IT WASN'T that long ago in the halls of the State Capitol in Richmond that governors and all too many of the state legislators referred to Northern Virginia much as they might some well-to-do foreign country with exotic cultural interests: publicly owned mass transit, including trains that go underground; parks and recreation facilities; and civil rights and government programs that cost a lot of money and help the poor. The ambassadors from this land were tolerated in Richmond because when it came time to vote, they were easily outnumbered. Time, redistricting and growth changed this relationship for the better, but so, too, did a special delegate from Arlington: Warren G. Stambaugh, who quickly mastered the art of coalescing with his colleagues from all across the state.

Mr. Stambaugh, who died of a heart attack Wednesday at the age of 46, first went to the House of Delegates in 1974, looking and sounding much the outsider. True to his Northern Virginia electorate, he was a strong champion of housing, abortion rights, medical benefits, money for Metro and other urban services. But his understanding of other interests won him great respect not only from fellow Democrats but also Republicans who found him to be increasingly an effective, influential insider with a broad range of concerns for the state. As Del. C. Richard Cranwell, chairman of the House Finance Committee, observed, "If you look at all the major issues over the last five years, they all have Warren's fingerprints on them."

By anyone's account, Mr. Stambaugh was a rising star in the state legislature -- popular as much for his humor and oratory as for his vision and legislative skills. More than a few of the stunned members of the legislature spoke last week of Mr. Stambaugh as a colleague who might well have become speaker of the house. As Gov. L. Douglas Wilder noted, Mr. Stambaugh "was as responsible as any legislator for bridging the gap of understanding the needs of Northern Virginia and eliciting support for those needs. He will be sorely missed." That he will, not only by those who best understood his public service but also by an entire Greater Washington region of residents and friends who enjoyed his special company.