Alumni

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'A savvy, intelligent leader'

William Howell, B’64, steps away from Virginia’s political leadership.

In March, Virginia’s House of Delegates honored William Howell, B’64, for 30 years of public service, including 15 as the legislative body’s speaker. He is the second-longest-serving House speaker in Virginia history.

Howell, a Republican, represented the 28th District, which lies mostly east of Interstate 95 stretching from Stafford to Fredericksburg. When he took the gavel in 2003 after a scandal and the resignation of his predecessor, he picked up the nickname “the accidental speaker.” There was nothing accidental about his leadership over the next decade and a half.

During much of his tenure, Republicans dominated the 100-seat House, at one point by a margin of 68-32, though the margin has narrowed in recent years. He had a reputation as a deal-making pragmatist, shepherding, for example, two major pieces of transportation legislation through the house, one under a Republican governor and the other under a Democrat.

To hammer out the first one, a $5.9 billion deal, he met with the minority leader to work on a bill that could garner bipartisan support.

“We differed on how to address the problem, so we got together and worked across party lines,” Howell told Governing magazine. “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.”

He also butted heads when he thought necessary. He blocked Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s attempt to  expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act but also bucked his own party when some members tried to push through a controversial redistricting plan.

At his retirement celebration in March, colleagues throughout the House highlighted his commitment to “doing what he thinks is right, even if it’s going to be difficult,” as one colleague from the Senate put it.

Others concurred. “Beneath the affable demeanor was one of the most savvy and intelligent leaders Virginia has ever known,” one delegate said.