For Dick Saslaw, the main difference between today's state Senate and the state Senate he first joined 23 years ago is "who runs the place," he said.
"The Democrats ran it when I got there, the Republicans run it now."
State Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-35th), the Senate minority leader who is running for another term, has carved out a place for himself in Richmond, achieving a measure of respect on both sides of the aisle, according to colleagues from both parties. He is favored to beat his opponent, independent Levi Levy.
"I enjoy it," said Saslaw, 63, who runs 20 miles a week. "And when I don't, I'll leave."
"He is blunt, witty, crafty and a pleasure to work with," said state Sen. Bill Mims (R-33rd).
Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd) called him "one of the true leaders of the Senate."
SASLAW HAS acquired a reputation for being outspoken, for airing his views and for working behind the scenes with Republicans and Democrats.
His role as minority leader has helped him make sure some legislation never reaches the governor's desk.
"There was a whole lot of conservative social legislation that I engineered a killing of when it got to the Senate last year," he said.
One bill would have required doctors to report minors who came to see them with sexually transmitted diseases.
"About 40 doctors testified they ain't going to tell the parents, they'll just keep spreading it."
Another bill would have allowed pharmacists to refuse to dispense prescriptions "that they didn't agree with philosophically," he said. A third would have removed mental health as a reason to get an abortion in Virginia.
With Republicans in charge, he said, "there's no longer an emphasis on public schools and higher education. It's on abortion and social issues."
It's this work out of the public eye that his colleagues bring up when talking about him.
"He does his best work behind the scenes, and he often works in a bipartisan fashion," said Mims.
Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31st) called him "the best vote counter I know.
"He can tell you how a vote is going to go on a committee on the Senate floor or how it will go unless we're able to persuade one or two people to vote differently," she said.
The only bills where he stays mum are those having to do with gasoline taxes. The owner of two gas stations in Virginia and one in Maryland, Saslaw said an attorney general's opinion said he didn't have to recuse himself from those votes, but he wants to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
"I don't vote, and I don't try to influence other people's opinions," he said.
"HE SAYS it straight," said Jan Reeves, chairman of the Fairfax County's Democratic Committee. "People tend to give him straight talk back, and it saves us a lot of confusion."
"I don't know if I'm outspoken," Saslaw said. "I don't speak that much on the floor."
But he added, "There's no doubt ever where I stand on an issue."
Howell called him "the kind of person you'd want to have in a foxhole with you."
Last year, Howell had the opportunity to share a foxhole with Saslaw when they were the only two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote with the Republicans against reappointing a controversial judge. Saslaw and Howell provoked the ire of fellow Democrats when they voted against granting Newport News judge Verbina Askew another term because they said she had not been frank with the committee about allegations of sexual harassment.
"Passions were very high," said Howell.
"This is not something that should be made on the basis of politics," said Saslaw. "It's not the first time it's happened by any stretch of the imagination, and it won't be the last."
Saslaw added that to him, the controversy was "water under the dam."
AS HE MEETS with voters before the election, Saslaw is emphasizing the impact the state's budget deficit will have on higher education. Already, he said, a quarter of George Mason University's freshman class is from out of state, "and that number's going to be expected to grow."
As the state cuts back its higher-education funding, tuition will go up, and Virginia students are going to have to compete with out-of-state students willing to pay higher tuition.
"A guy came up to me," he said. "His daughter had 1,300 [on her SATs] and a 3.8 average at Annandale High School and didn't get into U.Va."
"There's a reason for that. The reason's kind of obvious."
The state's tax commission charged with restructuring the tax system is "not going to do anything," he said.
"There's not going to be any bill from them."
But for Saslaw there is a solution: "You raise taxes."
More cuts in government won't work. "There's no government left, much less waste in it," he said.
STATE SENATOR Patricia S. “Patsy” Ticer (D-30) is one of three members of the city’s legislative delegation who is running unopposed.
A candidate had filed to run against Ticer but dropped out due to health reasons. Ticer is seeking a third term in the state senate.
“This year is going to be very difficult,” Ticer said. “The governor has brought fiscal responsibility back to the Commonwealth and has cut everything that he could possibly cut to do that. We are all committed to maintaining that fiscal responsibility but everyone needs to understand that there will be no new programs and there are likely to be more cuts.”
While Ticer doesn’t know where those cuts are going to come from, she also doesn’t know where the Commonwealth is going to get much-needed new revenue.
“I think that there will be an increase in the cigarette tax because everyone recognizes that our cigarette tax is one of the lowest in the country and we need to do something,” Ticer said. “However, I am concerned that the state will increase the tax to thirty cents a pack and cap it, harming localities like Alexandria where there is already a 50-cent per pack tax. We need to do something to make certain that this doesn’t happen.”
The gasoline tax is also likely to be raised. “The gas tax hasn’t increased in about 15 years, so it is time we do something about that as well,” Ticer said. “However, the increase won’t even keep pace with inflation, so we can’t expect it to do much to help us with our budget shortfalls.”
MOST PEOPLE IN Northern Virginia support increasing the tax on both of these items. Margaret Sims is a lifelong cigarette smoker. “I strongly support increasing the tax on cigarettes,” she said. “I probably won’t quit smoking. I’m too old. However, if cigarettes cost enough, maybe a young person will quit.
“I supported Patsy Ticer when she was mayor and still support her. She has served the city and the rest of her district very well,” Sims said.
Ticer was first elected to public office in 1982. She served as a member of the Alexandria City Council and as vice mayor before becoming mayor in 1992 when then mayor Jim Moran was elected to Congress. She served as mayor until 1995 when she was elected to the state Senate. She has four children and is a resident of Old Town.
Ticer has been a staunch supporter of early childhood programs, education and human services. “I am very concerned about the cuts to our human services and mental health programs,” she said. “The governor has protected K-12 education from cuts and has made a commitment to fully fund the standards of quality as recommended by the Joint Legislative Audit Report. That is going to cost around $600 million. I agree that this needs to happen but I just don’t know where we are going to get the money.
“We also need to do something about our colleges and universities,” Ticer said. “Not only have we neglected their physical needs but we have also hampered their ability to hire and retain a sufficient number of professors to adequately teach many of our curriculums. Northern Virginia Community College has had to cut its nursing program significantly. We hear from students around the Commonwealth about bulging classes. One young woman who attends Radford spoke about a class of 200 students that was supposed to have only 30. We must deal with these issues or our best and brightest students will to go school in states that do.”
As for new initiatives, Ticer said, ““I am proposing a study to look at how we could give farmers and other large land owners incentives to use best practices to protect our land. Many states are offering tax breaks for this and have had good success. The state forester is very interested and can study the issue for very little money,” she said.