by Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.

SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research


Three weeks ago I posted “Millennial Matt: A Cautionary Tale,” the story of former Representative Matthew Wollman of South Dakota. Matthew’s very promising political future was derailed because of a consensual relationship with an adult legislative intern.

Today, I want to offer a more positive tale – about a respected legislator retiring after three decades in the Virginia House of Delegates, fifteen of them as Speaker of that historic body. The Honorable William J. Howell came to the Speakership at a very difficult time, following the resignation of the former Speaker who resigned under a cloud of scandal. Howell immediately began to rebuild the respect and the honor of the Speakership and went on to be re-elected to the position seven times, and be selected as the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s “Legislator of the Year” (2013) and Governing Magazine’s “Public Official of the Year” (2013). He has decided to retire from the legislature this year after thirty years of service.

Speaker Howell’s long and distinguished career offers some lessons that others might emulate if they want to retire with the same impact, reputation and respect that will accompany Speaker Howell when he leaves the chamber next January.

Remember Who You Are. Regrettably, I know many legislators who have had to resign their positions in the midst of scandal. To a person, they talk about how the apparent unchecked power of leadership was critical to their downfall. They forgot who they were; they let themselves be caught up in the trappings, benefits, and perks of power. Speaker Howell never fell victim to that temptation. While serving as Speaker he remained an active attorney, a loving husband, a church elder, and a doting grandfather. When not attending to the state’s business, he practices law in his log cabin office (I am not making this up) overlooking the Rappahannock River. In honoring Howell, Delegate David Albo noted, “You are proof, Mr. Speaker, that nice guys can finish first.”

Treat Members with Respect, Regardless of Party. In today’s hyper-partisan world, members of the minority party are often treated like second class citizens. They are told to sit down and shut up. Their bills, regardless of quality, never see the light of day. Their voices are never heard. With a supermajority in his chamber, Howell could have easily taken that path, but he chose not to, and his state and institution are the better for it. Upon Howell’s announced retirement, Minority Leader David Toscano compared Howell to an effective judge:“ The good judges are ones who let you try your case….You let us try our case and we thank you for that.” That statement pretty much says it all.

Work with Others to Get Things Done. With the dysfunction plaguing Washington, DC as well as many of the nation’s state capitals. it is easy to forget that some state governments do work, and they work because of leaders like Bill Howell. Despite spending all but four of his fifteen years as Speaker with Executives of the other party (Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Terry McAuliffe) Bill passed significant bills that were signed by the governor. He worked behind the scenes to see that Warner’s $1.6 billion tax increase was passed, and he worked out a compromise so that Kaine’s smoking ban, opposed by many Republicans, would become law. He even helped Republican Robert McDonnell pass a transportation bill that included the biggest tax hike in the state’s history, over the objection of many in his own party.

Do The Right Thing. In January, 2013, Howell found himself in a difficult position. The evenly divided Senate had taken advantage of the absence of one Democrat to pass a very controversial redistricting plan that advantaged Howell’s own Republican party. The majority of his caucus wanted him to support the plan; his conscience would not allow it. He killed the bill – a move that got him banned for a time from his own party’s caucus meeting. He did what he thought was right, and the Commonwealth of Virginia and the legislature are better for it. In that same 2013 session, he worked closely with Democratic House leaders and the Republican Governor to craft and pass a comprehensive transportation bill. According to Howell, “We (referring to the Democratic legislators) disagreed on how to address the problem, so we got together and worked across party lines. A lot of my fellow conservatives hate me saying that. But I think, at the end of the day, it was the right thing to do.”

Those last few words define the life, service, and Speakership of William J. Howell. “It was the right thing to do.” If young legislators (and the rest of us) keep that measure in mind when deciding how to act, talk, and vote, we will be well served.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for setting the bar high!