By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006
RICHMOND, March 1 -- Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) on Wednesday demanded that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) publicly disavow comments by his chief of staff that the governor planned retribution against Republicans who do not support his transportation plans.
Over the weekend, Chief of Staff William H. Leighty had told about 50 people at a town hall meeting in Fairfax County that Kaine was compiling a list of bills from uncooperative lawmakers, according to several people who attended.
Howell said Leighty acknowledged in a meeting Tuesday that he had made the remarks but said he intended them to be flippant. Several who attended the town hall meeting said Leighty was joking. But Howell said that the comments nonetheless caused Republicans "deep distress" and suggest that Kaine's stated desire for bipartisanship "may be solely restricted to public posturing."
Moments later, Kaine refused to denounce Leighty's comments. Speaking to reporters as he walked to an Ash Wednesday Mass, Kaine said he and Leighty had already apologized privately to House leaders and said that should be enough for the House Republicans.
"All we can control is being sincere in apologizing," Kaine said. "They have to make a decision about whether to accept it or not."
The intense reaction from House leaders -- Howell called the moment "somber" -- comes at a sensitive time for Kaine, who is trying to persuade the legislature to raise taxes to pay for transportation projects. The Republican-led Senate has voted for a $1 billion-per-year tax increase plan. But the House, under Howell, has balked at the need for tax increases, saying the state's economy is doing well enough to fund transportation improvements without them.
Howell said Leighty's comments will make negotiations over the budget more difficult.
"Obviously, these unfortunate events are counterproductive and only add to the challenges facing all of us between now and the end of session on March 11," Howell said. "Believing all participants are acting in a genuine and civil manner, with integrity and credibility, will be essential for success."
Leighty declined to discuss his comments or the GOP reaction to them. "I have no further comment. I think enough's been said," he told The Post on Wednesday.
Such a sharply partisan dispute has become unusual in Virginia state politics. As a candidate, Kaine promised to govern in a bipartisan manner, often invoking as a model his predecessor, Mark R. Warner (D). Kaine said Wednesday that he has been "more than fair" in working with Republicans.
He added that he "absolutely" supports Leighty, saying that he has done "a fantastic job" for the state and will continue to do so. And he said Republicans should not be shocked that Leighty would say politics plays a role in the activities in the state capital.
"It's the kind of thing that happens around here all the time," Kaine said. "We're all big boys and girls. We have a natural tendency to kind of work closer with those who are supporting us on stuff than those who aren't. And that's basically, when you boil it down, that's kind of what he said."
House Republicans have threatened to reject Kaine's nomination of former labor leader Daniel G. LeBlanc as secretary of the commonwealth. Lawmakers also have the power to approve or reject Leighty's appointment. Howell said that the Republicans have not voted on whether to support Leighty.
Leighty's comments, first reported on the Not Larry Sabato Web log, came during a town hall meeting at Bonnie Brae Elementary School in Fairfax hosted by two freshman delegates, Dave W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) and David L. Bulova (D-Fairfax).
Leighty was responding to a question about whether Kaine would retaliate against lawmakers. Howell said some audience members took his response to mean that Kaine's staff plans to contact supporters of bills introduced by some House Republicans and tell them that the governor might veto the bills if the Republicans fail to support Kaine's transportation plan.
"I have four staff members looking at every bill from every Republican House member," Leighty said, according to the blog. "We are not going to the member, but compiling a list of who asked for each bill. We are going to those people to tell them their bills are in jeopardy."
Members of the governor's party accused Howell and the GOP leadership of overreacting.
"It's one of these back-and-forth gotcha games like they play up in D.C.," said Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington).
Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria) said: "They are making a mountain out of a molehill. It's a diversion from their inability to address our transportation needs."
Many lobbyists and other longtime observers chuckled at the GOP reaction. They said political considerations -- such as whether a Democrat or a Republican is the chief sponsor of a bill -- have long been fair game in Richmond.
But rarely do the political motivations emerge publicly, beyond the committee rooms.
Bulova said that although he frequently records meetings, he did not do so at the town hall meeting.
"I think Bill was trying to be tongue in cheek," Bulova said. "I don't think he was looking to stir controversy, but obviously he did, and I know he feels badly about it."
Howell and other GOP leaders spoke to reporters about the comments after emerging from a hastily called closed-door House Republican caucus meeting.
House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said: "Each governor has to choose their path. Some choose the partisan path. Some choose the bipartisan path. It's his choice. I play the game. I understand it. But you can't be Partisan Central and claim to be bipartisan."
Staff writers Chris L. Jenkins and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.