The clerical workers, mostly women with their mostly male supervisors leading them, came by the hundreds to see history.
"They told us to keep the line moving," said one woman as nervous hellos and handshakes were exchanged with Elizabeth Bermingham Lacy, the newest member and first woman to serve on Virginia's 83-year-old State Corporation Commission, one of the country's most powerful state regulatory agencies.
It took three hours, in 30-minute shifts, for nearly 400 employes of the SCC to pass along the reception line Thursday that featured day-glow green punch, butter cookies and some indications of difficult attitude adjustments that seemed carved out of the early '70s.
"I told her it was mighty nice to have a pretty lady for a change," one male employe muttered to an unappreciative group of women.
"It's difficult for women to adapt to a work place with men, but it's probably more difficult for men," Lacy said during an earlier interview, using the careful words of a judge, her official title as one of three SCC commissioners.
Lacy, 40, until last week a deputy state attorney general, was appointed by Gov. Charles S. Robb to the $64,000-a-year post, one of the most influential and powerful positions in a state government dominated by men.
The agency, with an annual budget of $25 million, regulates billions of dollars in rates and oversees nearly every aspect of the banking, insurance, utility and transportation industries here. It has often been called insensitive and impenetrable to consumers, cozy with business.
Lacy said she intends to be guided by fairness, honed by her work in Texas, as an assistant attorney general who helped write that state's consumer laws, and by her work for Virginia Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles, as one of four deputies whose job included consumer affairs.
Robb appointed Lacy after Democratic legislators, who control the appointment that usually is made by the General Assembly, were unable to agree on a nominee.
Robb has appointed dozens of women to key jobs in his administration and dozens more to influential boards and commissions. He characterized Lacy's appointment as an effort to break down artificial barriers and to improve public confidence in government.
"Because you are serving as a role model, you have to be aware," said Lacy, whose appointment lasts only until next year when the General Assembly is expected to appoint her to a regular six-year term. "It's an awesome historical moment, but you should not be overwhelmed," Lacy said.
Lacy said she lived a traditional middle-class life with her parents and brother growing up in Oshkosh, Wis. "I never worried about eating, but then I didn't have a closet full of clothes."
A graduate of St. Mary's College at Notre Dame in the mid-'60s, Lacy said the school was little-touched by the civil rights turbulence of the time. She said she worked to get a student government going and spent time fighting what now sound like trivial battles, such as whether seniors could have cars or women could wear pants.
After a year of teaching, she married and went to the University of Texas law school. Later divorced, she worked for three years as an assistant state attorney general in Texas. She moved to Richmond in 1980 and married D. Patrick Lacy, a politically prominent attorney and former law partner of Baliles, the apparent Democratic nominee for governor this year.
There were hints of favoritism when she got the deputy attorney general job in 1982, but Lacy points out that as an assistant attorney general in Texas, she had known and worked with Baliles, himself a former assistant attorney general in Virginia, long before her marriage.
"Criticism or questioning of ability is always valid," she said, saying people must judge how well she does her job. "I don't think Jerry Baliles would have hired me if I couldn't do the job."
Despite her work on a broad variety of consumer issues, first in Texas and then with Baliles, Lacy rejects the label "consumer advocate," saying she prefers "consumer-sensitive."
And on the SCC, she explained, "the key is to be fair. The way to be fair is to know the rules of the game. That way, both sides can play."
For example, she said, it is unfair for consumers to expect businesses not to make a profit, but "it's just as unfair for business to take advantage of a lack of consumer knowledge."
"In many ways the SCC affects the lives of businesses and consumers . . . more than any other agency," Lacy said. The SCC appoints, for example, the state insurance commissioner, among other influential department heads.
Her job in the attorney general's office, which represents consumers in utility rate cases, has given her some feeling for what changes she would like to see at the SCC, but she declines to go into much detail.
More consumer information would help, she said, finishing off lunch and the second interview of her day. She rejects one popular idea that the SCC should travel around the state to hold hearings and be closer to the public, saying it would be undignified. "The Virginia Supreme Court doesn't," she said.
In her 13th-floor Capitol complex office in the Jefferson Building, Lacy takes a moment to smoke before heading down the corridor to the SCC's hearing room to talk to more than 50 top SCC officials, about 10 of whom are women. Everyone stares intently as she gives a routine "work together" speech.
Personnel director James Coyne, sitting in the back, says women make up about half of the SCC's almost 500 employes, "but it's not 50-50 in payroll and in those kinds of things. We have a lot of clerical workers."
And for Lacy, there is one startling sign that best documents the change she represents.
To get to the SCC hearing room, Lacy must walk past the stern-faced photographs of 27 commissioners who have served since the inception of the agency, an unintended gallery of male clothing styles since 1902 and a reminder of the chain Lacy is breaking.
"They ought to put hers in a big gold frame, right in the middle, said one woman eyeing the black frames and brass plaques, all aligned neatly in rows that will have to be adjusted to make room for Lacy.
The woman, heading back to work after her 30 minutes at the reception, said she heard about Lacy's appointment from her husband, who saw a report about it on television.
"My husband said, 'You've got a new boss.' And I said, 'Who is he?' He said, 'It's not a he. It's a her.' I said, 'That's great. What's her name?' I'd never heard of her. But I'm glad she's here."