GOP Rift Over Howell Worsens
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
RICHMOND -- House Speaker William J. Howell so surprised his fellow Republican delegates by changing his mind and supporting a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars that his second in command broke ranks and refused to back him.
House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith's dissent provided a glimpse of what some Republicans describe as a long-simmering divide within their caucus. The tensions have worsened as Republicans have debated how to maintain their majority in a state that has been trending from red to blue.
Many delegates say they are frustrated that Howell negotiated a deal for a ban they oppose philosophically and handed a victory to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had made a smoking ban a priority for years.
"I'm disappointed in him," Del. Thomas D. Gear (R-Hampton) said.
Some are privately questioning Howell's leadership but said they might wait until after November, when all 100 House seats are up for election, before deciding whether to start searching for a new speaker.
Republicans have lost 11 seats since Howell (Stafford) became speaker in 2003. If they lose six more seats, Democrats will take control of the chamber for the first time in almost a decade.
Griffith (Salem), who voted against the smoking ban bill last week, said his caucus has largely recovered from the rift caused by the issue. But he said the fall elections will be a crucial barometer of the strength of the party leadership.
"Whenever you have a loss of seats, there is always the potential that any member of leadership can be thrown out," Griffith said.
Howell became speaker seven years ago in the wake of a scandal in which his predecessor paid a woman $100,000 to cover up his unwanted sexual advances. Now, most delegates say they would never challenge him without knowing they had the votes to remove him.
"I don't worry about it one bit, not one bit," Howell said in an interview. "I've had this job for seven years, and I've been through some pretty difficult times."
Howell said that if delegates want to vote for a new speaker next year, they should feel free to do so. But he defends his decision to deal with Kaine and the Democratic-controlled Senate, saying that it was right for the state and that two-thirds of his leadership team agreed.
"Anytime you have a diverse group, people are going to question your leadership," Howell said. "You're going to have different opinions."