James H. Dillard, a Republican delegate from Fairfax County, came here in January all fired up over a bill he had drafted to ban the sale of look-alike drugs. He lined up witnesses for the public hearing, lobbied committee members and, to satisfy legal quibbles, spent all of one Sunday getting the measure into shape.
But Dillard's bill never came out of the House Courts of Justice Committee. There it died a quiet death, only to be resurrected, word for word, under a Democrat's name. And with that final touch, it went sailing through the Democratic-dominated General Assembly on its way to the desk of the Democratic governor.
Such is the frustration of being in the minority, a status that Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly have had a century to get used to. And one lesson they have learned is to keep quiet when Democrats take all the credit. "Complaining only gets you in deeper," said Dillard about his experience. "Let's say I'm disappointed, but not upset."
This was the year when many expected to see the Republicans start fighting back. Last fall, the GOP captured a record 33 seats in the 100-member House, a gain that the minority could use to full advantage by blocking emergency legislation and forcing roll-call votes on politically tricky amendments.
In fact, the Republican threat has been tame. House Minority Leader Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax) claims credit for throwing a bloc of "no" votes in the path of a few minor bills, and has helped derail the appointment of former Del. Lewis P. Fickett Jr., a controversial Democrat, to a judgeship in Fredericksburg.
But on the major issues of the session, he has found once again that regionalism, more than party politics, is the key ingredient of Virginia's legislative process.
On the day the House voted on a critical gas tax amendment sought by a coalition of delegates from Northern Virginia and high-growth areas, the Republicans split down the middle, 16 to 16.
"We try to establish Republican positions on issues, but there's a general agreement that they're hard to find," said Callahan.
This year, the Republicans for the first time in 12 years are without an ally in the governor's office, a change that effectively has frozen them out of key strategy meetings. But within the legislature itself, Callahan has found relations with the Democratic leadership unchanged.
"When we came down here this time, there were dire predictions that we would lose on committee assignments and that none of our bills would pass," said Callahan, "As it turns out, we've done as well as could be expected."
A number of important bills this session have passed under Republican names--for instance, a bill that regulates joint bank accounts, sponsored by a Republican senator, which succeeded where a Democratic version had failed. In the clubhouse atmosphere of the General Assembly, personal relationships and persuasive arguments often can bridge the partisan divide. "There is a genteel consideration of one legislator to another that tends to keep partisanship below the surface," explained Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell of Alexandria, who is generally regarded as one of the most effective of the nine Republicans in the 40-member Senate.
Callahan remembers when it was otherwise, when Republicans were treated as "an unclean group" by the imperious Democrats. When he first arrived in 1968, Republican bills routinely were killed and members of the minority party were put on obscure committees with elaborate titles that never met.
The turning point came in the early 1970s, when then-Speaker John Warren Cooke, as a concession to progressive Democrats, agreed to assign Republicans to major committees. Since then, the majority's partisan passions have fluctuated, peaking as the occasion arises.
House Majority Leader Thomas Moss, a Norfolk Democrat, considers himself more partisan than his predecessor, Speaker A. L. Philpott, and Moss keeps a sharp eye out for any Republican rambunctiousness. Last year, when the minority forced a roll-call vote against the majority's wishes, he put out the word to kill a series of Republican bills, one after the other.
"They gave us a cheap shot and we had to get the train back on track," said Moss. "I think they were suffering from a mild case of amnesia. They forgot that partisanship can be a two-way street and when you don't have the votes you can't do that."
Working within the rules laid down by the majority, the Republicans still are able to play their own games. This year, before the session began, Callahan asked Wyatt Durrette, the defeated Republican candidate for attorney general and a former House member, for his position papers on crime. From the press releases, Callahan put together a package of eight bills, some identical to crime bills introduced by Gov. Charles S. Robb.
All eight Republican bills were killed, but that didn't bother Callahan. "The point was just to get them in there first," he said, "If the Democrats' versions pass, we'll take credit. It's no different from what they've been doing for years."
Crime is a good campaign issue. Another is tax cuts, so the Republicans threw their numbers behind bills that would index the state income tax to inflation. Both bills lost, but narrowly, and the Republicans came away with what Callahan describes as "good talking points for the campaign."
Always there is the threat that a Republican tactic will backfire. "The best way to lose a bill is for it to be perceived as partisan," says Mitchell.
Still, some Republicans in the House claim that their greater numbers have left an impression, however slight. And given the possibility of more Republican gains next fall under the state's new redistricting plan, they say they detect a new nervousness among their counterparts.
"When we were only 17, then 26, we didn't constitute a threat. But we're increasing now and we will continue to," said Dillard. "I think the Democrats are beginning to hear the hoofbeats."