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.
Driven by faith, humor
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.