- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

RICHMOND William J. Howell was sworn in yesterday as speaker of the House of Delegates, and he pledged to "faithfully uphold the dignity" of the post that S. Vance Wilkins Jr. held until he quit in the summer over a scandal.
Mr. Howell, a low-key Republican from Stafford County, was elected to Virginia's most powerful legislative position on a 99-0 vote, with only himself abstaining.
He took the gavel from Delegate Lacey Putney, a Bedford conservative independent and the longest-serving lawmaker in Virginia history. Mr. Putney became acting speaker after Mr. Wilkins stepped down.
Mr. Wilkins, a Republican, was pressured to quit after The Washington Post reported that he forcibly groped a woman in 2001 in an office he maintained in his hometown of Amherst. Mr. Wilkins acknowledged paying the woman $100,000 to win her silence but never admitted molesting her.
In a 17-minute speech filled with prayerful references and resolve to restore the honor of the office, Mr. Howell paid homage to his family and to Mr. Putney, now in his 42nd year in the House.
He looked upward into the House gallery, where his wife, Cessie, was seated.
"By her good and daily example, she has shown me how to lead a life of true service. If only I could do it with her style and grace," Mr. Howell said.
Mrs. Howell, who has been active in preservation efforts in the Fredericksburg area, led a drive in the 1990s to prevent retail giant Wal-Mart from opening a store adjacent Ferry Farm, George Washington's boyhood home.
"For me it's just fun to be here, to be a part of getting to see him in this position. This is nothing we ever expected. It came as quite a surprise," she said.
With her in the gallery were their sons, Billy Howell and the Rev. Jack Howell, a Presbyterian pastor from Norfolk who delivered the opening-day invocation.
A special ovation was reserved for Mr. Putney, who presided over the House for 17 minutes before Mr. Howell took the oath from Chief Justice Harry L. Carrico.
"For his strong leadership, guidance and helpful mentoring of many in this House, and his outstanding and continuing service to Virginia, please join me in showing our sincere gratitude and appreciation," Mr. Howell said.
The other delegates rose in applause and remained standing for nearly a minute until Mr. Putney, struggling to control his emotions, stood and waved to the chamber.
Mr. Howell also acknowledged the predominant issue confronting the 2003 session: restructuring a state budget still nearly $1 billion out of balance.
"If there is a silver lining to the current budget shortfall, and I think there is, it is the tremendous opportunity to focus on the core responsibilities of state government especially education, job opportunities, the health, safety and security of our citizens, and the infrastructure needs of our future," he said.

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