He’s been called “the accidental speaker.” But since taking the helm of the House of Delegates a decade ago after his predecessor stumbled, William J. Howell has been nothing but careful, plotting a strong rightward course for the legislature and occasionally pulling back when he thinks it’s gone too far. With one swift procedural move this week, the Republican leader killed a new state Senate map that could have given the GOP control for years. But by doing that, he cleared a path toward compromise with Democrats on Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s transportation plan. The GOP scored 33 more seats in the House this election even though Democrats earned a million more votes in House races. Professor Jeremy Mayer says gerrymandering distorts democracy. If the art of compromise means sometimes angering your friends and pleasing your enemies, Howell succeeded in his ruling. Some Democrats hailed Howell’s decision as an act of political courage. Some members of Howell’s caucus expressed fury, though usually in private because they feared retribution.
The episode, which attracted national attention, also demonstrated the powers of a figure who has played key roles under both Republican and Democratic governors and never threatened to upstage them.
Howell has worked to satisfy the demands of a Republican caucus that has become more conservative with the rise of the tea party. But at the same time, his pragmatic streak has led him to cut deals with Democrats. He spoke out against then-Gov. Mark R. Warner’s (D) $1.6 billion tax hike but quietly instructed a few Republicans to skip a committee vote so that the bill would go the House floor. And despite his distaste for then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s (D) smoking ban, he worked a deal there, too.
Howell, a man of average height whose graying sheepdog bangs are flung to the side, blends into the crowded corridors of Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol, just another gent in a business jacket and a tie, his head down hurrying somewhere as he talks with staff.