Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell found himself in a tough spot earlier this year. In the Senate, which was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, GOP members took an opportunity to push through a controversial redistricting plan while one Democrat was away attending President Obama’s inauguration.
If Howell, a Republican, didn’t back the plan, he risked alienating members of his own party. Passing the GOP-friendly map, however, would have injected partisan rancor into the House and Senate that could easily have derailed top legislative priorities.
Under extreme pressure from both sides, Howell opted to kill the measure with a procedural move. It was one of several key moments in which the longtime speaker has guided the legislature through a productive session, often at his own political peril. (After he nixed the bill, the Republican caucus responded by shutting him out of a closed-door meeting.)
Transportation funding is another example. Year after year, Virginia lawmakers had failed to agree on new sustained funding; the last major overhaul was in 1986. This year Howell sat down with Minority Leader David Toscano to plot out a strategy. While the two had rarely worked closely in the past, Howell knew that any transportation bill would need true bipartisan support. “We differed on how to address the problem, so we got together and worked across party lines,” Howell says. “A lot of my conservatives hate me saying that. But I think at the end of the day, it was the right thing to do.”
Lawmakers eventually hammered out a sweeping new transportation bill, providing an estimated additional $5.9 billion over the next five years, primarily via a sales tax increase and by replacing the per-gallon fuel tax with a levy on the wholesale price of gas and diesel. “The speaker realized it was our last shot for four or five years to do something,” Toscano says. “If we didn’t put our political differences behind us, we would not have gotten anything.”
Getting to the eventual deal was difficult for all involved, but it was Howell who arguably took the most heat throughout the legislative session. And had he not killed the redistricting measure, the transportation bill “probably” would have failed to garner enough Democratic votes, Howell says. Upon passage of the bill, Howell was again attacked by fellow Republicans and Tea Party groups. Tax activist Grover Norquist assailed him for a “misguided $6 billion tax hike.”
Virginia’s political observers describe Howell, who works as a wills and trust lawyer out of a log cabin office, as a statesman. While his views are politically right-of-center, he says he ultimately prefers reaching consensus. The hard-fought transportation bill, which he called the most difficult of his career, is proof that it’s working. “It’s a great illustration,” he says, “of how the states can work differently and apart from what’s happening up in Washington.”