After most members of the Virginia General Assembly had scattered this weekend to home towns across the state, a hand-picked group of senators gathered in a secluded room of a deserted government building here to deal the cards in an $18.5 billion poker game.
They are known as the Secret Seven, and theirs is a serious game of raw politics played out in closely guarded privacy. They roll through the state budget, line by line, anointing some projects, brutalizing others. And at the end of their marathon session, they have shaped political careers and state spending for the next two years.
The dealer in this high-stakes competition for millions of dollars in pork barrel projects is the crusty, gravel-voiced Sen. Edward E. Willey, 75, who colleagues say has amassed unparalleled power after 34 years in the General Assembly, the longest tenure of any member.
The Richmond Democrat, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and president pro tem of the Senate, selects the members of his secret society and holds court over them in undisclosed sites that in past years have included the state Science Museum, the Department of Motor Vehicles (the site of today's session) and even the governor's mansion.
"He has so many cards, he calls all the shots," said Sen. Clive L. DuVal II, a Fairfax Democrat and the newest addition to the group, which usually includes the most senior members of the Senate Finance Committee. "His decision is final."
And it is Willey's decision that the Secret Seven -- a moniker that has stuck even though the number of members has varied between six and 10 -- operate completely outside of the public's gaze.
"You get down where you have to take your jacket off and roll your sleeves up -- you get down to real tough talk," said Willey, whose frail, grandfatherly appearance belies the almost dictatorial control he maintains over the state budget. "You can't talk about your colleagues and their pet projects in open meetings . . . . You don't want them in newsprint. If you're gonna embarrass everybody down here in public you won't have anybody in the General Assembly."
The sessions, in which, Willey says, "we divide up all the goodies," can be brutal, according to one member of the group who requested anonymity: "About 80 to 85 percent of all the decisions on the budget are made there."
For that reason, many lawmakers look with disdain on the secret meetings where the taxpayers' money is carved up.
"I don't think it's good policy to do public business behind closed doors," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax).
The group avoids the provisions of the state's open meetings law by noting that their sessions are not closed to the public and the media. Their location is just not announced. In addition, when the General Assembly wrote the sunshine law, it included a clause that arguably could be used to exempt some of its own subcommittees.
The House dismantled its secret budget panel several years ago and now uses a system of subcommittees to dissect its version of the state spending bill.
"The reputation of the committee with its fellow members of the House had deteriorated badly," said former House Appropriations Chairman Richard M. Bagley, who now is state secretary of commerce and resources. "There were members who resented not being able to monitor the budget process openly."
The recommendations of the Secret Seven that emerge from today's daylong session will be approved publicly at a shorter meeting of the full Senate Finance Committee Sunday afternoon. The full Senate, under Willey's watchful eye, usually makes only the barest of adjustments.
And although the Senate version must be approved by the House after conference committee debates, Willey's proposals prevail far more often than they lose.
In the Senate, even the resentful dare not challenge the indomitable Willey and his closed-door budget procedure. "His position as king of the budget has never been seriously challenged," said Republican Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. of Alexandria. "It his power involves rewarding people who cooperate and being absolutely ruthless with people who don't cooperate."
Those rewards and punishments come in the form of the issues closest to the heart and reputation of each lawmaker -- the money he or she can take home for a new college building or an agricultural experiment station. "Senator Willey has enormous power," said Sen. Charles L. Waddell (D-Loudoun.) "Legislators have to be very cautious about opposing him."
And Waddell said he "learned the hard way."
After Waddell spoke against one of Willey's budget proposals several years ago, Willey snipped a request by Waddell for a $150,000 horse breeders incentive program out of the budget. Waddell said he now is more hesistant to oppose the senior member of the Senate.
"You're really not proud of yourself for that," said Waddell. "You feel like you should make these battles, but it's a political fact of life that the budget is the bottom line."
It is not just legislators who are subjected to the legendary Willey intimidation.
When Gov. Gerald L. Baliles refused to endorse Willey's proposal for $100 million a year in new highway taxes and fees this session, Willey sniped, "I've been here for 10 governors. They come and go."
When the legislature is not in session, Willey is renowned for bullying midlevel bureaucrats who waver from the budgetary courses he sets.
"He puts them on the carpet, eats them up and tells them he's going to get them fired," said Sen. Dudley J. Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt), a member of this year's Secret Seven.
Said Willey, who has been slowed physically by two heart attacks and leg problems in recent years, "I don't mind being called mean and nasty and ornery. I'm looking after the welfare of the state.
"All of them come with tear-dripping, heart-bleeding types of stories that all sound wonderful," he added. "You have to be coldhearted enough to tell them you don't have the money."
"I don't think he does what he does to be mean," said Gartlan. "He keeps the state on a sound fiscal basis . . . . There needs to be a person with a lot of clout and a lot of perceived authority to manage that task."
Many legislators say that when Willey leaves the Senate, it will be the end of an era that the state has outgrown and will never duplicate. The increasing turnover of lawmakers in the House and Senate has prevented other legislators from matching the years Willey has accumulated. Even those within reach of his seniority would be at a disadvantage in absorbing the vast store of budgetary knowledge he has accumulated.
Willey, a retired pharmacist, has made a full-time career of his position as a state senator and shows up most weekdays throughout the year in his tiny office in the Capitol.
"He lives it, he eats it, he sleeps it," said Sen. William A. Truban (R-Woodstock), the minority party representative on the Secret Seven. "The rest of us go back home."
For those reasons, most lawmakers expect a radical change in the one-man domination of the Senate's budget proceedings when Willey is no longer in control. "I don't believe the Senate is likely to continue that kind of an arrangement," said Mitchell. "Times are changing."
Colleagues also attribute Willey's power to the sheer force of his personality, despite signs of fatigue late in the afternoon and an increasing physical dependence on others around him.
"Even with that intrusion of age, he's still the strongest one out there," said Emick, who is quick to recount the day last year when Willey beat back Emick's surprise attempt to strip the state budget of Northern Virginia's $21 million in Metro funds.
"I was furious at having been whipped again by Big Ed," said Emick. "The old man got up and called his chips in. I was talking and he was managing." Even Willey's closest counterpart in the House, Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry), has been unable to equal Willey's budgetary agility, many legislators say.
And last week when Philpott rose to pay tribute to Willey at a roast sponsored by the Virginia Pharmaceutical Association, even the man who can change a House vote with nothing more than a scowl said of Willey's leadership:
"He's your friend. All you need to do is kneel and kiss his hem."