The way Democratic leaders in the General Assembly tell it, sweetness and light have been restored to the Commonwealth of Virginia. CAPTION: Picture, A light snow falls over the State Capitol in Richmond as the legislature convenes for its 1982 session. UPI
They say the inauguration last weekend of Charles S. Robb, uniting a Democratic governor with the Democratic majority in the legislature for the first time in 12 years, will produce legislative harmony worthy of song.
Fortunately for those who consider a bit of political feuding to be both the best check against abuse in government and infinitely more interesting to observe, the betting here is that the General Assembly probably will be singing off-key very soon.
The citizen-legislators who gather here once a year to make laws are not paid well enough ($8,000 a year is the current salary) to be satisfied with just the honor of holding an uncontroversial office. Many put in long hours, give up time with families and make economic sacrifices to work in Mr. Jefferson's capitol. Partisan intrigue, back-room power brokering and the occasional fiery debate, they say, are little enough to ask in return.
Forget Virginia's reputation as a well-mannered stage for genteel statesmanship. Admittedly, legislators here do not regularly make animal noises to register displeasure as they do in Maryland. But for the patient, Virginia's honorable gentlemen and ladies will display an admirable aim for the political jugular.
And the wounds are no less deep just because the knife handles are covered in velvet.
The past 10 months have been consistently contentious for the legislators. During that time they carved, then recarved the state into districts of various shapes and sizes, trying to conform to the 1980 Census and their own political interests. Their redistricting schemes were rejected by the Justice Department, federal courts and former Gov. John N. Dalton.
The cost to Virginia taxpayers has been more than $1 million. And there remains the possibility that the House plan passed last week, the fifth since redistricting began in the spring, may be sent back to them by some federal veto before the ice melts on the capitol steps.
The plots and counterplots spawned by redistricting created both political allies and enemies. Oaths sworn between legislators from different parts of the state one week were disavowed the next. And delegates who had no political currency to barter with found themselves in the middle of an uncomfortable squeeze.
In one redistricting plan, three Republican House delegates representing Virginia's Northern Neck and Eastern Shore were given districts divided by 20 miles of Chesapeake Bay. One civil rights advocate argued that if the plan were adopted, it might "spawn a new race of amphibious legislators."
A debate beteween supporters of multimember versus single-member district plans provoked unusual dissension among the five blacks in the 140-member General Assembly. During one recent hearing before a Senate committee, the Rev. Curtis Harris, head of Virginia's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, referred to two black delegates who supported multimember districts as "Uncle Toms."
The residue from those redistricting fights is expected to spill into the current session. The biggest fight will be over money. This year the legislature will have to approve a budget that already has been stripped of $250 million in federal aid.
Those federal cuts will not keep away the special interest groups that lobby the lawmakers each budget year. Lobbyists for truckers, gasoline wholesalers and Medicaid clients will be particularly energetic in efforts to get a share of the remaining fiscal pie.
And like the legislators in redistricting, the groups with the most influence are likely to have the most success.
"Essentially it's going to be survival of the fittest," said State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "That's the way it is here."
Supporters and opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment have already skirmished this month over where to allow pro-ERA pickets and how to introduce the proposed constitutional amendment in the House. Because the deadline for ratification of the amendment expires this summer, the ERA issue, which in previous years has provoked demonstrations and arrests, is expected to be particularly emotional.
State funding for Northern Virginia's share in Metro always provokes heated debate. Many legislators south of the Occoquan are not easily persuaded to budget millions for a subway their constituents don't ride. This year, however, with state highway funds in desperate need of replenishing, the Northern Virginia delegation thinks it can barter its bloc of votes in exchange for at least the funding level Metro received in the last budget.
And this year there is a governor from Northern Virginia who feels the same way.
The General Assembly will expose itself this session to an unusual look at its own ethics. Allegations of improprieties against two members of the Senate last year have spurred a new batch of stricter conflict-of-interest laws.
All of the debates will take place during an election year for the House, a fact that will make budget cutting and tax raising much harder. It will also provide more temptation for speechifying and political posturing for the folks back home.
And that combination promises to provide a very good show.