Virginia state Sen. Edward E. Willey of Richmond, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee whose influence extends throughout state government, suffered a disabling stroke yesterday, setting off what is expected to be a major political upheaval in the state legislature.
"It's like a set of dominoes," one prominent state senator said as political leaders across the state expressed concern for 76-year-old Willey and began assessing the effect of his expected absence.
It is expected to be felt immediately on a commission headed by Willey that is drafting a report on the state's transportation needs. The report will set the agenda for a special legislative session in September.
"The Senate will be an entirely different place if he is unable to perform," said state Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt). Emick is among several senators who could emerge as leaders should Willey be unable to return.
Willey, whose near dictatorial power during the past decade has both enraged and humbled many in the 40-member Senate, was stricken in Virginia Beach about 5 a.m. yesterday and rushed to a hospital.
State officials said Willey suffered paralysis on his right side and was unable to speak. Hospital reports late yesterday said only that he was in intensive care in stable condition.
Northern Virginia senators, who have annually had to convince Willey of the need for state funding of the Metro transit system, could gain significantly in the Senate hierarchy, including Clive L. DuVal 2nd of Fairfax, now ranked eighth in seniority, and Joseph V. Gartlan Jr., also of Fairfax, ranked ninth.
"There are any number of spinoffs," said Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a former state senator from Richmond who was in Washington yesterday with other state officials for a meeting with the state congressional delegation.
Willey, who has been in declining health for several years and was sidelined for several months by a heart attack in 1982, was in Virginia Beach to participate in a House Appropriations Committee tour of the Tidewater area when he became ill.
"My concern is for his health and that of his family," said Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, attending a briefing session his office arranged on Capitol Hill.
Baliles declined to comment on Willey's condition or the effect his incapacitation may have. Willey is chairman of Baliles' Commission on Transportation Into the 21st Century, the governor's ambitious attempt to prepare for massive spending on highways and roads during the special session in September.
Baliles scored a major victory when he persuaded Willey to head the transportation commission. Willey had placed his considerable influence and pride behind a highway funding measure of his own that was approved with sharply reduced funds when Baliles refused to support it.
Willey more recently had been preparing opposition to any effort by the commission to recommend bonds to build roads, state government officials say. That could be a serious problem for Baliles, who is said to be seeking a package of gasoline taxes, bonds and possibly an increase in the state sales tax to finance construction.
Willey, a retired Richmond druggist who was first elected to the Senate in 1951, also is president pro tem of the Senate, the chamber's senior member, and chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the investigative arm of the legislature.
Several other senior Democrats in the Senate are in poor health, including William F. Parkerson Jr. (D-Henrico), of suburban Richmond, who is ranked second, and Peter K. Babalas of Norfolk, who is ranked fourth.
State Sen. Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton, the majority leader and third-ranking member of the Senate, would be expected to take over as chairman of the Finance Committee, but several senators said he would be likely to wield less power than Willey.