RICHMOND — Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell, a silver-haired grandfather who practices law in a log cabin and presides over a legislative body nearly four centuries old, is suddenly hip to Twitter. His inaugural tweet came Dec. 11 — one day ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s.
“Thanks for following me on Twitter. You can also keep up with me at williamjhowell.org,” tweeted Howell (R), referring to his revamped Web site.
Howell, who recently hired a full-time communications director after letting that job go vacant for several years, is one of many state GOP legislators newly bent on getting their message out.
As Republicans prepare to return to Richmond on Jan. 9, some are eager to avoid a repeat of the last General Assembly session, when they found themselves in a swirl of national media attention and even a “Saturday Night Live” parody over a bill that would have required women to get vaginal ultrasounds before abortions.
Stung by losses in November’s presidential and U.S. Senate races, they are determined not to hand Democrats more “war on women” ammunition as they head into the 2013 races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. That sentiment is especially strong in the House, where all 100 delegates are up for reelection.
Some moderate Republicans are privately rooting for hot-button social legislation to die quietly in committee. But killing off those bills is not their entire strategy — and not one that conservative Republicans are on board with in any case.
More broadly accepted — among tea party favorites and establishment types — is the idea that Virginia Republicans have to get a better grip on how their work in Richmond gets conveyed to voters.
That means not only taking to social media but also pushing new issues — like a pair of proposed constitutional amendments to curb union power — that are likely to grab headlines and fire up the party base without igniting another reproductive-rights war.
“We recognize we must do a good job of messaging our entire agenda and making sure we cut through all the fervor and focus on social issues,” said Del. Ben L. Cline (R-Rockbridge), co-chairman of the conservative caucus. “We have to do a better job of communicating to the public the work that we do on fiscal issues, on pocketbook issues and on education.”
Cline said that does not mean soft-pedaling issues such as abortion, but making sure voters know they are not the end-all and be-all of the GOP agenda.
“Our problem is not being too conservative and our solution is certainly not wishy- washing the party down so we stand for nothing,” said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). “The problem is that we are not communicating.”
Albo believes Republicans can make inroads with voters who support abortion rights so long as they have other priorities.
“You need people like my mother, a pro-choice Republican,” he said. “She understands you can never be 100 percent with anybody. . . . Let’s agree to disagree on that one and look at all these other issues.”
“What I’ve got to do is show my constituents that Dave Albo and the majority of Republicans are totally normal,” Albo said. “We care about the same things you care about and we’ve got some great ideas and here’s what they are. That doesn’t require us to water down the message. It just requires us to explain how Republicans will build roads, get their kids into college and keep their kids safe.”
Albo lamented that in the midst of last session’s pitched social battles — in addition to the ultrasound issue, there was a failed “personhood” bill that would have bestowed legal rights on fertilized eggs, the rejection of a gay judicial nominee and a bill allowing state-funded adoption agencies to turn away prospective parents if they are gay — hardly anyone noticed that the state created 1,500 public university slots for in-state students.
“I’m going to have to spend a lot of time communicating with people . . . because of the way the Republican brand is reported,” he said. “I hope people start paying attention to that instead of all those salacious issues.”
Whether that happens could well depend on the fate of a single delegate’s bills, said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond political observer and former Virginia Commonwealth University professor.
“There’s always a set of issues that attract attention, and very prominent attention, regardless of the party’s best interests,” Holsworth said. “I think in this instance, a lot depends on what happens with Bob Marshall’s bills.”
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) is one of the House’s most prolific bill sponsors. Among his proposals last year was the personhood bill, which critics said could outlaw not only abortion, but IUDs and certain birth-control pills that can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. The bill had cleared the House and was on its way to a Senate vote when it was scuttled amid the ultrasound uproar.
Combining a “maverick nature with an instinct for what’s really going to capture news attention,” Marshall manages year after year to wield “considerable influence on the nature of the debate and the dialogue,” Holsworth said. “If [Marshall’s] bills get bottled up and don’t succeed in the House, I think at the end of the day, you’ll find people talking about how the party leadership exercised message discipline.”
Marshall is not particularly interested in being reined in. If Republicans don’t take bold stands on issues like abortion and gun rights, he said, “what brand do the Republicans have?”
For this session, in response to the Connecticut elementary school massacre, Marshall is working on legislation requiring schools to arm some teachers, principals or other staff. Marshall is also considering resubmitting his personhood bill.
His only hesitation: Like all delegates, he is limited to sponsoring 15 bills this year because it’s a short, 30-day session. He sponsored 36 last year.
“There’s no encouragement for these kinds of bills,” he said. “There’ll be frowns, delays assigning bills to committees.”
Marshall plans to get around that in a manner similar to what other Republicans are doing to get their messages out: by reaching out over the Internet. On the Web site vareligousliberty.com, he has posted a petition calling on the General Assembly to pass two of his bills, which are meant to thwart “Obamacare” mandates.
“To get around [Republican leadership], you have to get the grass roots to contact their own members to alert them and say, ‘Look, we’re still here,’ ” Marshall said.
And then there are the Democrats, who played up the General Assembly’s antiabortion bills in the presidential and Senate races last fall and seem eager to keep the issue alive for the 2013 contests.
Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) said there are bills in the works that would amend or repeal the ultrasound law, and lift new building codes for abortion clinics.
“Just because they’re not going to bring it up again, I don think the issue’s dead,” she said.