When Charles S. Robb wanted to relax before taking over the reins of power here a few months ago, he accepted an offer from his close friend, lobbyist William G. Thomas, to spend a couple of days shooting geese and ducks on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
But the trip -- including free accommodations at a hunting lodge rented by two of Thomas' law clients -- was not without its political overtones. Unknown to Robb, Thomas also invited Speaker of the House A.L. Philpott because, he thought, "it would be a good idea for the two of them to have a social exchange."
Whether social or political, Thomas' ability to broker a meeting between the new governor from McLean and the cagey veteran speaker from Southside was only one sign of the unique role this savvy lobbyist from Alexandria plays in the new era of Democratic dominance in the capital.
A tall and stylish real estate lawyer who is partial to Muriel Air Tip cigars and fine European wines, Thomas is generally considered the most effective special-interest lobbyist before the state legislature. Partly because of the economic clout of his clients--which include Mobil Oil, the Condominium Developers Association and a half-dozen other business and industry groups--and partly because of his personal ties to virtually every state official of consequence, from Robb on down, Thomas has also achieved a nearly unrivaled influence over the course of Virginia government.
Some legislators only half-jokingly call him "the deputy governor." Many of his friends in the business community were recently touting him for the U.S. Senate.
"He's the smartest man in the Commonwealth," marvels Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), one of dozens of state legislators who are literally in awe of Thomas. "He eats, sleeps and drinks the legislative process. I don't think there are many people in this state who can read a bill and understand what its impact is going to be as well as Bill Thomas can."
"There's no question but that Thomas is both figuratively and literally head and shoulders over any other lobbyist down here," says Democratic Party strategist Paul Goldman of the 6-foot-5 lobbyist. "When it comes to the political insider, Bill Thomas is the Ralph Sampson of state government."
But while some find Thomas' stature in Richmond awesome, others find it troubling. Former delegate Ira Lechner of Arlington, who has frequently clashed with Thomas over condominium issues, says Thomas "deals in raw power by serving the monied interests."
Far more potentially explosive, though, is Thomas' undoubtedly special access to Robb, an entree that has already ruffled legislative feathers. Thomas was one of the handful of "core group" advisers who, more than two years ago, began to gather in Robb's apartment in the restored Shockoe Slip area of Richmond to lay the groundwork for his successful gubernatorial campaign against Republican J. Marshall Coleman. Thomas estimates that he personally tapped his law clients and other friends in the northern Virginia business community for "maybe $100,000, maybe $200,000" in contributions for the Robb campaign.
The Robb-Thomas relationship has long since developed into an intimate and close friendship, the basis of which is not difficult for outsiders to discern. Both are exactly the same age (42), both are wealthy men who are comfortable with money and power, both are essentially cautious political pragmatists with few strongly held convictions or ideas.
And despite discreet warnings from senior lawmakers, the new governor has continued to rely on the experienced lobbyist during the early days of his administration. Thomas helped draft the governor's "State of the Commonwealth" address, has paid occasional visits to the governor's third floor office to render advice on legislative relations, and is regularly consulted over appointments. Robb's new choice to fill the politically sensitive slot of Northern Virginia highway commissioner, to pick just one example, is Alexandria beer distributor Joseph Guiffre, a longtime friend of Thomas' and the vice president of the Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association, one of his lobbying clients.
"If anybody has the governor's ear," says one senior legislator who asked not to be identified, "it's Bill Thomas."
That kind of access by a lobbyist to a governor has already made Robb vulnerable, some critics say. When Sen. Edward E. Willey, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was enraged that Robb didn't throw his support behind his oil franchise tax earlier in the session, he blamed it on Thomas and the opposition of his client, Mobil.
"You saw Bill Thomas at the committee hearings," Willey told a reporter. "He's getting $50,000 for representing Mobil Oil. Robb's listening to Bill Thomas on this."
It is a charge that Robb and Thomas casually dismiss. "There have been occasions when he Robb has asked me to give him my thoughts on things," Thomas said the other day. "I'm not bashful, I've given it to him. But I have not talked to him about my legislation. I didn't want to put him in an awkward position."
Robb offers a slightly different perspective. "I talked to him about various possibilities on the gas tax because that's an area he has some expertise in," the governor said in an interview. "But I don't think I asked him for any recommendations and I don't think he offered any.
"We're on a common wavelength on a lot of things," Robb added about his friend. "You need someone you can bounce ideas off of from time to time."
So far, most legislators appear inclined to accept such assurances. Such is their reverence of Thomas, and their own personal relations with this ubiquitous lobbyist, that they ascribe the grumblings to date as little more than the jeolousy of a handful of senior senators who do not enjoy the same confidence of the new governor.
"I think," says Sen. Wiley Mitchell (R-Alexandria) "that all of us are jealous of Bill Thomas."
The key to Thomas' stature in the General Assembly lies in a web of interconnecting relationships built during nearly 20 years in Virginia Democratic politics. The son of a prominent Alexandria attorney, Thomas first arrived on the scene in Richmond in 1964 as an eager young law student who enlisted in the ranks of the then all-powerful conservative Byrd organization.
As an early protege of former Alexandria Del. James M. Thomson, a brother-in-law of Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. who is now the state's insurance commissioner, Thomas won a job as cocounsel of the state code commission that rewrote state law in many of the areas that would later become the subject of his lobbying battles.
Thomas, who served as office manager during Byrd's 1966 Senate campaign, was also taken under the wing of former U.S. Rep. Watkins M. Abbitt, the state party chairman and a top Byrd lieutenant, who would appoint him state party secretary. In 1970, Thomas, known then as "Wat Abbitt's boy," was elected chairman of the state Democratic Party at the age of 30.
Two years later, in a bitter debacle that friends say he has never forgotten, liberal McGovernites seized control of the party and ousted Thomas. But with his background as a legislative draftsman and his ties to the conservative business community that was the backbone of the now tattered Byrd machine, the young lawyer was excellently situated to launch a lobbying career that would soon make its mark in the General Assembly.
Among Thomas' early clients, for example, were the beer wholesalers. Starting in the early 1970s, Thomas wrote a series of "Dear Rod" letters to T. Rodman Layman, chairman of the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The letters resulted in the adoption of a series of ABC regulations that effectively allowed the wholesalers to fix prices by "posting" their prices with the commission every six months.
The regulations was later to be thrown out as a violation of antitrust law, but Thomas' benefits to the wholesalers have continued to this day. In this session, after the now-wary ABC Commission refused to adopt a "price notification" regulation requiring brewers to give the wholesalers 30-day notice of any price changes, Thomas drafted and shepherded through the General Assembly a bill making the notification rule state law.
Perhaps of equal importance to the wholesalers -- what one lobbyist calls his "crowning achievement" -- has been Thomas' ability to routinely kill "bottle bills" requiring mandatory deposits on soft-drink and beer containers. This year he casually performed that trick once again, watching in the background of a Senate committee room while a coalition of farmers and environmentalists paraded before the panel to urge its passage.
When the hearing was through, and the bill once more had gone down to ignominious defeat, Thomas emerged smiling. There was no longer any need for him to testify, he explained. "My theory of lobbying is you win the battles before the legislature even starts, anyway."
Thomas, to be sure, has won a number of other battles in the session scheduled to end today. He pushed through bills that expanded the authority of savings and loan associations to make non-real estate loans and a bill, heatedly opposed by Northern Virginia officials, preventing localities from using their zoning powers to delay or block condominium conversions.
Thomas himself is reluctant to accept these victories as testimony to his power. "I don't happen to think of myself as having great influence over anybody," he said. " I've never gone to anybody in the legislature and said, vote this way, because I'm asking you to. I don't put things on a personal basis.
"But if influence means the ability and skill to persuade people," he adds, "then, yeah, I guess I have it."