Despite the beautiful, Mr. Jefferson designed, newly restored capitol, the nerve center of the General Assembly is in a non-descript, 9-floor building, probably built in the early 1960s as commercial office space, at the southeast corner of 9th and Broad Streets in Richmond. Its name is equally as drab: The General Assembly Building. Insert here your obvious joke about the appropriateness of its acronym — GAB — because a lot of talking goes on there. It’s where most sub-committee and full committee meetings are held, a host of news conferences, as well as all 140 Senate and House members’ offices. It’s crawling full of lobbyists, legislative staff, G.A. operations staff, security, media, you name it.
It’s also where assorted and sundry groups bring their members for their respective lobby days and just outside, on the beautifully landscaped Darden Mall, which was Capitol Street until the state bought it from the city more than 20 years ago to brick it in to keep cars from running down legislators while crossing Capitol Street to Capitol Square, is where protesters love to gather. But it is a lovely brick and grass plaza, extending the capitol campus — perhaps it should be called Capitol Rectangle.
History and architecture critique aside, it is a serious place, and people are there for a reason. For lobbyists, access is key. One might think it’s all about setting up appointments, arriving at said time, and having a formal discussion with the senator or delegate. Sometimes.
Lobbying is about relationships and it’s amazing how many relationships one can build sitting on a couch by the elevator. Just yesterday, sitting by the 5th floor elevator bank, after a meeting with freshman Delegate Manoli Loupassi (R-68, Richmond), just minding our own business, a virtual parade of delegates came by in a period of about 15 minutes, and all were in a mood for a chat: former Family Foundation Board Member Jimmie Massie, III, (R-72, Henrico); Tom Gear (R-91, Hampton) who has one of the best senses of humor in the entire GAB; House Courts of Justice Committee Chairman Dave Albo (R-42, Springfield); John Cosgrove (R-78, Chesapeake), a leader in the passage of the Marriage Amendment; the always-in-a-good-mood Bill Fralin (R-17, Roanoke), who will carry the Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination Act, a bill to protect religious expression on academic campuses; and the equally gregarious Ken Alexander (D-89, Norfolk), one of our true favorites, who went from a 12 rating on the 2004-05 Family Foundation Scorecard to a 55 on the 2006-07 report, and that was on the strength of just the 2007 session. (See how a little citizen participation can have an affect?) Finally, before we can finish our business (we actually were trying to organize some notes) none other than House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith (R-8, Salem) walks by at a brisk pace and a cheery hello. Everyone’s in a good mood early in session.
A walk around the corner and our attention is caught by the friendly wave of Senator Ryan McDougle (R-4,Mechanicsville), moving into his new office, a ritual every four years on the Senate side, as members move up in seniority, and every two years on the House side. After mid-term elections, such as this year, the GAB is really a mess, with members of both chambers moving around and freshmen moving in. All the better to meet more of them — now, you get the picture. You don’t have to be a monied corporate lobbyist to make contacts and build up friendships. Fun conversations by the elevator can break the ice, even for subsequent conversations on the most controversial issues.
After catching up with the senator, a most interesting discussion. We see a lobbyist from an organization with which we normally disagree. However, his organization is part of the anti-pay day loan coalition. Our conversation with him was enlightening, and showed that liberals can be converted — he actually slammed a big-government solution that Delegate Mark Sickles (D-43, Franconia) is proposing. A liberal against a new government agency is progress! As for Delegate Sickles, his solution is well-intended, but illustrative of the liberal mindset: Instead of just passing a bill to eliminate the industry, he wants the government to monitor it to death.
All in all, a productive day in the GAB.