“Sorry to just throw you into it… but it’s gonna be a busy day,” Hobie Lehman barely takes a breath before launching into a quick introduction of his team. A stocky, matter-of-fact man, Lehman is constantly moving and never wastes a moment of silence to explain his work. He is a close friend of Collegiate Upper School history teacher Brad Cooke; they went to Tuckahoe Middle School together (at a time when Lehman allegedly had a functioning phone booth in his bedroom), and the two fathers, whose children play together, now live just blocks from one another. Cooke is quick to make fun of his childhood friend, noting an occasion when Lehman, who is afraid of heights, had to do a story on the wing of a stunt plane while working as a news anchor. Currently at work in the Virginia Senate, Hobie Lehman assumes the titles of Coordinator of Committee Operations and Sergeant-at-Arms, and his job is multi-faceted and complicated, forcing him to stay at work long before and long after the typical workday. While his position is not as well-known to the public, the work he does is vital to the Virginia Senate’s day-to-day operations running smoothly.
Lehman’s position as Sergeant-at-Arms involves keeping order and maintaining security, and while this portion of his job is mostly ceremonial, he is also responsible for general security and law enforcement for the Senate. The most time-consuming part of his job involves the Senate committees, creating the committee session schedule, working through the daily floor calendar, and handling commissions and studies. His supervisor, Susan Schaar, is the Clerk of the Senate, and they, along with 25 other people, are in charge of all the committees and general operations of the Virginia State Senate. The Virginia General Assembly, which is comprised of the Senate and the House of Delegates, is only in session between 30 and 60 days annually, but Lehman’s job continues year-round. One of the most important committees he manages, the Committee on Rules, met first thing on Friday, March 4, and saw 29 bills presented before it.
The senators gradually made their way in, a few at a time, some going quietly to their seats to read over information, while others greeted each other loudly (“Good morning, Reevies!” an excited Senator Jill Vogel (R-27) announced to Senator Bryce Reeves (R-17).) The committee is one of the most powerful in the Senate, as it has the ability to amend legislation and set the terms of the debate on a bill. A flurry of bills from the House passed and failed before them, from a study on heroin sentencing to a condemnation of boycotts against Israel. The Israel bill, HJR-177, sparked controversy within the committee and the public that was present to testify, as it brought a decidedly international issue into the state spotlight. Delegate Miyares (R-82) defended his bill by stating that the movement, led by the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, is detrimental to Virginia businesses and cannot be allowed to continue. Jewish citizens from all across Virginia were called to testify before the committee, and about half of them expressed their support for the bill, echoing the Senator’s statements and calling the campaign “anti-Semitic” and controlling. However, another group of Virginia Jews criticized Israel for its alleged maltreatment of Palestinians in the area, and expressed their support for the BDS movement, claiming it as the only way to influence the Israeli government to treat Palestinians with compassion. Senator Norment (R-3) voiced his support for the bill but noted that its passage should not encourage anyone to bring more international bills to the table in the future. One of the more vocal members of the Rules Committee, Senator Saslaw (D-35), declared his opinion quite clearly by stating his belief that, “the train [in Israel] is being driven by Hamas, and everyone here knows it.” He went on to say that, “there may be 200,000 people who signed a petition [in favor of this bill], but I can tell you that I wasn’t one of them.” Debates such as this demonstrate the deliberate balance between impassioned public testimonies and grounded legislators who will not shy away from stating their opinions on a bill.
That same day, a House Joint Resolution brought before the Rules Committee proposed a constitutional amendment to limit federal power. It called for fiscal restraints, limitations on federal jurisdiction, and limitations on the terms of office of federal officeholders. Members of the public lined up to testify for and against the resolution, and tensions ran high as the line stretched to the back of the room. One man boldly stated, that “the federal government is on fire and [the states] must put it out,” while another modestly noted that, “I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even I can see what’s going on.”
Senator Saslaw made another bold statement before the committee in response to the amendment bill with a loosely-veiled jab at, “two certain presidential candidates, one from each party,” whom he apparently believes will tear the Constitution apart if elected into office. Many other members found a way to name-drop Donald Trump in the committee, drawing laughs from the public assembled before them.
Throughout the committee session, Lehman and his team worked hard to tally votes, keep proxies (notices from senators requesting another legislator vote for them in their absence) organized, and draft new versions of edited bills. The entire room was a whirlwind of activity, and I was mistaken for a page at one point, (the 14-year old resident couriers and general aides that are selected from local middle and high school students), by a woman waiting to testify for a bill. Lehman, along with the other members of the staff of the Senate Clerk’s office, are responsible for overseeing daily Senate operations, maintaining all records, keeping the daily Journal, referring bills to committees, information technology, and a variety of other tasks. When the General Assembly is in session, the office staffs around 150 people, including interns and retired members. One retiree who had returned for the 2016 session noted that he appreciates the increased use of technology at the Capitol, and that its streamlining capabilities let the staff go home earlier in the day.
Hobie Lehman was one of the main driving forces behind a recently-initiated iPad program at the General Assembly. The program allows legislators to access copies of bills, updates, and histories of pieces of legislation at a moment’s notice, as opposed to having to wait for paper copies to be printed up. Lehman and a few other staff members are responsible for aiding Senate members that experience difficulty with their technology during sessions. At this time, when the entire Senate is on the floor, Lehman is also responsible for handling the members of the press present, maintaining security in the chambers, and offering any other needed assistance to the senators. His job is stressful, chaotic, and fast-paced, but Lehman still takes time to note the little things he appreciates about the Virginia Senate. To him, seeing the senators work together and maintain close friendship despite ideological and political divides is one of the most positive aspects of the entire process, and is something we could all stand to uphold in our daily lives.
All photo credits unless otherwise noted: Elizabeth Harrison.
Featured image: Bob Brown / Richmond Times Dispatch.