RICHMOND -- One of the heroes of J.T. Shropshire, the servile but shrewd clerk of the Virginia Senate, is former U.S. House clerk W. Pat Jennings, a fellow southern Virginian who, Shropshire says, taught "me how to deal with different groups -- that to get along, you go along."

These days, the beleaguered Shropshire stands accused of violating that political precept, as he attempts to squeeze out of the middle of the fiercest factional fight in the Virginia Senate since he grabbed his politically sensitive job a dozen years ago in the last major bloodletting among the majority Democrats.

The 40-member Senate's prevailing urban majority, which includes Northern Virginia's seven Democratic senators, has accused Shropshire of aiding the so-called Western 10, a group of Senate outsiders, most from rural districts, who have succeeded in weakening the leadership grip of Sen. Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), the chamber's urbane and imperious majority leader.

Sen. Clive L. DuVal 2d of McLean wrote Shropshire that the clerk had "breached your duty of loyalty and fairness" by helping a coalition of senators defeat Sen. Howard P. Anderson (D-Halifax) -- the choice of Andrews and most Northern Virginia senators -- for president pro tempore last month in favor of Sen. Stanley C. Walker (D-Norfolk).

"I didn't do it. I couldn't have if I wanted," responded Shropshire, whose political acumen has earned him the sardonic sobriquet of "the 41st senator."

Shropshire, 42, attributes his power to "being here every day. I know them better than they know each other, how they stand on the issues, what they like to eat and read and play."

Since he arrived here in 1966 from his home town of Martinsville as a self-described "errand boy" for the clerk of the House of Delegates, Shropshire, following Jennings' advice, has largely avoided controversy while raising the role of "errand boy" to an art form.

For the two months that the General Assembly is in session each year, he is totally dedicated to "my 40 bosses."

He watches the morning television news and scours the first of eight daily newspapers for the exploits of "my senators," clipping stories to be placed in their mailboxes at the Capitol -- with critical references diplomatically excised -- or to be read over the telephone as part of a wake-up service he provides for some senators. (He is such a news junkie that he sometimes drives 100 miles to the Trover Book Store on Capitol Hill on Sunday morning to buy The Boston Globe and other newspapers not available in Richmond. He hosts, without pay, two weekly public television programs, one of which, "The Making of Virginia Laws," is seen in the Washington area on Channel 57.)

Monday through Thursday nights during the legislative session, he dines around town with various legislators, gossiping about the day's often Machiavellian happenings. His apolitical wife, Anne, who manages a Door Store here, trades his absence for a pledge not to talk politics at home.

In his zeal to please, Shropshire carries in his car cassettes for every musical taste, from his favorite country-and-westerns to opera (the latter played only on those rare occasions when Sen. Andrews is a passenger). He has gotten out of bed after midnight to change a tire for a senator; driven the car of his political mentor, House Speaker A.L. Philpott, to Philpott's home four hours away in Bassett, from where he caught a bus back to Richmond; and, though he won't admit it, can be counted on to improvise stories to spouses about philandering senators, or bail one out of jail if need be.

"I'm no kiss-and-tell guy," said Shropshire. "And I'm no gofer" either, he insists. "I'm a professional," concerned about the institution of government. "When I make my senators look good, I make the Senate look good. I know some may ridicule me, but I'm in the chair {office} and they're not."

"People push Jay into areas where he shouldn't be pushed," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Springfield). "People want him to be their listening post for frontal assaults from other parts of the state. We've made his job more difficult than it should be."

"He loves being 'the man to see,' " said Shropshire's good friend, Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt).

Hero worship comes easy to Shropshire, who, in addition to Jennings, counts baseball's Pete Rose as a role model.

"I love Pete Rose," Shropshire said of the Hall-of-Fame-bound manager of the Cincinnati Reds. "He didn't have all the natural abilities -- he hustled. He became number one through sheer hard work.

"I'm a hustler, too. Though nobody's Pete Rose in my field -- clerk -- I'm good."

Shropshire loves baseball almost as much as politics. Each year he plans a post-legislative trip to a major league city for the "Golden Infield," which includes Emick and Democratic state Sens. Daniel W. Bird Jr. (Wytheville) and Richard J. Holland (Windsor).

In addition to seeing professional baseball games, these Boys of Summer carry their bats, balls and spiked shoes with them and do their infield practice at a local diamond. One year they paid homage to Rose by working out at his high school in Cincinnati.

Shropshire has worked in the statehouse here since 1966 -- except for a 12-month stint as a tally clerk for Jennings in Washington -- longer than all but four current senators.

He returned from Washington on the advice of a state senator to "come on home before they ruin you up there." But he had already considerably moderated his traditional southern attitudes. When Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) wrote to request a copy of a Virginia law, Shropshire tried to keep his autograph as a souvenir, he said, but his boss tore up the letter, saying, "You're from the South, son."

And when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, Shropshire said he was offended that his boss ordered him to stand guard all night beside a safe in the statehouse where the clerk had stashed his personal papers, fearing that blacks would burn the Capitol.

About that time, Shropshire became friends with the junior senator from Richmond, L. Douglas Wilder, now lieutenant governor and the highest-ranking black official in the South. "I liked Doug when it wasn't popular to like him," said Shropshire, one of Wilder's closest friends and advisers.

The Washington experience also changed Shropshire's appearance: after hearing stories about how Lyndon B. Johnson had been ridiculed as a bumpkin for his dress and accent, Shropshire vowed that wouldn't happen to him. Today, the immaculately attired Shropshire buys his clothes at Brooks Brothers and drives a BMW.

The clerk's job pays $66,209 annually. Shropshire also received more than $10,000 for other duties and per diem expenses in the year that ended June 30, according to Senate Finance Committee records.

In 1975, Shropshire challenged and beat his boss, Senate Clerk Louise Lucas, accusing the loyalist of the fading Byrd organization of feeding information to Senate Republicans -- something "you can't ever accuse Jay of doing," Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria) joked the other day.

The internecine fighting that erupted over the largely ceremonial post of president pro tempore may be cooling. By week's end, DuVal, who refused to be interviewed for this article, had extended an olive branch to Shropshire, and Andrews was retreating from threats to investigate Shropshire's operation of the clerk's office.

But the intraparty flap has taken its toll on Northern Virginia, blocking Sen. Edward M. Holland (D-Arlington) from a seat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Andrews.

"I feel it, I know it, and it was not denied," Holland said of the Democratic steering committee's decision to name one of Shropshire's closest allies, Sen. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (D-Rocky Mount) from southwest Virginia, to the vacancy.

Holland blamed the decision on "a reluctance to see another Northern Virginian on Finance" -- DuVal, Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) and Charles J. Colgan (D-Manassas) are among its 15 members -- rather than on Shropshire, although Holland observed that "wherever he {Shropshire} is, he is going to be political."