It was the sort of thing that gentlemen senators in Virginia just aren't supposed to do.
You're not supposed to launch personal attacks against your colleagues on the floor of the Senate. You're not supposed to make them squirm with embarrassment. You're not supposed to poke fun and make them out to be buffoons.
Earlier this week the maverick Democratic senator from rural Botetourt County, Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr., broke all the rules. For 40 minutes, he stood on the Senate floor, with contorted face, and ridiculed, lectured and chastised his fellow lawmakers.
While it may not have met the standards of decorum so revered by the Senate, it was pure political theatrics at its best. "This is a movie," Emick began in his thickest country accent. "But it has everything to do with reality."
At issue was the single most controversial measure addressed by the General Assembly this year: the rewriting of the state's conflicts-of-interest laws. Most legislators have spent the session couching the real issues in political and philosophical niceties. This week, the issue was stripped bare as is seldom seen in the Virginia legislature.
Emick did what every other legislator has been afraid of doing since the day the session began with one of its members facing criminal charges for violating the existing conflicts-of-interest law.
He ripped into the Senate for avoiding the entire issue of Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk) and his conflicts problems. He told them they should have decided the guilt or innocence of Babalas and taken action in the first days of the session.
Babalas, the fourth-ranking member of the Senate, is scheduled to go to trial May 20 on charges that he killed legislation that would have adversely affected second mortgage companies such as one that paid him $61,000 in legal fees.
For all practical purposes this session, Babalas, a millionaire lawyer, has been the Invisible Man. He has abstained on numerous votes on a wide range of issues and his colleagues, until this week, have abstained from talking about him in public.
"Hypocrisy!" declared Emick, glaring at Babalas, who was slumped over his desk with eyes downcast. Emick lashed out at legislators for avoiding some issues with whispers of, "If you're not careful, you're gonna mess up the prosecution" of Babalas.
Many legislators say that all the talk of unconstitutional laws and the efforts by the General Assembly to weaken the conflicts law are providing Babalas' attorneys with plenty of fodder for a defense. For example, the Senate, with the support of key House leaders, has exempted the General Assembly from criminal prosecution for conflict violations like the ones for which Babalas has been charged.
If that law is approved in a conference committee and signed by the Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, prosecutors could be hard-pressed to convince a jury that Babalas should go to jail for something that would no longer be considered a crime in Virginia.
"All you have to do is go out in public and they will ask you what are you doing with that stuff down there," said Emick of the conflicts controversy.
The irony, of course, is that for all his railing, Emick was trying to exempt the General Assembly from all provisions -- not just criminal prosecution -- of the state conflicts act.
"I make no apologies," said Emick, "because we are considered different. We are subject to discipline by this body the Senate if we transgress the rules."
The Senate, he said, should have proven it could do that with Babalas.
"We need to get down to the gut-wrenching issues we continue to avoid."
What has disturbed opponents of the weaker conflicts law is that the General Assembly, for the most part, continues to avoid the real gut-wrenching issues.