- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

RICHMOND — When Delegate H. Morgan Griffith became House majority leader in 2000, he wanted to change the way business was done in the General Assembly.

The 45-year-old Republican delegate from Roanoke County said that for years he saw his party misrepresented on key committees, and his party members prohibited from sitting together at meetings.

One of his priorities as majority leader was to make things more fair for both Republicans and Democrats, who in 2000 lost control of the state House.

“I want to make sure that we get our agenda through and that we are heard, but having learned the lessons of mistreatment, I want to make sure that we’re a little bit better,” Mr. Griffith told The Washington Times.

The true test of his leadership will come in the final weeks of this legislative session, as House Republicans battle the Senate’s efforts to raise sales and income taxes during what has become a historic budget dispute.

As House majority leader, Mr. Griffith is tasked with making sure the majority’s position is understood by the House, the Senate and the governor’s office.

The bottom line? “We’re trying to keep Virginia a low-tax state,” he said.

The last 10 years have clearly shaped the leadership skills he exhibits today.

Mr. Griffith, who has his own law firm in Salem, was first elected to the House in 1994. Six years later, he was elected majority leader when the Republicans gained control of the House. It’s a job he calls “fun and stressful” at the same time.

He recalled what being a Republican in the House was like in the 1990s, when the Democrats were in control.

He spoke about those times when the 52 Democrats shut out the 47 Republicans from debating on key issues by blocking Republicans from documents that suggested changes to bills. There was one independent at the time.

Then, there were times when the Democrats killed nearly all Republican-authored bills, only to come back the next year and propose identical bills, he said.

House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican, also does not have fond memories of those days.

“I don’t think it’s ever been an uncivil place,” Mr. Howell said. “But the former majority probably had a little bit more of a touch of arrogance to it, being more or less dismissive of the minority party’s initiatives.”

When he became majority leader, Mr. Griffith pledged that things would change.

“We are much fairer across the board,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t play some political games from time to time.”

Many Democrats say one “game” was the quick introduction and passage of a House bill that would boost overall revenues by about $520 million by closing exemptions on taxes paid on materials, equipment and parts used by airlines, laundries, utilities, overseas and interstate shippers, gas and oil producers, and contractors. The bill was authored by Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican.

House Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall, Chesterfield County Democrat, said Mr. Griffith has “mastered the art of legislating by ambush.”

Mr. Griffith said Democrats had plenty of time to review the bill, and praised the plan because he feels it helps the state meet basic needs. “We believe that’s all that’s necessary,” he said.

He rejected Democrats’ claims that they were “ambushed.”

Mr. Griffith’s rise to power can be partly attributed to his fight for a power-sharing agreement, approved when the split was 50-50. Before the agreement, official House rules gave “no protection” to the minority, he said.

“It launched me from being a backbencher to being on the leadership team,” he said. “When we took over, we didn’t try to do it to them.”

After elections last fall, Republicans lost a few seats to Democrats, which meant that a Democrat would replace a Republican on every committee.

Some felt the majority leader should tip the scales to the Republican favor. But Mr. Griffith felt the party would be “incredibly hypocritical” if they abandoned the power-sharing agreement now in play.

Mr. Howell said Mr. Griffith has made his job easier. “He’s done a wonderful job,” he said. “He’s a great team leader.”

Mr. Griffith’s colleagues also applaud him for using his own money to hire someone to help his caucus members with news releases and communication.

Members of both parties credit Mr. Griffith, along with former Speaker Vance Wilkins Jr., for helping to speed along the session by implementing a series of changes in the legislative process. For instance, lawmakers now serve on fewer committees and they also are required to file their bills earlier.

Mr. Hall, who gave Mr. Griffith high marks for changing the process, said the House majority leader has a tougher job than the minority leader.

“He is the leader of a caucus that is deeply divided,” Mr. Hall said. “There is an angry fight going on [within] the Republican Party of Virginia.”

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