He loses a lot of battles. He "sticks it to" the Virginia Senate leadership. A maverick one day, he's an insider the next. Condemned as an obstructionist by some, he's praised as an individualist by others.
Buzz Emick, the rumpled state senator from rural Botetourt County, says it himself:
"If everybody did things the way I do down here, it would be a disaster."
With just a week to go in this session of the Virginia General Assembly, ol' Buzz has 'em talking again.
"God help you if he's against you," said state Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), in respectful awe of the man officially known as state Sen. Dudley J. Emick Jr., a frequent nemesis of causes dear to the Washington suburbs.
"He seems at times to carry out a vendetta against Northern Virginia," Saslaw said of his fellow Democrat just a few days after Emick led a surprise attack that narrowly missed stripping Northern Virginia of its prized $21 million a year in Metro funding.
But Emick, who's liable to pop up on any side of an issue and can't easily be pinned with the conservative label or any other tag, has more on his mind than nervous Northern Virginians.
In the past few days, the self-described loner with a disarmingly easy nature and smile has played out his role as political goalie -- trying to stop highway funding, almost singlehandedly defusing a controversial abortion bill, championing the interests of employers in a handicapped rights bill and opposing mandatory use of seat belts.
"He's the corncob of the Senate. He's rough," said state Sen. William Fears (D-Accomack), another rural senator who often sides with Emick. But, Fears admitted, "He's a mystery to me. He doesn't confide in anybody."
Emick has so confounded Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb, whose policies often get the Emick treatment, that Robb's staff members won't talk on the record about him.
For them, Emick is an ambitious, cantankerous senator who will go out of his way to zap the governor. The last thing they want to see is an article that might enhance his image. "He's an obstructionist," huffed one Robb aide who complained that Emick "always opposes, never proposes."
It might be a little comfort to them to know that Buzz, now 45 and with nine years in the Senate, has pretty much had this ornery lack of respect for authority a long time. "I got cut from the basketball squad in my sophomore year . . . and I never felt the coach was right," Emick said recently.
The person he admires in public life "is the guy who says 'I don't give a damn what you say' but stands up and figures out what is really going on," Emick said. His heroes? President Truman and Billy Martin, the feisty former manager (several times) of the New York Yankees.
Many high-powered politicians around here stalk through the Capitol halls as if they own them. Emick, with trademark cigarette dangling from the center of his mouth and his stringy gray hair creeping over his collar, eases his hefty frame along like a man walking underwater.
It is a quiet, glacial presence concealing an undercurrent of ambition that fairly roars beneath the calm.
Emick says he'd like to be the Senate's next majority leader. A coup against the current leader, Sen. Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton, collapsed in 1983 after it was prematurely disclosed before all the votes were rounded up. Emick's run for lieutenant governor in 1981 failed miserably.
Emick is the most prominent member of the Western 10, a loose bunch of mostly Roanoke Valley and southwestern Virginia senators who regularly challenge the leadership of the 40-member Senate. Emick says the alliance is overrated. "We have a struggle on every single solitary issue."
"I like Buzz," said Del. Ford C. Quillen of rural southwestern Gate City, "because . . . we haven't been in the mainstream of the state." Virginia for decades was run by Southside leaders of former governor Harry Byrd's organization. Now the power is in Richmond and Tidewater. "He's an outsider who stands up and fights," Quillen said.
But Emick is a member of the powerful Finance Committee, serving as one of what's called the "Secret Seven," a group of senators who parcel out goodies in the state budget during private meetings that exclude other senators and the news media.
"I worry about whether I would be a good majority leader," Emick mused, showing a disdain for the backslapping familiarity that goes with the job. "I couldn't do that no more than the man in the moon."
But later, he said, "Oh, Lord, I've compromised a lot." And then, "I make a whole lot more accommodations than I used to. You either adapt or you go out."
Emick, one of five children, moved to Roanoke when his father gave up the West Virginia coal fields to work at an arsenal at Radford as a machinist.
Dudley, a name in his family for at least four generations, is not one he particularly likes. He got the nickname Buzz from a grandmother who said "Buzzzzzz" was the sound he constantly made in his crib.
Except for rheumatic fever that kept him out of school for the eighth and ninth grades, Emick said he'd be a blue-collar worker today -- rather than a graduate of Virginia Tech at Blacksburg and the University of Richmond Law School.
Sick at home, he read a lot -- from magazines and books to the liberal-leaning Roanoke newspapers. They told him about the segregationist Byrd organization that ran the state and people like William Hopkins, a former state senator from the Roanoke area, himself an outsider, who would later help Emick get started in politics.
He grew up in a lower-middle-class part of Roanoke, and he remembers the Jefferson Senior High School fraternities that didn't ask him to join. "They didn't let you in, you were just excluded basically on where you lived," he said. His was a tough neighborhood. A lot of his former schoolmates "are in the penitentiary right now."
When he left high school, Emick was accepted at the exclusive Hampden-Sydney College near Farmville, but he couldn't afford it. He went to Virginia Tech. "I walked into a military environment hot off the streets of Roanoke," Emick laughs. "Rat year was very hard for me. I was on about every probation they had."
But midway through school, Emick decided to reform. "I came to the conclusion," he recalled, "that I wasn't going to whip them."
He hasn't reached that point in the Senate yet. Fresh from a day of legislative sparring, he summed it up: "I had fun today!" But, he said, "when this phase of my life is complete, I'm going to walk away from it and never look back."