It was sometime around 10 p.m. Saturday that state Del. Frederick Creekmore got the call. Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, whose gasoline tax was in serious trouble, was inviting the Chesapeake Democrat to a private meeting in his third-floor office at the State Capitol.
Creekmore, a soft-spoken lawyer who shuns controversy, was in no mood to vote for a new tax that might get him in trouble with the voters this fall. But there was something he and his Cheseapeake colleagues wanted more: a $30-$50 million highway project for his home town.
"We couldn't vote for a gas tax and go home without getting something for that road," Creekmore recalls telling the governor.
Three hours and two meetings later, Creekmore had his road. And when the roll was finally called at 2:45 a.m., the light by Creekmore's name flickered green. Along with 56 other exhausted and grouchy delegates, he helped pass a $263 million highway bill that raised the price of gasoline by up to four cents a gallon and resolved the central issue of the 1982 General Assembly.
The two-month drama over the gasoline tax was the first crucial test for the new Democratic governor, a test many legislators throughout most of the session had said he was flunking. The state's highway department was faced with a $360 million deficit, long-planned road projects were being delayed and Northern Virginia's Metro transit system was desperate for a new source of funding.
The instinctively cautious Robb had appeared unwilling, or even unable, to lay down a clear preference for solving the problem, many lawmakers said, refusing to choose between various plans floated up by legislative leaders. "His role was nonexistent," said House Minority Leader Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax). "I didn't see any evidence that he was doing anything."
But on the final agonizing evening, Robb borrowed a few tricks from his late father-in-law, former president Lyndon Johnson. Using a mixture of cajolery and old-fashioned pork-barrel politics, he played what many lawmakers hailed as a crucial role in staving off what might have been a crushing defeat.
"When we made our first count, all we came up with were 40 to 45 votes 51 were needed for passage of the tax measure ," said Del. Warren Stambaugh (D-Arlington), a key player in the negotiations. "But then the governor went to work and I think he turned it around."
Robb's aides today boasted of the governor's success, claiming that his earlier low profile belied a careful and deliberate strategy designed to avoid polarizing legislators. His only goal, they said, was to assure new highway revenues and so he therefore had little interest in choosing between conflicting proposals for raising the money.
"I know the governor feels pretty good about this," said Robb's chief of staff David McCloud today. "I think it's fair to say that he shepherded the whole process. You know he took a lot of heat and flack during the session for doing things the way they ought to be done."
Some legislators were not so willing to let Robb bask in the limelight. "You've got to remember that Richmond Senator Ed Willey the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee had already introduced these tax bills before the governor was ever elected," said Speaker of the House A.L. Philpott, a Democrat.
"I'll give him some credit for twisting some arms," added a grudging Callahan. "But he got into this thing at the last minute and the decisive factor was not Robb. The decisive factor was the solid 19 votes from the Northern Virginia delegation."
Robb's role in turning around the votes of wavering legislators like Creekmore, however, was undeniable. Robb's secretary of transportation, Andrew Fogarty, was dispatched to the House floor where bleary eyed and confused legislators crowded around him to hear his explanation of the administration's proposal.
McCloud, meanwhile, was sprinting up and down the Capitol's marble stairways, summoning delegates for their private chats with the governor. "I would say he must have seen between 20 and 40 people and some of them several times," said McCloud.
It was in those closed-door meetings, with holdouts such as Creekmore, that the gasoline tax battle was won. When Creekmore first visited Robb Saturday night, the governor implored him to back the compromise for the good of the commonwealth, so that the state could raise critically needed revenues for new roads and stave off the impending collapse of the state highway department.
Then the serious bargaining began. The governor listened carefully to Creekmore's request for a highway "interconnector" project, and agreed that it was needed. It would be, he told Creekmore, a "high priority" of his administration.
That was encouraging, but not quite good enough. Twice more that evening, Creekmore would meet with Robb, bringing along his Chesapeake Democratic colleagues, Del. V. Thomas Forehand and Sen. William Parker, and a top official of the state highway department.
At these later meetings, said Creekmore, Robb got more specific, describing the interconnector as "one of the highest priorities" or "the highest priority" of his road program. Robb also offered to have the highway designated as a part of the federal interstate system with a specific timetable for state funding and construction.
By the time the last meeting broke up sometime after midnight, the Chesapeake delegates were committed to the distasteful gasoline tax. "I have to give him high marks," Creekmore said later. "I don't think he threatened us, but he did explain that there just wouldn't be the funds there for the interconnector if the tax didn't pass.
"It was arm-twisting in a gentlemanly fashion," he said.
"He was smooth," added Forehand. "He just talked about the facts. There weren't any deals or anything."