By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Some conservative Republican activists from around the state say they have harbored concerns about Howell since 2004, when he did not stop then-Gov. Mark R. Warner's $1.4 billion tax increase. Three years later, he supported a controversial transportation package that some opposed because it led to another tax increase. And they blame him and other elected officials for contributing to a rise in state spending.
"We feel fundamentally betrayed on the principles," said Gary Byler, chairman of the 2nd Congressional District Republican Committee in Hampton Roads. "There's been an underlying resentment from some of the core constituencies that have been given short shrift."
They say Howell, a conservative who has been in the House two decades, has not given enough attention to anti-tax, anti-abortion and school choice advocates.
"Conservatives expect the speaker to act like a conservative," said Ben Marchi, state director of Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax group that supports limited government and free trade.
Two weeks ago, when Howell announced in a closed-door caucus meeting that he would allow the smoking ban bill to proceed to the House floor, many delegates were upset. Some opposed the bill because they consider it an assault on individual freedom, and others were upset that Howell took up an issue that a majority of his caucus opposes.
"There were some who were not just disappointed, but angry. There was a frustration," said Ben L. Cline (R-Rockbridge), House chairman of the Conservative Caucus. "Now, there's just disappointment."
Several prominent Republican activists wrote to GOP delegates, urging them to oppose a bill they say would "create a divide between members and the Republican base."
"The speaker's actions do not reflect his caucus's opinion or the party's opinion," said Mike Wade, chairman of the 3rd Congressional District Republican Committee in Hampton, who signed the letter.
Last week, 33 of 55 caucus members voted against the ban. The vote, like many others, split largely between moderates, many in Northern Virginia, and conservatives from mostly rural areas.
Delegates say Howell has been trying gradually to make changes so Democrats will have fewer avenues of attack during the fall campaign. For example, the House is recording votes taken in subcommittee meetings, during which many bills are killed, and is offering live video of floor sessions -- an attempt to eliminate the Democrats' criticism about transparency.
According to delegates who attended the recent caucus meeting on the smoking ban, Howell told them that he was opposed to the prohibition but would back the ban because of the looming elections.
Democrats are salivating at the prospect of turmoil for their Republican colleagues.
"Clearly, when you're in a battle, it's very important that your forces not be divided amongst themselves," House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said. "The House Republican caucus is very much divided among itself right now . . . and that does not bode well for them in the fall campaign."
Staff writer Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.