Michele P. Finn came to the Buckhall Fire Department's meeting room Tuesday night to speak on behalf of legislative candidate Denise Oppenhagen, a nurse who defends Finn's decision last fall to end life support for her ailing husband in a well-known right-to-die case.
More correctly, the mother of two was there at her own expense to campaign against Democrat Oppenhagen's opponent, four-term Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), whom she blames along with Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) for interfering in what she believes was a private matter.
"This is an issue that transcends political parties," Finn said to the gathering of about 50 people in Prince William County. "This is about the integrity of elected officials and the integrity of the democratic process itself. I believe that Robert Marshall undermined that integrity."
In the case of her husband, Hugh, she said, Marshall "ignored the laws of the state for his own personal and moral righteousness . . . and pitted one family member against another."
Thus occurred the most recent public airing of a feud that once seemed to have the potential of being second only to Northern Virginia's transportation woes as an issue in the upcoming legislative elections.
But recent reports that Michele Finn's lawyer, Gregory L. Murphy of Alexandria, isn't satisfied with a $48,000 state payment to help his client pay her legal fees have prompted grumblings about her motives and those of her lawyer.
Before her speech at the fund-raiser, Oppenhagen said some people had expressed concerns to her that actions by Finn and Murphy had gone beyond merely trying to recover their costs.
In Fairfax County, Del. Jeannemarie A. Devolites (R), whose vote against paying the claim has made her a prime target of Democrats, said: "The word has gotten out that [Michele Finn] got a lot of insurance money, that she has been rewarded financially for the tragedy she went through. And now you see her coming back for more. It's easy to cross that fine line, to go from empathy and sympathy to she's a money-mongering individual."
Michele Finn responded: "That is just how the governor's office wanted to portray this. It disheartens me because it's not fair. I'm just trying to recoup what has wrongly been taken away from me."
Finn said that her legal fees now exceed $100,000 and that the $48,000 approved by the legislature--against Gilmore's objection--covered her costs only in the fall, when she was forced to go to court because Marshall and Gilmore attempted to prevent her from withdrawing nourishment from her brain-damaged husband.
The Virginia Supreme Court unanimously rejected Gilmore's 11th-hour attempt to intervene, and Hugh Finn died on Oct. 8. But since then, Finn said, her legal expenses have continued to mount.
Michele Finn said that she had been through eight costly court hearings but that she did not come to the fund-raiser to discuss the specifics of her case, except to say, "Each of us has the right to our own opinion about end-of-life decisions."
As she spoke, a man and woman sat at a table at the rear of the meeting room, arms folded.
"We're here to see Michele's lies first hand," said the man, who identified himself as Edward Finn, one of Hugh Finn's brothers.
Sonia Finn, the wife of Hugh's brother John, added that Hugh Finn "was just disabled," not in a coma, and said Michele Finn "showed up one day and announced to the family that she was going to pull the feeding tube."
Finn blames Gilmore for leaking details of correspondence between her attorney and one representing the governor in which Murphy suggested that if the governor increased the settlement to something more than $100,000, he would drop further legal appeals.
Marshall, one of the assembly's leading proponents of right-to-life legislation, replied: "If my opponent wants to bring in Michele Finn or Jack Kevorkian or anyone else, she's free to do it."
Marshall said he became involved at the request of Hugh Finn's parents and siblings, three of whom live in his legislative district.
About 5 percent of the voters he has met campaigning this year have brought up the issue, he said. Of those who do, Marshall said, about half agree with his actions, a quarter differ on some aspect of his actions but still support him and another quarter "wouldn't vote for me if I were Moses."
Devolites said she has "knocked on 2,000 doors," asking voters what issues they are interested in, "and not a soul has brought it up to me." Instead, almost everyone mentions transportation, she said.
Nonetheless, Devolites said she expects her Democratic challenger, former delegate George Lovelace, to try to use the vote she cast against Finn in a legislative committee against her.
Michael J. Henry, director of the Virginia Democratic Caucus, said Lovelace "is working it." State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), who attended the fund-raiser, said that "even up in my district, it is an issue that has galvanized people. It was such an invasion of privacy."
"This drama has not played itself out," said State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who introduced Finn at the fund-raiser. Saslaw sponsored her claim in the legislature. State Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) praised Saslaw for "clever maneuvering" that got the money inserted in the state budget after Gilmore had pressured Republicans on the legislature's claims panel to reject it.
"Watching Gilmore oppose Michele Finn's claim," Howell said, repeating words she is using in campaign literature, was "the most painful experience I have had in Richmond."
Edward Finn, an airline pilot, had a different take.
Before walking out of the meeting in disgust, he said: "Her lawyer is a vampire. Don't be around him at night."