Del. Gary Reese (R-67th) has been an attorney for years and served on Fairfax County's School Board for a decade, but his freshman term in the General Assembly was something else entirely.
"I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my life," he said. "It was a terrifically interesting experience."
The long hours and volume of proposed bills to consider were especially eye-opening. Subcommittee meetings began at 7 a.m., followed nonstop by committee meetings, caucus, legislative session (for five hours), more committee and subcommittee meetings and then sub-sessions.
"I had one Courts of Justice meeting that went from 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.," said Reese. "In one session, we considered two abortion bills, parental consent, the death penalty for the mentally handicapped, marital rape, infanticide and the 'In God We Trust' issue. It just kept coming. [But] Courts of Justice is the most interesting because it seems as if every bill finds its way there."
HE SERVED ON THREE REGULAR COMMITTEES — Education, Courts of Justice and Counties, Cities and Towns — plus six subcommittees, including ones dealing with juvenile and domestic relations, judicial selection, education standards and teachers and administrative personnel. He was also a member of the cost-cutting caucus.
Reese learned the painstaking route a bill must take from its first House presentation by its patron to further readings, debate and votes. "If it passes, it goes to the Senate, and you start the whole, damn thing over again," he said.
"If the Senate amends it, it must return to the House for approval again," he explained. "The patron can ask the House to reject the amendment, and the House will do so. Then it returns to the Senate and, if the Senate stands firm, a conference committee of both houses plus the patron meets to work out the details."
Reese was also officially initiated into the General Assembly. One of the first freshman to get a bill to the House floor, he was patron of a bill to increase the jurisdiction of small-claims court from $1,000 to $2,000. "It goes to the House uncontested," he said. "I'm thinking, 'This is easy, man, nothin' to it.'"
Then another delegate asked that Reese's bill be placed on the regular calendar — meaning it was contested, after all, and Reese had to stand up and defend it. When the Speaker next called for a voice vote, only one vote was in favor and 99 were against it.
"All my fellow Republicans were shouting 'Nay,'" he said. "I'm crestfallen and am saying to myself, 'I'll just take the bus back to Northern Virginia.'" Next, a delegate asked for the votes to be taken on an electronic board in the House, with green and red lights signifying "aye" or "nay," respectively. Just one green light lit up — and 99 red ones.
"I was just demolished," said Reese. "But you can change your vote before it's [recorded finally] — and they repunched their votes, at the last minute, and it passed, 97-3. The three told me later that they were unable to change their votes in time. There was all this patting me on the back and high fives — I had been initiated. The next day, it passed, 99-0."
ALTOGETHER, SEVEN OF HIS BILLS CLEARED THE HOUSE AND SENATE and are now awaiting the governor's signature. Besides the bill about small-claims court, they dealt with:
* Increasing penalties for violations of court orders involving custody and visitation;
* Requiring the state Board of Education to issue curriculum guidelines on the benefits of adoption so that adoption is taught as a positive choice in the instance of an unwanted pregnancy;
* Prohibiting the commercial sale of information provided by children on school-survey forms. Sometimes, said Reese, children have to indicate their favorite types of clothing, magazines, entertainment, etc., but then they receive advertisements for these products.
* Providing an increase in technology capabilities for John Frey, Fairfax County's clerk of the courts (three bills).
Reese also supported a resolution passed by the House, requesting the Federal government to consider allocating money for educational and welfare services to localities inundated by people without recognized immigration status.
However, his bill proposing nationally normed reading tests for first- and second-graders went nowhere. "The legislature was not in a mood to spend additional money or require local jurisdictions to," said Reese. "And part of what you have to do is learn not to take yourself so seriously."
Right from the start, he approached the other delegates and asked about themselves, their constituents and their issues. He also learned quickly that Northern Virginia has a "horrible reputation" of being so wealthy that it doesn't believe it should care about the rest of the state.
"So I'd say, for example, 'I want to hear about Halifax County or Roanoke — I want to understand,'" said Reese. "If you're going to ask others to understand you, you're going to have to understand them — and I think we're making some progress. These are good, hardworking people, and we can't make them feel like they're on the dole. If we don't resolve these issues and help them stand on their own two feet, I think we'll have to pay the bill [later on]."
Indeed, he said, the most important thing he learned was to listen. Said Reese: "There are so many agendas in the General Assembly that, if you walk in with the attitude, 'I'm Mr. Important and I'm gonna get my bill passed,' you'll pay a heavy price."
And he was pleased to discover "how many really great people there are down there — people with tremendous experience in city and county government. They have a great deal to share if you give them a chance."
Indeed, what gave him the most satisfaction was the friendships he made. "The General Assembly is all about personal relations," said Reese. "The faster you learn that, the better you'll be — and the more fun you'll have."