Tuesday morning, lobbyist Jeff D. Smith III sat down to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage with Republican legislators. Two days later, the menu at a breakfast meeting with Democrats was slightly different--bacon instead of sausage--but the message Smith heard was the same: Come up with some cash.
Smith, who represents the interests of the state's finance companies, was one of dozens of influential lobbyists who were summoned this week to what has become a ritual in Richmond: the legislative leaders' soaking of the big-money interests whose wallets can easily be fattened or thinned by legislation.
So once again in private meetings at the exclusive Commonwealth Club, which allows only white male members, and the John Marshall Hotel, the lobbyists were asked to sell--or buy--up to 30 tickets to party fund-raisers at $100 a couple.
"I think it stinks," says Jane T. Morriss, a lobbyist for Common Cause of Virginia, whose public interest organization was not invited to either breakfast. "It certainly appears that both parties are trying to make the special interest groups cough up some bucks if they want to get their legislation passed."
To House Democratic Caucus Chairman Del. Alson H. Smith Jr., who arranged the Democrats' breakfast for about 30 lobbyists, the ticket breakfast is simply a time-honored technique that has been used to help pay for party expenses and campaign efforts for the last four years.
Last year, the Democrats raised about $50,000 by asking legislators, party leaders and lobbyists to sell tickets to a cocktail party. Smith, who as Gov. Charles S. Robb's campaign finance chairman was called the state's most successful money-raiser, insists that the ticket sales won't give lobbyists any advantage with the Democratic legislators who control both houses of the General Assembly.
"I'm not going to vote on any individual bill based on somebody buying or selling tickets to something," Smith says, echoing a sentiment of many legislators.
Besides, says Smith, nobody is asking the lobbyists to buy the tickets themselves. All they have to do is find somebody else who is willing to buy tickets to the back-to-back cocktail parties, scheduled for Feb. 23 and 24 at the John Marshall Hotel.
Some other legislators, however, say privately they are troubled by the repercussions that may arise when political parties lobby the lobbyists. "If we're asking the lobbyists to raise funds for us, then we're putting them in a little bit of a position of power," says one Democratic legislator. "Sooner or later, they're going to want to call in their chips."
In Virginia fashion, the pep talks from Democrats and Republicans alike at their breakfast meetings were understated, relying on the longstanding personal and political alliances between legislators and lobbyists for powerful interests such as utilities, railroads, banks, and construction firms.
"They knew why they were there. We didn't have to give a pitch," says House Minority Leader Vincent F. Callahan of Fairfax, who helped to organize the GOP breakfast at the John Marshall Hotel. Packets of 10 tickets each were distributed there to more than 20 lobbyists. "We don't pressure them or anything like that."
Still, the lobbyists didn't have to be told about the potential good will they stand to win through cooperation. "They all want to get noticed, and that's a way to get noticed," says Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (R-Fairfax.) "It probably helps your image."
Lobbyists like Jeff Smith, who agreed to take tickets for both parties, say the state's citizens benefit as much from the arrangement as the politicians do. "I don't play partisan politics," Smith says. "I support good government for Virginia, and if that be Democrat or Republican, so be it."
In the lobbyists' view, the fund-raising events give businessmen a good opportunity to have an informal chat with legislators. "This way, our members can give them our point of view," said one lobbyist. "At least they spread it over a lot of different industries, so you don't just have one industry buying the tickets."
Regardless of who's buying, both parties say they expect to do well for themselves, with Democrats expecting to sell at least 600 tickets and the GOP at least 800.
"It's like Willie Sutton once said," said one Northern Virginia Democrat. "When the prosecutor asked him, 'Why do you hold up all these banks?' he said, 'That's where all the money is.' "