- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

Virginia's Republican delegates will choose a new House speaker during a special meeting in Richmond on July 20.

"We think it's reasonable to have [the speaker designate] in place before too long," said Republican Caucus Chairman Leo C. Wardrup Jr. of Virginia Beach.

Mr. Wardrup said the decision to hold the special meeting was made after Tuesday's informal gathering of party leaders to discuss Speaker S. Vance Wilkins' resignation.

Mr. Wilkins, 65, resigned last Thursday after he acknowledged paying a 26-year-old woman $100,000 to settle a sexual harassment case against him.

A new speaker cannot be formally selected until the General Assembly reconvenes in January. House rules dictate that Delegate Lacey E. Putney, Bedford independent and chairman of the Privleges and Elections Committee, serves as speaker in the meantime.

Several Republican delegates have expressed an interest in the speaker post, including Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith of Salem, William J. Howell of Fredericksburg, Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia Beach and Phillip A. Hamilton of Newport News.

Other candidates have been mentioned, including Mr. Wardrup and Vincent F. Callahan of McLean, but both men have said they are not interested in the job.

Mr. Putney is considered a candidate, but he said on Tuesday he would to have to assess the job's responsibilities to see if they would conflict with his law practice and family time. Should he decide to run, he will face an uphill battle.

"He would not get the job unless there was a huge split among the various factions of the [Republican] party," said Bill Wood, executive director of the Theodore Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

The House speaker selects committee assignments and appoints the committee chairmen. The speaker also shepherds bills in the House and helps recruit candidates to ensure his party remains in power.

"I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a legislator," said Mr. McDonnell. "The decision is not one you go into lightly. I had decided earlier this year I was going to run for attorney general [in 2005], but now I have a difficult decision between two incredible positions."

For many in the caucus, the next speaker will have to be above reproach.

"We have to have someone who has no scandals. We have to do that," said Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Manassas Republican.

"I think the bar has always been high, but those sensitivities have been heightened after this resignation, and no one would want to see that again," said Mr. McDonnell, who said he will make up his mind early next week whether to run.

Mr. Hamilton, who said he is exploring the speaker's race but did not have a time frame for when he would decide, cautioned his colleagues about looking for a candidate who does not exist. "I hope we don't try to focus on getting the perfect individual, because they don't exist," he said. "We all have flaws."

Mr. Howell said scrutiny is inevitable because of the Wilkins resignation.

"Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, whoever our next speaker is will probably have to be under a high-powered microscope," Mr. Howell said, adding that he is a candidate and has begun seeking support among colleagues.

The next speaker will have to work well with Democrats, political analysts say.

"The GOP needs to find someone who can work well with [Gov. Mark R.] Warner because the economic recovery of the state has not been as good as we thought it would be," said Mr. Wood.

Repeated calls to Mr. Griffith and Mr. Putney for comment were not returned.

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