RICHMOND — He’s been called “the accidental speaker.” But since taking the helm of the House of Delegates a decade ago after his predecessor stumbled, William J. Howell has been nothing but careful, plotting a strong rightward course for the legislature and occasionally pulling back when he thinks it’s gone too far.
With one swift procedural move this week, the Republican leader killed a new state Senate map that could have given the GOP control for years. But by doing that, he cleared a path toward compromise with Democrats on Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s transportation plan.
If the art of compromise means sometimes angering your friends and pleasing your enemies, Howell succeeded in his ruling. Some Democrats hailed Howell’s decision as an act of political courage. Some members of Howell’s caucus expressed fury, though usually in private because they feared retribution.
The episode, which attracted national attention, also demonstrated the powers of a figure who has played key roles under both Republican and Democratic governors and never threatened to upstage them.
Howell has worked to satisfy the demands of a Republican caucus that has become more conservative with the rise of the tea party. But at the same time, his pragmatic streak has led him to cut deals with Democrats. He spoke out against then-Gov. Mark R. Warner’s (D) $1.6 billion tax hike but quietly instructed a few Republicans to skip a committee vote so that the bill would go the House floor. And despite his distaste for then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s (D) smoking ban, he worked a deal there, too.
Howell, a man of average height whose graying sheepdog bangs are flung to the side, blends into the crowded corridors of Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol, just another gent in a business jacket and a tie, his head down hurrying somewhere as he talks with staff.
Yet he’s one of the most powerful men in Virginia, having served as the House of Delegates speaker for 10 years. Interviews with lawmakers, friends and family draw a picture of a deeply religious man who runs the House, the GOP caucus and his PAC in firm, sometimes high-handed ways. But he has also earned the respect of key Democrats. He likes a good practical joke, and even his foes can’t help but admire his wit, which he demonstrates every legislative session in his wisecracks and zingers from the speaker’s rostrum.
“He’s intellectually honest,” Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said. “We’re all politicians. We all cast political votes. But Bill is pretty principled.”
Saslaw, who counts Howell as a personal friend, said even before Howell’s decision that he would respect him no matter how he ruled. And he, too, admires Howell’s skill at repartee. “He’s Johnny Carson quick,” Saslaw said.
Howell, 69, makes his living as a wills and trusts lawyer in a log cabin filled with stuffed hunting trophies on the Rappahannock River. He is business-friendly — to a fault, critics say — sometimes leading him to team up with groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, a pro-business, free-market group he chaired in 2009.
Howell championed legislation, ghostwritten by ALEC, that would have shielded one company from paying asbestos-related health claims. The Fortune 500 firm — Crown Cork & Seal — said the legislation was necessary to save jobs at plants in Virginia; it also gave $8,000 to the PAC that Howell controls.
Howell grew up in Northern Virginia, one of four children born to a World Bank executive and an English mother whose father set up National Association of Local Government Officers. As a kid, he and a brother once conducted a capital trial of his sister’s dolls when she was out of the house. Mary Howell was not pleased to find them hanged when she returned.
Clowning around nearly cost Howell his life while an undergraduate at the University of Richmond, when he reached over a banister in a dorm and fell five stories onto concrete. He was in a coma for 18 hours.
“He should have been killed,” said his younger brother, Chuck Howell, an engineer in Loudoun County. “The next day . . . he just sort of opened his eyes and said: ‘Hey, Mom. Hey, Dad. What are you doing here?’ ” Except for some initial dizziness and headaches, he was fine.
His wife of 46 years, Cessie, is a Marylander, and while she moved to Virginia, he swapped his church for hers. A devout Baptist, he teaches Sunday school at his church and has not only traveled to Israel with his church to see the places where Jesus walked, but he also has taken a cruise with his wife that retraced St. Paul’s steps in the Middle East.
He was one of the original four delegates to start a prayer group that meets at 7 a.m. every Wednesday and jokes that he’s the only one still in the House while the other original members — including McDonnell — have moved on. Today the prayer group attracts 30 or more, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, including the governor sometimes.
When he’s in Richmond, after hitting the treadmill at his hotel, he will call his wife to share a moment of prayer. Howell said he often reflects on the Epistle of St. James’s meditation on faith and action: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” To Howell, the passage is a reminder that good deeds alone are not enough to win salvation. But good deeds are also the necessary consequence of true faith.
He drives a silver Lincoln Town Car with the number one on the license plate. Every Saturday, he takes a stroll with a group of friends around Fredericksburg, capped by a stop at the Hyperion Espresso coffee shop. When he meets for breakfast with buddies at another regular haunt a few times a week, he usually orders the same meal: eggs and sausage that must be well done, or he might send it back.
They talk politics and joke, as the speaker loves to do in almost any setting. At his older brother’s wedding reception years ago, Howell strode through the hotel lobby and came upon a man at an automated blood pressure machine.
“Bill hovered behind him, and Bill said, ‘I’m a doctor,’ ” the speaker’s younger brother, Chuck Howell, recalled. “And the cuff collapsed and these numbers came up and Bill said, ‘Mmm, mmm, mmm,’ and started shaking his head.”
“What is it?” the man wanted to know. “Are those numbers not good?”
“And he said, ‘Mmm, mmm, mmm,’ and walked away.”
Howell became speaker in 2003 after S. Vance Wilkins resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal. Howell was the sleeper candidate whom everyone liked and no one viscerally opposed.
“The Republicans were looking for somebody who was squeaky clean, with a lot of integrity, and they picked Bill — and they picked the right guy,” Saslaw said.
But Howell followed his predecessor’s legacy in one way: Wilkins, the first Republican to rule the chamber in 100 years, instituted a number of reforms, including bringing some strictness and objectivity to germaneness rules. Those rules came into play this week, as Howell decided Senate Republicans had gone too far when they tacked an entirely redrawn state Senate map onto a bill calling for minor “technical adjustments” to House districts.
Howell also was conservative on social issues such as abortion, but he primarily focused on promoting business-friendly policies. And pragmatic, he was willing to cut a deal to get things done.
In the years since, a more confrontational GOP brand has taken hold, and those Republicans believe Howell is not conservative enough, or at least too willing to compromise. They’ve grumbled this year as he signed onto McDonnell’s transportation plan, which includes tax and fee hikes, and tried to keep a lid on the social issues that consumed the 2012 session.
Behind closed doors in caucus meetings, Howell takes a top-down approach, preferring to convey decisions of the leadership in tightly scripted meetings rather than spend hours in debate.
“The speaker definitely likes to have things go his way,” said U.S. Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R), who served as majority leader under Howell. “He and I didn’t always agree, but we had a good working relationship. I have great respect for the speaker.”
Some caucus members say Howell can be vindictive and petty, removing people from coveted committee assignments if they don’t do his bidding and killing bills he doesn’t like. After advising his caucus of his plans to kill the redistricting plan, they asked for a break in the House proceedings to vent for more than an hour behind closed doors — without Howell present.
“He’s the epitome of all that’s wrong with politicians,” said Jeffrey M. Frederick, who clashed with Howell as a former Prince William County delegate and former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “He’s all about power without purpose. And it’s a shame, because he didn’t start out that way.”
Frederick accuses the speaker of sacrificing conscience for job security and using coercion, not persuasion, to lead.
But first-term Del. Israel O’Quinn (R-Grayson) said the speaker was gracious when he went to his office last year to find funding for a prison in southwest Virginia that was already open but still vacant at a time when his community, with unemployment at 11 percent, was counting on those 300 or more prison jobs.
“I haven’t gone to his office many times. But he sat down every single time with me, even if he had other appointments,” O’Quinn said. “I didn’t get the answer I wanted. But I didn’t feel degraded or walk out feeling like a dumb freshman.”
This year, about $17 million for the prison was attached to the budget bill.