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Leesburg Today: Could challenge to Speaker Howell impact Arlington legislative priorities? Print


Created:  Friday, December 5, 2014 8:30AM


Could a challenge to Speaker William Howell from his political right flank make life even more difficult for the Arlington contingent in the House of Delegates?

A number of those with a major stake in the outcome say they're not worried that the dynamics of the 2015 session might be even less accommodating than usual to their legislation. At least not too worried.

Howell (R-Fredericksburg) is facing a challenge for his seat from Susan Stimpson, a former chairman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, who is taking aim at the House leader for being too liberal.

"Virginia deserves leaders who understand we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem," Stimpson says on her campaign Web site. "Bill Howell has been the consistent force behind every major tax increase in the past decade. He has voted for them, he has engineered them and they are his legacy."

The question to the Arlington House delegation (Democrats all, with none of them ever likely to describe Howell as too liberal): Will the Stimpson challenge push Howell further to the right, making him intransigent on bipartisan efforts?

In a word: Nah.

"He's already compensated," said Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45th).

Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th), who is critical of many of Howell's legislative priorities, nonetheless suggested he had core principles and wasn't wavering.

"Speaker Howell is his own man," Lopez said. "He is a strong conservative, and he will continue to serve as a strong conservative."

Yet it's possible that the fight down in Fredericksburg could have ramifications on the one piece of legislation that Arlington County government hopes to get through the General Assembly in 2015.

The county once again is seeking reinstatement of a 0.25-percent surtax on hotel stays to raise funds for tourism promotion. That taxing authority had been stripped away in 2011 by legislators from both parties incensed about the Arlington County Board's lawsuit against state and federal officials over high-occupancy-toll (HOT) lanes.

Bills reinstating the surtax were passed by both houses of the legislature in 2013 – with Howell voting in support – but was vetoed by then-Gov. McDonnell. Legislators did not try to override the veto, and opted not to take up the issue in the 2014 session.

The arrival of Terry McAuliffe in the Governor's Mansion likely removes the possibility of a veto, but county officials privately remain iffy about the measure's prospects. All 140 seats of the General Assembly are on the ballot next November, and incumbent Republicans are wary of being seen supporting increasing taxes or giving Arlington (not a beloved locality down in Richmond) any breaks.

Lopez, who recently was tapped to help his party increase the anemic 32 seats it holds in the 100-member House of Delegates, said many Republicans would be skittish to support measures that put them out of favor with the most conservative wing of their party.

Of the large Republican majority in the House of Delegates, "half of them are Tea Party guys, the other half are scared of Tea Party guys," Lopez said.

Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th), now the senior member of the Arlington House delegation, said he didn't want to speculate how the primary challenge might affect the Speaker's demeanor.

But on the issue of the hotel tax, Hope expressed guarded optimism that legislators will see the greater good involved.

"I hope his challenge, or the prospect of challenges to other members, has no bearing on this surtax that is so vitally important to Arlington's economy," Hope said.

Howell, 71, has served in the House of Delegates since 1992 and has been Speaker since 2003, after a predecessor resigned due to allegations of sexual misconduct.

While Howell is nowhere near as notoriously authoritarian as some of the House Speakers who ruled the roost during the 20th century, it pays legislators of both parties to stay on the good side of the leader, who parcels out committee assignments and has significant other powers at his disposal.

(In the 1950s and 1960s, when Byrd Machine conservative Democrats ruled the legislature as a private fiefdom, some Republicans and liberal Democrats would find themselves assigned to committees that never met, and had other indignities heaped upon them.)

The intra-party fight between Howell and Stimpson is likely to have different dynamics from this year's Republican primary in the 7th Congressional District, which saw U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor – the No. 2 leader in the House of Representatives – knocked off by insurgent Dave Brat.

Brat went on to win the general election; Cantor headed to the private sector.

Lopez and Krupicka suggested the dynamics of the Brat-Cantor race (which largely centered on whether the incumbent was too often out of town and out of touch with his constituents) will not be replicated in a Howell-Stimpson faceoff.

"He's perfectly safe," Krupicka said of the incumbent.

Stimpson unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013. That race was won by E.W. Jackson, who went on to lose in the general election to Democrat Ralph Northam.