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Faces of the Capitol

The stewards of Capitol Hill provide calm in the midst of chaos.


Debates most certainly will swell around such heated social issues as gay marriage, abortion and contraception. Many Virginians wonder, for example, whether last year's amendment to the state's Affirmation of Marriage Act prohibiting civil unions between people of the same sex will be strengthened or repealed. Business interests will push legislators to embrace transportation, then conjure up ways to pay for it. A constitutional amendment may appear allowing a governor to serve consecutive terms. And Richmonders will ask to what degree their City Charter could — or should — change.

But there is a kind of calm in the midst of chaos. It is to be found in the faces of the commonwealth, the unsung stewards of the Capitol. And while they're not making laws or changing history or seeking recognition, they stand out.

There are 300 full-time employees and part-time session workers who return year after year to the Capitol. Collectively they've spent centuries there. They include everyone from Pearl Jones, an 11-year veteran of Chicken's Snack Bar, to Capitol Police Officer Woodrow W. "Buddy" Dowdy, who is all smiles in his mirrored sunglasses as he greets lawmakers and visitors from his Washington statue post.

"This place gets in your blood," says Bruce Jamerson, clerk of the House of Delegates.

"The time you don't get exhilarated walking through the session doors or you lose your sense of humor, it's time to quit," adds his counterpart, Susan Clark Schaar, clerk of the Senate.

The clerks say the Capitol helps attract people on the "gold-watch" plan, those who won't leave. These are folks behind the scenes, performing jobs that often are overlooked or go unknown to the public. But when session is in, they are everywhere. Their faces become familiar. Lawmakers, aides, pages and reporters call them by their first names. They become go-to people. And each has a role to play in ensuring things run smoothly during the frenetic pace of lawmaking.

This session offers a chance to see Capitol Square and those who keep it in action one last time before the statehouse is irrevocably transformed. It will close March 1 for at least 18 months as part of an $84 million restoration and expansion project.

Work on the 217-year-old Capitol began in the spring of 2004, marking the 100th anniversary of the addition of the House and Senate wings and the 225th anniversary of moving the seat of Virginia government from Williamsburg to Richmond. Following the 2005 General Assembly, significant interior work will begin on what Jefferson called the "Temple on the Hill." It will update the building and make it more user-friendly. Inevitably, some of its charm will disappear, such as the tiny brass-doored elevators. But welcome changes in modernity and access may outweigh sentimental losses.

"There may be a nostalgia trend to this session concerning the interior," Jamerson says. Next year's session will convene in the newly renovated Old State Library building, marking only the second time in the Capitol's history that legislators have not met there.

The construction will temporarily change life for the session workers too — the nuts and bolts of the Capitol. Yet if their upcoming displacement proves anything, it is likely to be that you can take the people out of the Capitol, but you can't take the Capitol out of them. Most of them have become as intrinsic to the place as the ubiquitous oil portraits of governors and statesmen that dress its walls.

Some, like Jeff Finch and John Garrett — deputy clerks of the House and Senate, respectively — have spent entire careers here, starting as pages or interns. Each of their faces tells a story of the Capitol, too, stories that appear to endure. Likewise, it seems only fitting to photograph them in the place they call home.

These are a few of the people whose sense of exhilaration and humor provides an apt antidote to the repetitive and adversarial nature of politics. Where would the politicians be without their paper clips, their calendars, their drafts, their Chichester limeades made extra sweet?

And without the session workers' knowledge of legal minutiae or their understanding of the everyday process, the efforts of the General Assembly would merely amount to politics and not to public policy. S

Faces of the Capitol continued...

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