State Sen. Peter K. Babalas of Norfolk, appearing frail and limping noticeably, moved slowly to take his seat today among the powerful committee chairmen who run the Virginia Senate.
"All I can say is good luck to you, ol' boy," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), grasping the hand of the 63-year-old Democrat. "I'm sorry about all your publicity."
For Babalas, the kind words from Willey were not so much about the state of his health and prolonged fight with cancer, but his pending trial on charges of violating the state's conflict-of-interest laws.
Babalas, accused by a Senate ethics panel of "willfully" violating the state's conflict-of-interest law on a vote last year on interest charges, vowed today to remain in the Senate. "I live day by day," said Babalas, who asserted that only his health could force him to resign "if they take me out of here on a stretcher."
Talk of Babalas dominated the corridor and cloakroom chatter at the beginning of Virginia's 367th General Assembly, a day that was filled with opening day glitches and miscues and even some gallows humor about the unusual number of legislators who are facing troubles of varying lesser degrees.
State Sen. Richard J. Holland (D-Isle of Wight) learned today that the Sussex County prosecutor, stung by a public outcry, is reinstating drunk-driving charges against the legislator that he dropped last month.
Republican Sen. Robert E. Russell of suburban Richmond returned to his seat today, just weeks after it was revealed that he failed to report $30,000 he received as a consultant to the failed gubernatorial bid of GOP candidate Wyatt B. Durrette.
Russell said the matter was an oversight and that he has filed amended financial disclosure forms. He does not face disciplinary action.
Sen. John H. Chichester of Stafford County took his seat, only to hear the minority leader of his party refer to GOP election losses in November, including Chichester's failed bid for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket.
"This has been a long summer, a very long summer, longer for Sen. Chichester . . . . " said William A. Truban (R-Shenandoah). Chichester, who was only briefly applauded when he was welcomed back by Democratic leaders, smiled weakly at Truban's faint praise.
In an interview, Democratic state Sen. Clive L. DuVal II of Fairfax said he still has questions about conflict-of-interest allegations -- denied by Chichester during the campaign -- that the Republican insurance executive had improperly acted on insurance bills before the legislature during past sessions. DuVal said, however, he has not yet decided what, if any, action he may propose to the Senate Elections Committee, which would hear such complaints.
On the House side of this historic Capitol today, the major controversy of the day appeared to be the color of the carpet and the electronic sound system that are part of a $500,000 remodeling of the chamber.
Even as House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss (D-Norfolk) was explaining the new sound system, it broke down. Moments later, the new electronic vote board malfunctioned and an engineer, standing by in the wings, dashed to the well of the House for last-minute tinkering.
"Hope [it's] not a foreboding for the next 60 days," grumped House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry).
In a telling tilt toward Democrats, a House employe confided that the $125,000 vote board already is programmed with the name of Fairfax Democrat Alan E. Mayer -- who faces Republican Robert E. Dively Jr. in a special election Tuesday to fill the seat of Del. Vivian E. Watts. Watts resigned to become secretary of transportation and public safety. "It can be quickly changed," the clerk said. "No partisanship here."
Moss also stemmed complaints from tour guides of the Capitol and others that the new carpet was "Carolina blue." He said henceforth it will be known as "Williamsburg blue."
The remodeled chamber includes 100 refurbished mahogany desks, courtesy of inmates at the Virginia State Penitentiary. Two promised workbenches and desks for reporters were not completed on time, said Moss, "because of a little matter of a lockdown," a reference to security problems and inmate unrest at the prison that forced a work stoppage. The furniture will be in place Monday, he said.
Moss also noted that a new button will allow members to invoke Rule 69 -- a method of abstaining on votes when members believe they have a conflict of interest on the legislation. "It will be yellow," Moss joked.
Fairfax Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid, new chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, thumbed her nose at tradition today and declined to accept the front-row, center-aisle seat reserved for that chairman. "I like where I am," said McDiarmid, who sits several rows back.
Richard M. Bagley, who preceded McDiarmid in the job and will be a member of Gov. Gerald L. Baliles' cabinet, joked that the feisty, 78-year-old McDiarmid "is the only one who could get away it. I couldn't."
Among the dozens of pages who are paid $40 a day to run errands for the 100 delegates and 40 senators is Jonathan Baliles, the governor-elect's 15-year-old son. The younger Baliles, invited to serve by Senate Clerk J.T. Shropshire, was trying to keep a low profile but many senators and aides pointed to him.
"He just looks so much like his father," said Martha Pulley, aide to Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis.