Open doors provide insight into party politics

In Richmond, many decisions are still made behind closed doors.

The public is excluded from party caucus meetings where members are surveyed for votes, then positions and strategy are adopted before open floor debate.

At least until last week.

The House Democrats “unilaterally disarmed” — as they called it — their closed doors, giving the media unprecedented access. The move isn’t expected to last past today unless Republicans “disarm” as well.

Even so, the meetings have provided insight to inner-party workings.

Led by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Delegate Brian J. Moran, D-46th District, of Alexandria, Democrats each day have used the meetings to identify and discuss bills coming up for debate by the House. They focused on bills that were new or they did not understand,a majority of which, if not all, were bills by Prince William Delegate Robert G. Marshall, R-13th District, this week.

Marshall is an active participant on the House floor and is known for his grasp of parliamentary procedure.

“Let’s take a look at that because there must be some mischief,” said Richmond Delegate Franklin P. Hall, D-69th District, on Marshall’s bill Tuesday to conform Virginia campaign finance rules to the federal rules. Later on the floor Marshall explainedthat Congress is taxingVirginia’spolitical actioncommittees, so it should dothe same to federal committees.

On Monday it had been Marshall’s rules change to create standards of conduct for House members and a means for citizen complaints, a bill he later withdrew for a study bill.

“He is no dummy” oneDemocrat said in caucus Monday.

Onother newissues, Democrats distributed newspaper stories for others to read or told each other to read the “Whipple Report,” an underground mass e-mail received by many in Richmond put out by one state senator’s staff. It has nearly all state stories cut and pasted from Web sites.

“We can learn from you all [the media],” Moran said.

On Tuesday, a “must read” for the party was a Virginian-Pilot story Saturday on a lobbying firm getting money from Republicans to push through the estate tax.

Another”must read” would be the Daily Press story Monday on a black Newport News judge originally appointed by Democrats who some Senate Republicans oppose.There are past allegations of same-sex sexual harassment against the judge. That is if it comes to floor debate, the delegate said.

During the meetings, interactions betweenthe press and politicians were casual. After delegates took roll, reporters were invited to identify themselves as present. Reporters with perfect attendance were praised and party members were told Tuesday to be on time like the media has been.

The opening of the Democrats’ meetings came after the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Associationpointed out the state law does not specifically say they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The pointcame fromthe eavesdropping scandal that rocked Richmond last spring, in which the director of the Republican Party of Virginia, Edmund A. Matricardi, listened in on a conference call between Gov. Mark R. Warner and other Democrats. His lawyer said the call was a party caucus meeting and therefore a public meeting, if the law is interpreted to apply to caucus meetings.

Toward the end of the Tuesday meeting, Democrats turned to strategy.

Portsmouth Delegate Kenneth R. Melvin, D-80th District, said the party needs to start defending sin taxes and framing the debate onthe fact thatunmet needs require funding. Melvin said Democrats’ bills to raise cigarette taxes forschool construction are being put together by Republicans “for that mass execution” in the House Finance Committee. “It’s time we begin distinguishing ourselves from Republicans … they’re going to try and quietly kill these bills.”

That talk goesagainst most in the Prince William delegation, none of whom support any new taxes this year. Most have signed ontoa bill this year to get rid of the estate tax.

The jockeying for positionin the tax debate will continue through the first weeks of the session.

The Senate Republican Caucus held a press conference later in the day announcing it has ruled out any statewide general tax increases.

Supporters of the estate tax repeal have scheduled a press conference for today.

And for education tax proponents who are backing a statewide sales tax increase, an education rally is scheduled for Jan. 27.

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