Minutes before the House of Delegates was to vote on a Northern Virginia strategy to pump more money into mass transit, Del. Warren G. Stambaugh and his colleagues were sitting in a fourth floor office in the General Assembly Building here, furiously lining up votes.
"Beasley Jones wants some damn bypass down there," said Stambaugh, an Arlington Democrat. He peered through thick glasses at a list of 100 legislators, recalling that Jones, a Democrat from rural Dinwiddie County, once expressed an interest in a bypass of Emporia, a town near the North Carolina border. "Can't we tell Beasley we'll give him his bypass?"
To some in Richmond, the strategy smacked of pork-barrel politics, something repugnant to the state's gentlemanly political tradition. Stambaugh's supporters see it as a mark of the 37-year-old liberal's shrewdness and an indication of how far he has come since he arrived in the General Assembly eight years ago.
Stambaugh, regarded as the floor leader of the often fractious Northern Virginia delegation, dismisses criticism of his transit strategy. Giving people what they want, he says, is simply good politics. "It's the essence of the legislative process. You identify needs, wants, greed--however you want to describe it--and try to do something about them. If you don't meet those needs, you don't get your bill passed."
His blatant transit strategy came within one vote of winning, establishing him as the delegate to be reckoned with when a gasoline tax measure he hopes to link to Metro funding emerges from a conference committee later this week.
"He does miracle work with impossible issues, even though he hasn't always been able to get them across the goal line," says Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), a former House member. "It's a monument to his incredible ability that he can get them as far as he gets them."
The transit maneuver was vintage Stambaugh, the same technique that has brought him narrow victories and slim defeats on some unlikely issues in past years and won him a reputation as one of the House's most effective members. Armed with nothing more than his own somewhat bombastic manner, irreverent humor and a savvy knack for knowing what other delegates want, Stambaugh has put together coalitions of Democrats and Republicans, Northern Virginia suburbanites and delegates from the coal country. Beneath that blue pin-striped suit, his friends say, beats the heart of a legislative wheeler-dealer, a Lyndon Johnson in Mr. Jefferson's Capitol.
"I think Warren does a good job, and he works hard at it, and he's smart," says House Majority Leader Thomas Moss of Norfolk, who found himself scurrying for votes at the last minute to turn back Stambaugh's transit coalition. "I don't think there's any question but that Warren has matured as a legislator."
At first glance, Warren G. Stambaugh seems an unlikely character to wield much influence in the tradition-bound Virginia statehouse. When he speaks, it is with the broad accent of his native Kentucky, not a dulcet Virginia drawl. His blond, windblown locks, untamed by regular haircuts, would seem more at home on one of the Beach Boys.
And then there are his politics. In a state that often views liberal thinking as abhorrent, Stambaugh is an outspoken advocate of the repeal of the state's sales tax on food, Medicaid funding for abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment. He thinks the state's tax laws are too often tilted in favor of big business and he opposes the death penalty.
When Stambaugh first got here, back in 1974, everybody had a story to tell about the new wild-eyed liberal from Northern Virginia. One of his first floor speeches was a fiery call for the House to dump a bill, offered by the Senate leadership, that was to give a tax break to several life insurance companies. The House listened disinterestedly he recalls, then voted 91 to 5 against him. The same thing happened when he clambered out of his back-row House seat to oppose the death penalty.
"In the beginning, he looked a little like the Henry Howell type who liked to ride off in his flashing armor, accomplishing nothing," says Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington), recalling the image that Howell, the Democratic Party's populist leader evoked. "He Stambaugh led his own fights in his own way, and didn't tell people what he was up to. Gradually it dawned on him that it would be better if we all worked together."
Before long, Stambaugh was conserving his ammunition for the close votes and the bills that he believed really mattered. In 1978, he won House approval for a bill granting state abortion funding for indigent women, a measure that brought Stambaugh, a Catholic, under intense criticism from church leaders. That bill crept through the House on a vote of 52 to 44, then died in the Senate.
Two years later, he was the driving force behind a Northern Virginia gasoline tax to help the Metro transit system. It squeaked through on a 51-to-47 vote and was signed into law. Last year he succeeded in getting the House to approve a repeal of the state's regressive food tax, only to see the bill torpedoed in a Senate committee.
"I guess you learn when to push and when to step back," he says. "I've learned when it's important to make a point even when you have no chance of winning, and when not to."
Along the way, Stambaugh says he has tempered his personal style. While he used to rail at the lawyers who hold the reins of power in the Virginia statehouse, Stambaugh now courts their support. It doesn't hurt that he since has become a lawyer himself.
Formerly a writer for the American Automobile Association, Stambaugh quit his job in 1976 when AAA raised questions about his support of a gasoline tax, his opposition to the construction of I66, and his frequent absences to attend legislative meetings. After a stint as an insurance salesman, he went to law school and has set up an Arlington legal practice with his wife, Dottie.
Still, Stambaugh has lost none of his intensity or bluntness. And while he boasts one of the larger egoes in the statehouse, he is perhaps more genial, more circumspect, and more polished than he used to be.
A recent morning found him joshing good-naturedly with the chairman of a Senate committee over one of his bills, opposed by county officials in Arlington, that was designed to slow the conversion of apartments to condominiums. "I want to indulge you, Mr. Stambaugh, but this committee has other bills waiting," committee chairman Hunter B. Andrews said tartly as Stambaugh shepherded his witnesses before the panel.
"You know, mister chairman, I'd be happy to cut off testimony if you'd cut out all the opposition, too," Stambaugh retorted, grinning.
Moments later the smile had vanished and Stambaugh had shifted into the pugnacious speaking style that is his trademark, demanding that the committee come to the aid of "the people on fixed incomes, the poor and elderly tenants who are being driven out of their apartments right now."
It was just the kind of performance that has won Stambaugh the grudging respect of House Speaker A.L. Philpott, a conservative, and the attention, if not always the support, of his colleagues when he speaks on the House floor.
"When he talks, the floor is silent," says Marshall. "That doesn't necessarily mean they'll be persuaded, but at least they're listening."
It's been nine sessions now since Stambaugh came to the House, and almost as long since he and his closest friends here (a group jokingly called the "Young Turks") started gathering in the bar of a Holiday Inn to plan for the day they seize power. To Stambaugh that was a few lifetimes ago, before several of his pals started talking about retiring, before his blond hair started thinning.
He still holds some illusions about being speaker himself sometime, but nowadays he's tempering his ambition with realism. "The world's got to change six times before I get a chance to be speaker," Stambaugh says. "We may be talking 20 years down the road. I'm not sure I want to wait that long."