Lawmakers were already edgy when they returned here Jan. 8 -- a shriveled budget and election-year pressures had seen to that. Then last week, General Assembly Republicans unseated a black female judge and a federal grand jury reindicted a former GOP operative on charges of eavesdropping on Democratic conference calls.
Now, legislators say, the low-level tension at the legislature is threatening to turn more sharply partisan and in-your-face ugly. Colleagues divided by race and sex have started snapping at each other in committee, and the two major parties that cooperated a year ago in a budget crisis are squabbling, sometimes for hours at a time on the floor of the House of Delegates.
"It's been a difficult and depressing week," said state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington). "It rubbed feelings raw."
Added state Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun), who served six years in the House before his 1997 Senate election: "The background for this is a tense new era: We're here in the midst of an election year and a deep recession, and those two factors will cause nerves to be frayed."
Mims added, "There are fewer smiles."
Whipple and other Democrats said that what rankled them most was the ouster of Verbena M. Askew, the Newport News Circuit Court judge who was the first black woman in Virginia to achieve that judicial status. Democrats defended Askew's record as her eight-year term drew to a close and she came up for reelection by the assembly, but majority Republicans said a sexual harassment complaint against the judge, her lack of candor about it to them and other issues made her unsuitable for reappointment.
A female colleague of Askew's filed the complaint in 2000 and received a $64,000 settlement from the City of Hampton, where the colleague ran a drug court established by the judge.
The prelude to voting on Askew included a grueling seven-hour confirmation hearing Jan. 17, when the judge was questioned by GOP lawmakers about the harassment complaint and aspects of her personal life. On Wednesday, with Askew's reappointment apparently doomed, the Legislative Black Caucus held a news conference to denounce her opponents; one caucus member said Republicans were conducting a "public execution," while another likened the state Senate's all-white GOP majority to a lynch mob.
The fury spilled onto the Senate floor, where Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) repeated her "lynch mob" remark and declared, "The Trent Lott disease has crossed over the Potomac."
Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), the Senate president, interrupted Lucas to caution her against disparaging her colleagues' motives.
"It appears to me that racism is alive and well," Lucas continued. "There's very little I can do to stop the demise of Judge Askew."
Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the committee voting on Askew, said lawmakers scrutinized her record "not because she's black, not because she's a woman -- because she's a judge and it's our duty and responsibility . . . to determine whether we're going to certify her."
For Democrats, the subsequent votes to reject Askew -- along strict party lines in a House committee and with two Democrats joining Republicans on the Senate panel -- only reinforced their view that the confirmation process was skewed.
"It was an unfair singling out and a search for a reason to justify a previously agreed-upon decision," said Whipple, who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Black lawmakers said their anger ran even deeper.
"We cannot allow white males to disrespect females," said Del. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake). "Had she been a white judge, there's no way in the world they would have asked those questions of her, because of respect."
Looking down the road, Democrats said they feared that the Askew episode, with its inquisitorial atmosphere, could be a taste of things to come. "This has gone so horribly, horribly bad, it's going to change the process forever," said Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (D-Portsmouth), a leader of the black caucus and a member of the House confirmation panel.
Republican leaders agreed that a new process was now in place, but they promised to be fair while also holding judges to high standards. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) acknowledged that there were "bad feelings" among lawmakers on both sides of the Askew vote but added, "Time will heal that."
Healing on the Senate side may take some time, too. On Friday, Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico), a senator since 1992, was still fuming at Lucas, denouncing her for "the worst outbreak I've seen in my years in the Senate, in terms of lack of civility."
"I hope it's not a foretelling of what might come in the future," Stosch said.
Even if feelings over Askew subside, many on both sides expect a bumpy ride to the assembly's Feb. 22 adjournment, especially as budget negotiations heat up early next month.
For starters, Democratic leaders said they intend to keep prodding GOP lawmakers over Thursday's federal indictment of Edmund A. Matricardi III, who as executive director of the state Republican Party listened in on two Democratic conference calls last March. Federal prosecutors also announced that the former chief of staff to S. Vance Wilkins Jr., the House speaker who was forced from office last summer after a sex harassment scandal, pleaded guilty last week to a misdemeanor for eavesdropping on one of the calls.
"The Republican Party of Virginia is still very much accountable and responsible for the acts committed" by Matricardi and Wilkins's top aide, said state Democratic Chairman Lawrence H. Framme III.
"It's incumbent on us to focus on and be vigilant about their indiscretions," added House Democratic Leader Franklin P. Hall of Richmond. "It's incumbent to keep them honest on how they govern." Hall also said he wished Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) would join the Democratic criticism, but Warner has stayed on the sidelines, angering some die-hard activists.
Howell, the new speaker, said the eavesdropping scandal has moved well beyond the political arena to the courts. Because the former operatives were little more than "rogue agents," Howell said, "I don't think it's something you can stick on the party."
Many lawmakers said with a shrug that they accepted the grim feelings pervading Capitol Square as a fact of legislative life.
"Time does heal a lot of wounds," said Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), "though I don't know if there's enough time in this session for it to."