- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell, a long-serving conservative who is one of the state’s most powerful politicians, said Monday he will retire when his term ends in January.

The 73-year-old speaker made the announcement during an emotional House floor speech, saying he wants to spend more time with his family.

Howell, who was joined by his wife of 50 years, Cessie, and other family members, said he’s tried to be a fair and accessible leader.

“Together, I believe we have enhanced the lives and livelihoods of our fellow citizens we are so privileged to represent and serve,” Howell said.

The GOP House caucus plans to name Majority Leader Kirk Cox as the speaker designee on Wednesday, according to three Republican sources briefed on the caucus’ plans who were not authorized to discuss those plans publically. Cox and Howell share similar ideological views, though Cox is a more hands-on leader.

Howell, who runs his solo law practice out of a 200-year-old two-story log cabin overlooking the Rappahannock River in Stafford, was elected speaker in 2003. He has been a steady GOP presence in a state that’s growing increasingly Democratic and only allows governors to serve a single consecutive term. He will leave office as the second-longest serving speaker in Virginia history,

He began his legislative career in 1988 when House Republicans were an irrelevant minority. His predecessor as speaker, S. Vance Wilkins, brought Republicans out of the political wilderness and helped establish a majority but resigned in 2002 with the admission that he secretly paid $100,000 to a woman who accused him of groping her. Howell, who was picked to replace Wilkins because of his low-key demeanor and squeaky clean image, was sworn in as speaker in 2003 with the promise to “faithfully uphold the dignity” of the office.

Helped by favorable lines drawn during the 2011 redistricting and a campaign finance system that allows for unlimited giving, Howell grew the slight Republican majority he inherited to its current near supermajority. That includes several GOP-held seats in districts won by Democratic presidential and U.S. Senate candidates.

Howell’s Republican majority has been a low-tax, business friendly body that’s thwarted some legislative priorities of Democratic governors, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s push to expand Medicaid.

But Howell has not been ideologically inflexible. He supported tax increases to fund transportation projects in 2013 - a position that brought him a tea party challenger in the 2015 primary.

And House Minority Leader David Toscano praised Howell for single-handedly defeating a measure muscled through by Senate Republicans in 2013 to redraw all 40 state Senate districts, saying Howell had put the integrity of the General Assembly above partisan expediency.

“You changed the way things operate here,” Toscano said.

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