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A Senator's Senioritis

What it looks like from Benny Lambert's seat.

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The day of the press conference, the sticker and some handshakes were all it took to get the kind of response from colleagues that Lambert hoped would lock in support. Already he'd received the nod from a slew of his General Assembly comrades. All he needed now was the vote.

When fanfare over the Capitol's facelift subsided, Lambert made the rounds, telling former first lady Roxane Gilmore it was awfully nice to see her, sidling up to City Manager Calvin Jamison to say hello and squeezing through media to congratulate the governor personally. He heard the same thing over and over: "If there's anything I can do to help, Benny, let me know."

As it happens, nobody had to do anything. McEachin pulled out of the race, ostensibly because the issue over whether Richmond should have an at-large mayor won't be decided for a while. McEachin supports the Wilder-Bliley commission that favors an at-large mayor; Lambert has said he'll have to wait for more public input before backing any plan to change the way a mayor is selected.

But now, poised to win re-election and continue his 17-year run in the Senate, what will Lambert do? How much muscle can a senior legislator muster? According to Lambert, plenty.

"You can best tell the character of a person by who he surrounds himself with," Delegate Frank Hall told a group of Lambert's supporters the day the senator announced his bid for re-election. Part of Lambert's influence comes from the company he keeps: everyone from Richmond Mayor Rudy McCollum to Delegate Dwight Jones to state Sen. Dick Saslaw. Relationships and trust take a long time to build, he says, and he's worked long and hard to establish them.

What's more, as a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee and high-ranking member of Senate Education and Health Committee, Lambert is more powerful than most people think.

"I'm going to propose today to work with the city to have a model high school in East Richmond — maybe Armstrong or Kennedy — that's one of the best in the nation, just as we are proud of the Maggie Walker Governor's School," Lambert told supporters at his re-election press conference. At least one sign of his recent causes was profoundly present: Marvin Lamont Anderson, a wrongly imprisoned Hanover man who became the first Virginian exonerated by DNA. Lambert pushed for a $5 million compensation package for Anderson (later cut to $1 million), which Lambert stresses might not have happened if he hadn't persevered. "It was the most interesting piece of legislation I've handled," he says.

Now more than ever, Lambert says, he's poised to produce results for things like a new school and to advocate for what he feels is right, as he did for Anderson. He has the minority leaders of both houses on his side, he points out.

From his third-floor office in the General Assembly Building that overlooks Broad Street, Lambert explains the perks of senior status. Everybody knows that legislative power is a matter of positioning. But in the legislature, it can depend, literally, on where you sit. Lambert moves objects on his desk — a miniature duck decoy, a pencil holder, a paperweight — in a show-and-tell exercise of how it works.

There are 17 Democrats and 23 Republicans in the Senate, and of all senators, Lambert ranks sixth in seniority. Of the top six, four are Democrats. Combine this with the likelihood that some senior statesmen will retire soon, and it means that Lambert could soon become chairman of one of the many committees he sits on and possibly the most powerful person in the legislature.

Lambert's 15-year appointment to and tenure on the highly sought-after Senate Finance Committee, which finds and appropriates money, means he has a lot to say about what gets funding, what doesn't and who's going to pay for it. And, he points out, as the only urban-based legislator on the committee, his voice is the only voice for Richmond. So if Richmond wants money for programs like Project Exile or education, he says, he has the power to see the city gets priority, or at least attention.

Each state senator represents a district that includes roughly 180,000 constituents. If he leaves any time soon, Lambert says, "the region stands to lose an awful lot." Any new person in his seat would have little impact to get things done, he contends. That person would "get on a committee but not have leadership."

After 25 years in politics, Lambert says he has that leadership and plans to prove it. Meantime, he'd like to see someone being groomed for his seat. If he has someone in mind, he won't say who. Some say his daughter, Ann-Francis, one of his four children, could be a candidate; others say it will be McEachin. For now, Lambert's sitting tight. "I've worked my way into a powerful position by way of committees and seniority," he says. "I've got the inside edge." S

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