In my experience, the greatest conflicts are not between the political parties in the legislature, or even between the legislature and the administration. For some reason, the differences between the senate and the house are the most disruptive part of state government. I can recall sitting in the office of my own senator in 1995 at 3 in the morning watching the house debate school vouchers. My senator said, “What a bunch of idiots.” I had to remind him that he had served in the house at the beginning of his political career.
The senate is much smaller at 50 members, while the house has 203 members. The senate tends to be a bit more stuffy and self-absorbed. I have seen the changes when a house member gets to be a senator. I watch this carefully in my travels. When you think about it, the senator has a much larger area to cover and is probably not as close to constituents as the house member. Therefore the house member gets lots more direct contact with people who would climb all over him/her. The senate is a bit more removed and makes more use of staff (they usually have more). They therefore have some sense of importance.
All this to say that I spend more time in the house, than in the senate. That might not be a wise thing to do, but it enables me to get a flavor of what’s going on in the many communities in the Commonwealth. Therefore, when I walk around the house offices, I generally know many more people and spend lots of time talking to staff members and with mostly friendly house members. For some reason, the halls felt really cold and distant. Although this was not a session day, people did not look up from their desks to acknowledge me. After 35 years, one would think that I deserved, at least, a glance.
Rather than heading over to my usual haunts, the offices of the house education committee, both Republican and Democrat, I went over to the senate side and rode the elevator up to the 3rd floor to visit my friend Rhonda Talbot, who worked for Senator Ellis. Rhonda and I share more than a passing acquaintance. Rhonda’s next door neighbor is a close friend of my family. We have seen their three children grow up since infancy. Rhonda has always been part of that. Her children had gone to school with our friend’s children. We mostly talked about those kinds of things, rather than our work. However, when important bills came up that Rhonda thought might affect me; she would always be available for a discussion.
Senator Ellis’ office was strangely quiet. Mary, who sat at the front desk, barely looked up at me. I asked her if I could see Rhonda. She was almost hesitant to make the call. Finally, she ushered me in to Rhonda’s office. Rhonda looked at me strangely, almost as if she was sizing me up. “Chet,” she said, “this is not a good time to be in the Capitol, especially this office.” I could hardly believe what I was hearing. “Rhonda, what the heck is going on? People whom I have known for 20 or 30 years barely look at me and kind of diss me. If I have done something wrong, I would really like to know.” “Chet, it has nothing to do with you. It’s just that some really strange things have been going on around here and frankly people are scared.”
“Wow, does that mean that I should not even be here in this building? Is there some reason that we should maybe all leave?”