Of what does a Speaker speak when
In Virginia, William J. “Bill” Howell loves to talk
government and politics. A lawyer by profession, the soft-spoken, veteran
legislator counts public service as one of his life’s passions.
Howell, a Republican, was first elected in 1987 to
represent the area now comprising Virginia’s 28th House of Delegates
District, which includes parts of Stafford County and the city of
Fredericksburg. He was elected Speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates in
2003 and has served in that capacity since.
And in the wake of the November 2011 election, Howell
will this year preside over the largest Republican majority ever in the
Virginia House of Delegates, the lower chamber of the oldest continuously
operating legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.
Always the pragmatist, Howell notes, “After the election,
the message was, ‘Let’s enjoy this today, but tomorrow, we get to work.’ We
can’t afford to gloat or be arrogant about the election, if we want to
advance the best interests of the Commonwealth.”
A Lifelong Interest in the Process
As a youth, Howell says he was always aware of policy and
the political process. He was born in Washington, D.C., but his parents
moved the family to Virginia shortly after his birth.
“My dad worked for the World Bank, and we lived over a
general store. A year after I was born we moved to Alexandria. Dad was a
country guy at heart, so he bought 10 acres in Fairfax County, halfway
between Centreville and Chantilly. He built a home out there and would drive
to Washington to work,” Howell notes.
“My mother was originally from England,” Howell
continues. “Her father was a college professor who would visit the U.S. to
lecture, and she met my dad while accompanying her father on one of his
Growing up inside the beltway, Howell says his family
frequently engaged in discussions about government and politics.
“My parents were both New Deal Democrats,” he points out
with some amusement. “I often wonder how they would have felt about me
running for office as a conservative Republican.”
While pursuing undergraduate studies at the University of
Richmond, Howell decided he needed to develop a political philosophy.
“I’d read a book by Barry Goldwater, then I read a book
by Hubert Humphrey, and I eventually came to the conclusion that I was more
of a conservative,” he recalls.
His college experience also taught him a very important
lesson about elections. “I ran for president of the senior class,” Howell
notes. “When the election was over and the votes were tallied, I lost by
three votes. That taught me that, literally, every vote counts.”
Howell earned a B.S. in business administration at the
University of Richmond in 1964, then went on to earn his law degree at the
University of Virginia in 1967, a year after he and his wife, Cecelia (Cessie)
Joy Stump, were married.
Howell first got involved in Virginia politics shortly
after he moved to Fredericksburg. “Tom Moncure was the incumbent delegate,
and he was moving out of the district,” Howell notes. “He asked me if I
would consider running for the seat. I told him that I would — It was a
three-way race with an independent and a Democrat, and I won.”
An Evolving Organism
That was 1987. Today, nearly a quarter of a century
later, politics in the Old Dominion is an evolved — and evolving — organism.
“The big difference between now and then is the money it
takes to get elected,” Howell notes. “Back then, a candidate might have
spent $30,000 or $40,000, total, when running for office. Today, candidates
can spend as much as $400,000, $500,000 or even more on a campaign.”
The partisan face of the House of Delegates has changed
in that time, as well. “When I first went down to Richmond back in ’88,
there were 34 Republicans and 66 Democrats in the House,” Howell recalls.
“Now, that’s reversed … The Republican Party picked up 13 seats in the last
two elections. What we’re seeing today is the pendulum-swing factor. The
Republicans had good candidates in 2005 and 2007 but lost. Since 1968, the
party out of power wins the Governor’s Office.
“This (November 2011) election, we won every open seat
that was contested, and we didn’t lose any incumbents. And, we defeated
three of their (Democratic Party) incumbents. Right now, there are only
three Democrat House members west of Interstate 95, and that’s a big change
from the way things were when I first entered the House in 1988.”
And the tone of party politics these days?
“Things are probably more rancorous today, more
partisan,” Howell says. “But politics has always had an edge ... There was a
time when differences were settled by fistfights, even duels. We’re
certainly a long way from that,” he adds with a smile.
One thing that hasn’t changed in 25 years is Howell’s
keen assessment of the various issues and challenges facing the Old
Dominion. When asked what he thinks will be the big topics on this year’s
legislative agenda, Howell says, “Number one will be the economy and jobs.
Then, there’s always an issue or two you can’t anticipate. But the budget
will be a big challenge this year, and Medicaid will also be something that
has to be addressed. Right now, we’re looking at half a billion dollars in
Reform legislation — especially education reform — will
also be at the forefront of much of this session’s legislative activity,
Howell continues. “I think this session will be a lot about reform,
especially K-through-12 education reform,” he notes. “I think we may see
some pretty bold initiatives in K-through-12 legislation.” Other areas, such
as retirement for state employees, will also be likely subjects of reform
legislation during the upcoming General Assembly session, Howell believes.
History and People
As Speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates, Howell’s is
a high-profile position in state politics. Besides the leadership status
within his party engendered by the Speaker’s post, Howell also serves as
legislative “traffic cop” for the House, working as a respected conciliator
not only within his Caucus, but also among both parties and with the
Administration to marshal bills through the lawmaking process. It is an
ideal expression of his great fondness for concensus building and public
Another of Howell’s passions is history. From his office
— a restored early American cabin painstakingly disassembled, moved from
its original site in the Shenandoah Valley and reconstructed on the north
bank of the Rappahannock River — Howell can look out across the water to one
of the great battlegrounds of American history: Fredericksburg.
And like public service, history is also a passion Howell
has been able to indulge. He was patron for the legislation that
established, and serves as chairman of, the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the
American Civil War Commission.
“Several years ago, Charlie Bryant (then-president and
CEO of the Virginia Historical Society) came to me and suggested that we
could help inform and educate people about the war, as well as provide a
boost for state tourism, with a sesquicentennial commission. The war
happened all over Virginia for four years,” he notes. The commission, which
began functioning in 2011, affords Virginia the mechanism to provide a
dignified and appropriate 150th-anniversary observance of this major event
in American history.
Howell also oversaw the first complete renovation of the
state capitol in 100 years, and he was a leader in organizing the 2007
commemoration of America’s 400th anniversary at Jamestown, attended by
President George W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth of England.
One of his proudest legislative achievements has roots
in Howell’s love of heritage, as well. He was responsible for the law
allowing transferrable tax deferments for conservation easements, which has
saved more than a half-million acres of land across Virginia. “It’s done a
good job of preserving land in the Commonwealth,” he notes.
Indeed, ultimately the Commonwealth of Virginia is the
foundation of all that Howell most enjoys. And if you ask him what is most
gratifying about his life, he answers, without hesitation, “It’s the people
I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with, from the Queen of England
and both George Bushes to everyday Virginians like you and me.”
And Howell is proud of his work as a Virginia
“We’ve been able to do some really good things for
Virginia — last year’s transportation package, for example. I’ve thoroughly
enjoyed working with my peers in the General Assembly, and working with
Governor McDonnell, Governor Kaine and Governor Warner. We’ve got a good
thing going in Virginia.”