[Note: This is part of the 'best of' series from my newspapers. This was a terrific piece by Rich Griset that we used to launch our third newspaper in 2010.]
By Rich Griset
Capital News Service
State Delegate Lacey Putney is in no rush.
It’s not that he isn’t busy, because as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in a recession, you bet he is. It’s not that he doesn’t have people waiting for him, because representatives from the Virginia Department of Education have been cooling their heels outside his office for more than half an hour.
Putney is in no rush because as the longest consecutively serving state legislator in America, he can choose to wait.
His office on the ninth floor of the General Assembly Building is minimally decorated. Sitting behind his computer-less desk, Putney is calm, collected and deliberate in his actions.
At 81, most people have long since retired. Not Putney. Since 1962, Virginia’s Capitol Square has been his domain, and he has grown comfortable in his position. But more than a few things have changed.
“When I came, there were 95 of us in the Democrat caucus, five in the Republican,” says Putney in his gravelly, Southern-tinged voice. “No office, no secretary, no telephone, except there were several phone booths in the first floor of the Capitol – if you could wait in line to get one.
“There was one secretary to almost every congressional district, and if you could find her you might get a letter or two a week … There were no offices, no such thing as a computer, and the term ‘legislative aide’ had not been coined yet. We only met for 60 days every two years.”
Back then, most delegates and senators spent the session at the Hotel Richmond just across Ninth Street from the Capitol. Rooms cost $7 a night, and if you spent six nights in a row, the hotel threw in the seventh for free.
For a two-year term, delegates were paid a total of $1,800. The quality of the legislation was as good as or better than it is today, Putney says, because the members were able to actually read all the bills.
He says that when he started, there were never more than 15 lobbyists on Capitol Square the entire session. Today, he says, it’s not unusual to see the same number of lobbyists represent one business or organization.
Nothing exemplified the change more than a few years ago during the debate over generic Coumadin, a blood-thinning drug. Legislation was working its way through the General Assembly that would make it hard for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture a generic form of Coumadin. Putney and state Sen. Stephen Newman opposed the legislation and won.
“Every day, the DuPont-Merck people would have another big hitter from Main Street. They must have had 40 or 50 lobbyists. Steve and I would go see a senator … and when we would walk out, we’d see eight to 10 lobbyists waiting,” Putney says. “I’ve never seen so many lobbyists involved in one piece of legislation in my life.”
But the proliferation of lobbyists isn’t the only big change to happen at the statehouse in the past 49 years. The biggest changes, Putney says, were the move to annual sessions and the ability to carry over bills.
Putney, a lawyer, was elected in 1961 – back when Virginia’s population was half what it is today. He represents the 19th House District, which includes Bedford County, where he was born on June 27, 1928, in the western part of the state.
No other state lawmaker in the U.S. has served longer than Putney, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
After spending six years in the House as a Democrat, Putney decided to leave the party and become an independent.
“Being an independent, my name was the last called on every committee – never the chairman of any subcommittee until 1998,” Putney says.
That year, the House of Delegates had 49 Republicans, 50 Democrats and Putney, the lone independent. He recalls Richard Cranwell, the Democratic majority leader, saying there wouldn’t be any power sharing “as long as you’ve got that damn eight-ball Putney out there in left field.”
Putney approached Cranwell at his desk and said, “Dickey, I’m going to allay some of your fears. I’m going to sit with the Republican Caucus.” Once Putney joined the caucus, he became the chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee.
Throughout most of his legislative career, Putney has been able to count on his legislative assistant, Betty Lou Layne. Layne began working for Putney 50 years ago as his secretary in his law office in Bedford. Roughly 30 years ago, Layne started coming up to Richmond to help Putney with the session.
“We always say we can’t figure out if I’ve put up with him, or if he’s put up with me,” Layne says.
In all his years in the House, what does Putney consider the favorite legislation that he’s worked on?
“It’s like asking how high is up. Like a mosquito in a nudist camp, you’ve got a lot of territory to cover,” Putney says.
Among his favorite projects are building and reworking the Virginia Retirement System, creating grants for students attending private colleges and building a bridge for Botetourt County.
But it hasn’t been all fun. And especially since taking over the Appropriations Committee, things haven’t been so easy.
“Let me tell you, being chairman of Appropriations is a thankless job,” Putney said as officials from the Department of Education gathered outside his office.
“What we’re going through this year no man has ever seen in Virginia before – the cuts we got to make. There’s some DOE people out there waiting to see me; they’re not going to like anything we do … Higher ed has really been nailed, and I don’t see how we can get our budget this year without further reduced funding in K-12, mental health and mental retardation.”
When asked about retirement, Putney laughs. “I’ve been talking quitting for 30 years at least.”
In 1979, after Putney had decided he would not run for re-election, he got a call from the mayor in Bedford: “We’ve got two or three people who want to talk to you. Can you hold up on your press release?” Putney agreed.
Two mobile homes and a caravan of 50 automobiles proceeded to come over the mountain from Buena Vista to Putney’s house. They bore signs reading “Putney’s Mobile Headquarters.”
He thought it over, and decided to run again.
“It was one of the toughest things I ever did … You could feel the load coming off of your shoulders. You don’t have to wade through miles of potato salad, hot dogs and hamburgers at every fire company rescue squad. They persuaded me to do it one more time,” Putney says with a laugh. “I’ve wondered many times if it would have been better if I had quit then.”
Putney has continued seeking re-election every other year since then. Last year, he was re-elected with about two-thirds of the vote. His seat will be up for election again in November 2011.
“I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do. I’ve indicated to some people that I probably won’t run, but I’ve indicated that for 30 years. I’ll wait and see what happens between now and next spring. We’ll see if I’m getting anymore feeble than I have the last few months, if my brain is working and my body is working I don’t know what I might do,” Putney says.
“I’ve been here about 35 years too damn long.”