The smoke-filled committee room fell silent as Claude V. Swanson, a rotund Southside Virginia lawyer, rose to invoke Thomas Jefferson's memory in defense of the state's No. 1 cash crop.
"When Mr. Jefferson moved the capital to Richmond from Williamsburg," Swanson intoned in a House of Delegates committee meeting two days ago, "one of his first acts was to paint a gold tobacco leaf on the dome of the new capitol."
Moved by Swanson's rhetoric and appeals from a powerful coalition of rural lawmakers, farmers, cigarette manufacturers and labor groups, House committees killed six bills this week opposed by the tobacco lobby.
The massacre, an annual ritual in the state with the second-lowest tobacco tax in the nation, proved once again that while tobacco may be condemned as a "killer weed" elsewhere, it is still revered as the "golden leaf" in Richmond. "
"Traditions die hard," said Del. George W. Grayson (D-Williamsburg), after the House General Laws Committee scrapped by a 12-to-2 vote his bill to require a modest portion of dining areas in state buildings to be declared off-limits to smoking. "I can never recall a single tobacco or anti-smoking bill getting past its first cough in committee," he said.
The tobacco lobby flexed its muscle again today as the House Finance Committee killed three bills that would have allowed some localities -- including several in Northern Virginia -- to increase local cigarette taxes.
Committee members also rejected pleas from some of the state's poorest counties who said new revenues were sorely needed for their hard-pressed schools.
Instead, committee members heeded the warning of tobacco lobbyists who said any tax increases would amount to a breaking of ranks among the nation's tobacco-growing states -- an action that could lead to widespread state cigarette-tax increases across the country.
"The tobacco industry is fighting for its life . . . (and) what you do here will be watched very closely all over the country," said Page Sutherland of the Tobacco Tax Council, an industry-financed lobbying group. "Virginia has been very kind to tobacco, and we're very grateful."
Tobacco is more than just a crop to Virginia. It is an industry that accounts for more than $3 billion in annual sales and employs at least 33,000 farmers and factory workers.As a result, the tobacco lobby cuts across traditional rural-versus-urban and conservative-versus-liberal battle lines that are the major power blocs in Virginia politics.
"It's the most unholy alliance you've ever seen in your life," says Del. Martin H. Perper (R-Fairfax) whose bill to allow Fairfax and Arlington counties to add three-cents-per-pack to their cigarette levies was one of today's casualties. "People who should never agree on anything get together to fight for tobacco."
Virginia's statewide cigarette tax of 2.5 cents a pack is higher only than North Carolina's tax and hasn't been changed since 1966 -- when it was actually decreased by a half-cent. By contrast, the District of Columbia taxes cigarettes at 13 cents a pack, while Maryland charges 10 cents.
Twenty-one localities -- including Arlington, Fairfax and Alexandria -- are allowed to charge additional taxes ranging up to 10 cents a pack. But the House Finance Committee, through which all cigarette levies must inevitably pass, has not added a single locality to the list since 1971.
"It's hard not to notice that most of the jurisdictions (on the list) just happen to have representatives on the committee," said a disgusted Del. David G. Brickley (D-Prince William). His bill to allow all localities to charge up to 5 cents a pack also went down to defeat by a 17-to-3 margin with only Brickley, Perper and fellow Northern Virginian Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) voting for it.
The most convincing case for a tobacco-tax increase was made by law makers from Scott and Lee counties, two rural remnants of Appalachia tucked away in the far southwest corner of Virginia nearly 400 miles from Richmond. Dels. Ford C. Quillen and Orby L. Cantrell noted that their counties have the lowest per capita incomes in Virginia and that only 19 percent of their school-age children go on to college.
Lee County School Superintendent Robert McCoy told the committee that six of his 11 elementary schools were illegally crowded and that many school buildings date back to the turn of the century. He then passed around pictures of dilapidated classrooms, some of which had ceilings supported by poles.
"I'm told that I'm just wasting my time," McCoy said. "I'm also told that the tobacco industry lobby is very powerful and that some of you have closed minds. I'm also told that this bill has no chance to get out of this committee. Gentleman, I hope and pray that isn't true."
As it turned out, McCoy was told correctly. Six lawmakers from tobacco-growing areas and lobbyists from the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the Tobacco Tax Council and the AFL-CIO paraded to the podium to argue against any tax increases. No one disputed that Lee and Scott needed more school funds, but all said the money should not come "out of the hide of the tobacco farmer," as one legislator put it.
"Tobacco is our livelihood," Claude Swanson told the committee. "I grew up on a tobacco farm and I know what it is to get up at dawn in the rain and the cold . . . and work in the field all day. The tobacco farmer is having it rough and he's fighting for his life."
"If you begin there (in Lee and Scott), it's going to spread and become a general tax increase in all areas of the state," warned Del. Franklin M. Slayton (D-Halifax).
In the end, Quillen's bill failed by a 10-to-6 vote, with three Northern Virginians abstaining because of the defeat of Brickley's bill. Fairfax Del. John S. Buckley, a Republican, voted against both Quillen's and Brickley's bills.
"I didn't see a compelling need to raise taxes," said the conservative Buckley. "It's up to Education and Appropriations (committees) to figure out how to help them (Lee and Scott counties)."
Sometimes the tobacco lobby does not even have to appear to send a bill down to defeat. Freshman Del. David G. Speck (R-Alexandria) sponsored a seemingly innocuous bill to ban smoking in state-owned public elevators. When the bill came up before the General Laws Committee, chairman Thomas W. Moss Jr. asked a page to find Del. Calvin W. Fowler of Danville, a key member of the pro-tobacco forces.
"I just want to see the expression on Calvin's face when he sees this one," joked Moss. But before Fowler arrived, the committee killed the bill, 13 to 3.