2/24/2017, 12:55 p.m.
There’s a tendency when people retire or die for their good deeds to be overinflated, covering up the flaws, missteps or poor choices in their lives or careers.
We saw that played out so dramatically with the death last year of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Upon his February 2016 death, he was praised as the greatest intellect on the nation’s highest court and a true defender of the Constitution. In truth, he used his position of power to try to force his ultraconservative views on a changing nation. And when he was unsuccessful in his attempts to shoot down Obamacare, derail the legalization of gay marriage and roll back abortion rights, he always responded with rude and bullying attacks on his judicial colleagues and others who did not agree with him.
Earlier this week, we witnessed similar attempts to deify Virginia’s House Speaker William J. Howell, a Republican from Stafford County.
Delegate Howell announced Monday that he will retire from the state legislature at the end of the year, ending a 30-year tenure in the legislature and giving up the powerful speaker position he has held for the last 15 years. He is the second longest-serving speaker in Virginia history.
The position is powerful because the speaker not only presides over the House of Delegates, but also is the gatekeeper for all legislation coming to the floor, setting the agenda and the timing and control over the floor debate.
Yes, Speaker Howell took an unpopular position for a Republican in 2013 to support a tax increase to fund major transportation projects in the state. And he supported legislation to curb smoking in public places, including restaurants. Both were for the public good.
But the public needs to remember that when Virginia had the opportunity to expand health insurance coverage to the poor under Obamacare, aka the Affordable Care Act, Speaker Howell was a leader in the fight to block Medicaid expansion in the commonwealth.
And when Gov. Terry McAuliffe expanded the rights of felons to vote in Virginia, Speaker Howell went to court to challenge it at every turn. He sought to keep Virginians disenfranchised, a push rooted in the ugly past of the early 1900s when state legislators were insistent on keeping African-Americans from the polls. By his actions, Speaker Howell sought to continue that discriminatory legacy by challenging Gov. McAuliffe’s April 2016 executive action restoring the right to vote to 204,000 Virginians who had completed their sentences.
Speaker Howell was lauded by fellow lawmakers in speeches Monday on the House floor for his decency and service, for his compassion for people and for his efforts to put his faith into action, including his Bible Study Caucus that meets at 7 a.m. each Wednesday during the General Assembly session.
In the face of all those wonderful remarks, we ask these simple questions: If his faith was put into action, would he have opposed expanding health insurance for hundreds of thousands of Virginians? Would he have worked so hard to block so many of his fellow citizens from voting?
We bid Speaker Howell adieu and thank him for his service. But let history — and the people — remember all of his deeds without embellishment or overinflation.
We hope the next speaker of the house will truly care more for the people of the commonwealth and act to bring parity, opportunity and inclusion to the lives of all.