RICHMOND -- Even state Sen. William E. Fears (D-Accomac) admits "this time I went a bit too far."
Fears, a six-term lawmaker from the rural Eastern Shore, was referring to his quip this month that lowering the blood-alcohol limit for drunken driving would take "all the sport out of drinking and driving."
Since then, he has been vilified by editorial writers -- The Washington Post criticized him for taking his colleagues down "memory-impaired lane" -- and has been deluged by letters and telephone calls, nearly all of them negative.
"In my 24 years I've pulled so many boo-boos, but this is probably the greatest," he said.
For chroniclers of Virginia legislative lore, and that includes a Senate colleague who has collected "Fearisms" through the years, it came as no surprise that the blunt Fears stuck his foot in his mouth -- again.
Among the utterances that Fears acknowledges he has made are these:
"Oil spills don't happen very often" in the Chesapeake Bay, in opposing a plan to prohibit drilling there.
"You have to trust somebody when you don't know what you're talking about," in explaining why he waited to see how Northern Virginia's senators voted on a bill involving a special taxing district for Route 28.
"I was there when you needed me, now I expect you to be with me when I need you," in a campaign fund-raising letter.
"The whites want it, the blacks don't, and they're both a pain in the neck to me," on whether judges should be allowed to belong to segregated clubs.
"I want those people I told that I was going to support this bill to know that I didn't lie -- I just changed my mind."
"I don't know if I'll go out there; it's probably just a rabbi," while waiting in the cloakroom during an opening prayer. Fears later apologized to B'nai B'rith.
Fears doesn't limit his outrageous remarks to the statehouse.
Campaigning in 1989 with then-Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Fears denounced the GOP gubernatorial nominee, J. Marshall Coleman, describing him as a part of the human anatomy. When reporters complained that they couldn't use that comment, Fears amended it: "Okay, he's a butthead."
Fears and Wilder are old friends. Fears, the second-ranking member of the Senate, was elected in 1968, and two years later, when Wilder became the first black to serve in that body since Reconstruction, Fears gravitated to Wilder because "he got the same damn treatment I did," although for a different reason.
Fears had beaten a veteran of the Harry Byrd political machine, and as a result, "that crowd gave me the cold shoulder; put me over in the corner, the same place that Doug was put."
Shortly after that, in the first significant test of Wilder's legislative agenda, Fears joined Wilder in supporting a bill that made Virginia the first southern state to enact a fair housing law.
In the mid-1970s, Wilder and Fears took a post-session vacation to Venezuela and found themselves in the hotel that was the scene of the Miss Universe pageant. Inspired by a popular television show, "I Spy," in which Bill Cosby and Robert Culp portrayed undercover agents who posed as tennis professionals, Fears and Wilder introduced themselves as tennis coach and pro.
Fears speaks with a country twang, a blend of his native Arkansas and his longtime residence on the Eastern Shore, but he is no hillbilly. He graduated from Friends Seminary (a prep school in Manhattan), Yale University (bachelor of science in engineering, 1943) and the University of Cincinnati Law School.
Fears left home in Arkansas at age 13 seeking better schools, and lived with relatives, first on Maryland's Eastern Shore and then in New York. At Yale, he made money waiting on tables. He recalls serving future president Gerald Ford and Supreme Court justice Byron White. President Bush was a freshman at Yale when Fears was a senior.
"Make no mistake," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Springfield), "he's a bright guy."
Several colleagues emphasized that Fears isn't mean-spirited. "He's just a character," said one.
Shown a list of some colorful comments, Fears laughed and said of several, "surely I didn't say that on the floor" of the Senate.
"I've always acted the way I wanted to act" without regard to popular opinion, Fears said. "Often the majority of my constituents think they want something, but I know they're wrong," so he votes the other way.
When Fears and his area's delegate in the House, Republican Robert S. Bloxom, appeared on a cable television program for their home district this year, they were asked at the end to give their telephone numbers for constituents to call.
Bloxom complied, and recalls that Fears blurted, "I don't want anybody to call." Bloxom calls him "an unusual individual. On the Shore, people understand that Bill Fears is Bill Fears, and they accept him on that basis."
In recent days, Fears acknowledged that recently, "I've been very quiet. I can't stand getting blasted in another editorial. I'm starting to feel the pressure of being ridiculed."
Despite this latest controversy, the 70-year-old Fears apparently will be unopposed for a seventh term this fall.
He seldom has had serious opposition, perhaps because he has learned to be "an open field runner," in representing the diverse interests of his sprawling 3rd Senatorial District, which is made up of the two counties on the Eastern Shore plus James City and York counties, Williamsburg and part of Newport News.
One year, when a businessman opponent claimed that there were too many lawyers in the General Assembly, Fears told his constituents, "I'm not going to hurt you as a lawyer because most of you know I'm not a very good one anyway."