Leading by example

The style of the House leadership is a little more free than last year with Stafford Delegate William J. Howell, R-28th District, at the helm.

In the first three days of session last week, Howell took his first swings of the gavel in presiding over the 100-member body without the authoritative discipline of his predecessor, S. Vance Wilkins, R-24th District.

He joked with his fellow delegates to stop a protracted ovation for him, looking at his watch and joking, “I’ve got a 2 o’clock appointment.”

It may be the oldest continuously-operating legislative body in the western hemisphere, but in the House, light-hearted humor is a tradition to keep the long hours from getting stale. He was presented with a cookie as big as a plate because he was seen eating a lot of them last year. He accepted but said he doesn’t eat cookies anymore.

He promised in his acceptance speech to uphold the dignity of the office and ensure fairness in deliberations. That is in sharp contrast to Wilkins, who demanded votes by delegates on key bills, such as the sales tax referendum he allowed to pass.

“What kind of people we are and how we treat one another is as important as the bills we pass and the laws we make,” he said in his acceptance speech. “As speaker, it is my obligation to ensure the fairness of the House’s deliberative process and the efficiency of its administrative operations. Accordingly, I will uphold the House’s rules and procedures for the good of individual members as well as for the well being of the institution as a whole.”

The GOP majority is 65 to 34 Democrats with one independent. Democrats said they looked forward to his even-handed style.

Howell is more well known for his sense of humor than his leadership style. The 59-year-old lawyer said he did not seek the speakership, just as he didn’t seek to run for the House until the opportunity was presented.

His strong marriage of 36 years to his wife, Cessie, and unblemished record of representing his Fredericksburg area district for 15 years were noted by nominating delegates. That is the other sharp contrast to Wilkins: Howell’s moral character is not in question.

Wilkins resigned in June after newspapers learned he paid a woman $100,000 to settle her complaints of sexual harassment.

With Cessie Howell in attendance, her husband thanked her for her support: “I want to publicly convey my personal gratitude for all of her love and support of me as a husband and father, banker and practitioner in the world’s smallest law practice, and as a citizen-legislator. By her good and daily example, she has shown me how to lead a life of true service. If only I could do it with her style and grace.”

For Northern Virginia and Stafford — essentially bedroom communities of the District — his speakership marks a shift in power from rural areas to the suburban/urban crescent. Wilkins was from Amherst and a member of rural caucus. Howell is the first speaker from a suburban area.

During redistricting after the 2000 census, many delegate seats were lost in the western part of the state to high-growth areas like the relocated 31st District in Prince William and Fauquier counties.

As speaker, Howell controls debate on the House floor, directs legislation to committees and assigns members to committees.

Following rules made by Thomas Jefferson, all discourse on the House floor runs through the speaker.

A delegate does not speak directly to another delegate but always to the speaker. So for discussion, a delegate would say, “Mr. Speaker, would the gentleman (delegate) yield for a question?”

An answer would begin: “Mr. Speaker, I would answer the gentleman by saying …”

Howell stands at all times when the House is in session and has to pay attention.

On his first day, he was still learning.

“Would the gentleman from Salem like to move the resolution?” he asked, thinking an amendment to a resolution had been voted on instead of the full resolution. The House clerk told him to move to the next item.

“Never mind,” he said.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch contributed to this report. Staff writer Chris Newman can be reached at (804) 649-8710.