His family, friends and even his political adversaries describe him as a sweet man. He's amiable and fair, they say, with a witty sense of humor that helps to ease a tense situation.

Starting today, House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) aims to prove that such a man can succeed as Virginia's most powerful lawmaker.

"I would love to see a session where we would get everything done with a minimum of rancor and a maximum of civility," Howell said this week as he prepared to lead his sometimes unruly majority. In his acceptance speech today, he vowed "to ensure fairness of the House's deliberative process."

Howell, 59, a former banker from the rapidly growing edge of Northern Virginia's suburbs, has spent the last 14 years in the House, where he built a conservative voting record and a reputation as an expert on criminal justice issues.

But his ascension to the speaker's rostrum has so far been less about the substance and more about the process of lawmaking.

During his 15-minute speech, he urged members to be good fiscal stewards and preserve the state's "low-tax, pro-economic" climate. But he made no mention of specific measures he wants enacted, nor did he challenge any proposals offered by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) or Democratic lawmakers.

His comments contrasted sharply with those of his predecessor, S. Vance Wilkins Jr., who used the same lectern a year ago to launch initiatives on open space preservation, childhood reading and investment in college research. Wilkins resigned last summer after he admitted to paying $100,000 to quietly settle a sexual harassment claim out of court.

"What kind of people we are and how we treat one another is as important as the bills we pass and the laws we make," Howell said after becoming speaker.

Warner, who quickly forged a warm relationship with Wilkins, this week called Howell "a Virginia gentleman" and said, "He'll be a good working partner."

Howell's son Jack, a minister who opened today's lawmaking session with a prayer for his father's success, said later that Howell has been "as close to tears as I've seen him in a long time. He's moved by all this."

The new speaker took the reins of power with his wife of 36 years, his two sons and five grandchildren in attendance. Family, Howell said in his speech, "is where we learn our values -- honesty, responsibility, initiative and compassion."

Later, Howell and his family held a reception in the speaker's office across from the state Capitol, where one of the grandchildren pulled the fire alarm, sending Capitol police scurrying.

Democrats, who hold 34 of the 100 seats in the House, said they believe Howell will treat them fairly despite the GOP's dominance in the chamber.

"I anticipate him putting the concerns of the citizens of the commonwealth first and putting aside political agendas," said Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria), chairman of the Democratic caucus in the House.

But Democrats are not kidding themselves about Howell's politics, and conservative Republicans in the House said they expect Howell to help pass conservative social legislation.

"There's no question in my mind that Bill stands firmly behind family-friendly legislation," said Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William).

After the Wilkins controversy, many lawmakers said they were most interested in the stability Howell would bring to the job. For his part, Howell accepted a comparison to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who followed firebrand Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

"Mr. Hastert came along to calm the waters," Howell said. "Perhaps that's an ability I have, too."

Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, left, stands before the Virginia House with Howell just after the latter's swearing-in as speaker. "What kind of people we are and how we treat one another is as important as the bills we pass and the laws we make," Howell told delegates.