- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2002

RICHMOND Delegate Philip Hamilton announced yesterday he is not a contender for speaker of the House, leaving fellow Republican William J. Howell with no known opposition for the state's premier legislative post.

Mr. Hamilton, who represents Newport News, had quietly gauged his support among House Republicans before announcing that he would not seek the post. One day earlier, his top rivals announced they would not pursue the job and publicly backed Mr. Howell.

The 65-member House GOP caucus plans to gather July 20 in Richmond to formally endorse Mr. Howell as its nominee to succeed Delegate S. Vance Wilkins Jr. The new speaker must be formally elected by the full 100-member House.

Mr. Wilkins, Virginia's first Republican speaker, was forced out by his own caucus on June 13, six days after The Washington Post reported that he had sexually harassed a 26-year-old woman and paid her $100,000 to keep quiet.

Mr. Wilkins acknowledged the payment, but denied improper advances on the woman. He has not decided whether he will resign his House seat representing his hometown of Amherst.

Mr. Howell effectively wrapped up the post Monday when Delegate Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia Beach and interim Speaker Lacey E. Putney, an independent from Bedford, withdrew from consideration and endorsed Mr. Howell.

Mr. McDonnell plans to run for attorney general in 2005.

Mr. Hamilton is chairman of the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee and is one of the House's most outspoken advocates for mental health care and public schools.

He said he decided to stay put Monday as he drove back to Virginia from a weekend meeting of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. He said his prized issues would suffer if he is preoccupied with the chores of being speaker.

"I was convinced that I wanted to do policy things rather than the administrative things that come with being speaker," Mr. Hamilton said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Hamilton said he notified Mr. Howell yesterday that he was backing him for speaker.

Amid Mr. Wilkins' swift demise, a lingering rift between House and Senate Republicans, and federal and state criminal investigations into whether Republicans eavesdropped on private Democratic conference calls, legislative Republicans must coalesce to be effective, Mr. Hamilton said.

"My concern and interest was that we've got to govern. I can best help us govern more effectively dealing with policy," he said.

Mr. Howell, a stalwart but low-key conservative from Stafford, conceded that he appeared to have the position in hand, but said, "I won't really feel confident until I'm elected in January 2003."

Mr. Putney, whose 40 years of service rank him as the longest-serving delegate in history, has few administrative duties until then, except for a few appointments to various boards and commissions.

In Virginia, House speakers wield enormous power through the unquestioned right to appoint or dismiss members of powerful legislative committees and the authority to assign favored bills to friendly committees and others to more hostile panels.

Mr. Howell said he and Mr. Putney would consult over filling any vacancies on standing committees such as those created when Delegate Jerrauld Jones, Norfolk Democrat, resigned to become director of juvenile justice in the administration of Gov. Mark R. Warner.

"I think this is a great way for me to come in, working alongside Lacey. My goodness, look at the institutional knowledge he has," Mr. Howell said.

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