got to look out for yourself," said Sen. Adelard L Brault (D-Fairfax) about plans to add nine predominantly Republican precincts to Mitchell's Alexandria district, which falls short of the 133,600 population required under state guidelines. "You don't want to give up precincts you think you can win. Doesn't that make sense?"
Under the plan that the majority Democrats devised, Mitchell will pick up a handful of precincts along Alexandria's northwestern border from Brault and Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), and few more to the south from Sen. Joseph Gartlan (D-Fairfax). The St. Alban's precinct, to the north, actually was contiguous with others included in the plan.
Panel members were less than favorable to Colgan's idea, which would have removed Fauquier County from the 29th Senatorial District of committee member William A. Truban (R-Winchester) while putting 67,000 Prince William County residents in the 28th Senatorial District of Sen. John Chichester (R-Fredericksburg).
"Tha [proposal] would be very difficult to do," Sen. Hunter Andrews (D-Hampton), the panel's chairman and the majority leader of the Senate, said after the meeting. "We cannot decide reapportionment in a vacuum, and that proposal will affect senatorial districts all across the state down to the North Carolina line."
Chichester, who won the ire of many Northern Virginias last year when he cast the deciding vote against the Equal Rights Amendment, is known to oppose the idea.
Yesterday's hearing by the Senate committee drew far fewer participants than one held last week by its House counterpart, largely because the last decade's population shifts have not been severe enough to call for drastic changes in Northern Virginia's senatorial map.
Those who attended said Northern Virginians will have as much trouble getting their own pet proposals through the Senate as they will see in the House, where panel members have indicated their disapproval over Northern Virginia's pleas for two additional delegates.
"There's a division between Northern Virginia and the rest of the state," said Colgan, noting that the Tidewater area, which holds several key leadership posts in the legislature, is better equipped to get its way. "The division is there and I don't know how you heal it."