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 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 accustomed 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, 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 powerful speakership in a sexual harassment scandal. In fact, Howell's diffidence, an almost painful shyness in public and in private, 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 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 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 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, with monumental budget problems pressing down on state government, House members are at least as interested in social legislation as 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 in the GOP. After forcing the imperious Wilkins to depart, 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 near 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 House-Senate budget impasse is fading for most but 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 state 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 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 peace broker, Republicans hammered out a general agreement to let bygones be bygones, perhaps avoiding the primary election challenges that all of the principals fear could hurt the party as a whole.
That truly is Howell's challenge, in this session and years ahead. He will be an important figure in the transition from Wilkins, a revolutionary who did defeat the once-mighty Democrats and built a new Republican majority, and for laying 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.
Howell 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.
Howell has also acknowledged that, at times, 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 and 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. He will be Vance Wilkins's heir.