Prince William County legislators who had been split over the November sales tax referendum held a peace parley the other day, and the interesting news was not the meeting's outcome -- an iffy agreement to head off a messy Republican family feud -- but rather its location: a log cabin-turned-law office in Stafford County.
William J. Howell, owner of the comfortably rustic office on the banks of the Rappahannock River, had better get used to hosting such therapy sessions, because even Virginia's mighty Republicans occasionally need someone to lead them in a group hug. As of this week, that someone is Howell, the new speaker of the House of Delegates.
Howell is not by nature a "huggy" politician, which is how his predecessor, S. Vance Wilkins Jr. of Amherst County, described himself last summer as he lost the speakership in a sexual harassment scandal. In fact, it was Howell's diffidence -- an almost painful shyness in public and in private -- that made him such a powerful antidote to Wilkins, their GOP colleagues said at the time.
Yet, at the dawn of a speaker's career that could span decades, the nagging question about Howell, 59, is whether he has the fortitude to rule the unruly and increasingly powerful Republican House. Being lord of the House means not always being the nice guy.
The short answer, after watching his sometimes tentative transition to power, is that Howell has many attributes for statewide leadership but still has plenty of room to grow.
A House member since 1988, Howell starts with the respect of his peers, a deeply conservative ideology tempered by pragmatism and an openness to others that will always leave his door ajar to groups as diverse as Log Cabin clubs of gay Republicans and members of the GOP who support abortion rights, two groups he met with in recent weeks.
Put simply, Howell is a person secure in himself, if perhaps not entirely sure about where he wants to lead Republicans or how to get there with so many voices competing for his ear.
Howell's leadership in the years ahead will have real-life consequences for everyday Virginians because the House of Delegates is the legislature's laboratory of ideas. It's the culture medium that produces policies affecting everything from when we wear our seat belts to abortion rights, taxes and gun laws.
Even in this year's session, when monumental budget problems are pressing down on state government, House members are at least as interested in social legislation as they are in Virginia's finances.
Maybe even more so. The November reelections have certainly stirred the pot, but several other factors are feeding a frenzy of legislation and a certain boldness within the GOP. After forcing the departure of the imperious Wilkins, Republican lawmakers are feeling liberated by the crushing defeat of the sales tax increases in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and the fact that Gov. Mark R. Warner has no strong Democratic Party in his corner.
As Republicans get close to a majority large enough to overturn a gubernatorial veto, longtime GOP legislators -- notably Howell -- say the party must always be mindful of its larger responsibility as an overseer of state government. The memory of the 2001 budget impasse between the House and Senate is fading for most but is still fresh -- and acutely embarrassing -- for some old-timers.
"For years, we all liked to say that the problem with state government was Richmond," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), a House member since 1986. "Well, we are Richmond now. It's us, not them."
Rollison, author of the legislation that put the sales tax increase on the ballot, met at Howell's office with another tax increase supporter and two staunch anti-taxers. With Howell as the peace broker, the Republicans hammered out a general agreement to let bygones be bygones -- perhaps avoiding the primary election challenges that all the principals fear could hurt the party as a whole.
That truly is Howell's challenge, both in this session and the years ahead. He will be an important figure in the transition from Wilkins -- a revolutionary who after all defeated the once-mighty Democrats and built a new Republican majority -- and for laying the groundwork for potentially permanent Republican rule in Virginia.
That's a challenge of enormous dimensions. Howell says he's up to it, already thinking beyond this session to 2004, when Warner and the General Assembly may tackle landmark tax reform. The new speaker said he will be considering ways to privatize some state functions, restrain government spending and other long-term projects that he said will leave a "Republican impact" on Virginia for years to come.
Howell has also acknowledged there will be times when he will feel "frustrated" by Republicans' election-year preoccupation with abortion and other divisive issues that have never been a priority for him -- but are for many of his troops. For now, Howell is willing to maintain a big tent. "We are not monolithic," he noted.
However, Howell's expansive view of Republicanism will collide one day with a strain of conservatism that is gaining ground in the state GOP, one that doesn't leave room for a lot of dissent.
At that moment, which is coming sooner rather than later, Howell will no longer be the easygoing delegate from the once-sleepy suburb of Stafford but instead will be Vance Wilkins's heir.