Cover Story

Speaking from Experience

Bill Howell likes to talk politics.

Story and Photos by Bill Sherrod, Editor


William James Howell, 54th Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Of what does a Speaker speak when he speaks?           

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 lecture tours.”

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 Medicaid growth.”

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 service.

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.

Legislation of Note

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 citizen-legislator.

“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.”


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