The Legend of Henry Howell … and How Today’s Democratic Party Ignores It

The other evening I was at a reception in Fairfax for a local firm and ran into Henry “Hank” Howell, Jr.,  a good friend and trial attorney in Virginia Beach.

For those who don’t know, Hank’s dad, Henry Howell of Norfolk, was one of the truly significant figures in the political history of Virginia.  Here’s how:

Prior to the 1960′s, the Virginia Democratic Party was completely controlled by the Byrd Organization and its leader, U.S. Senator Harry Byrd.  The Organization effectively ran nominations at the state, local and Federal level.  By controlling access to registration, they also ensured that these conservative Democrats won all (or nearly all) popular elections.

In the Sixties, this system began to break down in multiple ways.  First of all, conservative politicians and voters — after LBJ’s election in 1964 — began exiting the Democratic party in increasing numbers.  Secondly, liberal Democrats began getting elected to Congess and the Assembly, without the Organization’s blessing.  In turn, they began reshaping the party’s conservative ideology.

The most prominent of these revolutionaries was Howell, who was a local attorney elected to the State Senate in 1963 representing Norfolk.  Elected after the demise of Massive Resistance, Howell spoke up for working people and consumers.  He asked for modern-day workplace protections.  He also trained a daring attack on large public utilities like Virginia Power which held a monopoly economically and politically.

Using the slogan “Keep the Big Boys Honest,” Howell ran for Governor in 1969 as the liberal alternative to the pro-business Democrat, Bill Battle.   At a rally in Burke Lake Park, he spoke to a group of Fairfax Democrats, while a 1-year old in a yellow jump suit played in front of the lectern.

Howell lost a hotly-contested primary, but Battle lost the general election to Republican Linwood Holton, who became the first Republican to win a statewide office in 80 years.  In that race, Howell established himself as the spokesman of the liberal cause in Virginia.

In 1971, after the untimely death of Sarge Reynolds (D-Richmond), Howell ran — and won — for the open position as Lt. Governor.   His winning issue was a simple one:  repealing the sales tax on groceries and medicine.

A Democrat opposing taxes?  In those days, yes.

In 1966, Governor Mills Godwin (first a Democrat, then a Republican) had instituted a statewide sales tax of 2% to support a new community college system.  An extra penny was then added on at local option and one more (to 4%) to support local K-12 education.

The rapid growth of the sales tax was not unprecedented in the United States, but it had a concerning effect in the impact it had upon poor/working families.

Previously, taxation in Virginia had been based upon property ownership.  (One of the reasons that voting in the 1828 constitution was limited to owners of 25+ acres).  That way, the impact of taxation was at least allocated to those able to pay it.

But Howell’s efforts on sales tax fizzled out.  He was not able to pass his legislation and a run for Governor in 1977 failed in the Democratic primary to Andrew Miller, who then lost to Republican John Dalton.

Fast-forward a few years …

In 1986, the Democratic Assembly and Democratic Governor, Gerald Baliles, passed a transportation bill which raised the sales tax a half-cent (to 4.5%).  That’s where it stayed for eighteen years.

Then in 2004 the Assembly, now Republican, accepted another sales tax increase (to 5%) at the behest of Democrat Mark Warner to support K-12 education, with the proviso that the Howell exception for groceries and medicine be phased in.

In 2013, a Republican Governor pushed an “innovative” concept, increasing sales tax again — and repealing the tax on gas — in order subsidize transportation.  When the smoke cleared, the Assembly had accepted a o.3% statewide increase and a larger increase up to six cents (6.0%) in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

In short, a Republican Assembly has increased the sales tax by 33% in the past nine years, while repealing the tax on inherited wealth and enacting dozens of tax credits which benefit corporate or high-income users.

And how have the Democrats reacted?

By and large, they have voted in lock-step for these tax increases, even though the impact is borne by the Democratic voting base.  Perhaps it’s because Democratic reps are just hard-wired to vote “yes” to any tax increase>  Or perhaps they really do believe the conservative argument that taxes on consumption (as opposed to wealth) are always best, even when the tax is unrelated to the benefit.

Either way, the willingness to raise the sales tax on every occasion (and endorse Republican proposals doing the same) does nothing to promote the Democratic brand in Virginia — or bring out the voting base in November.

And it ignores the spirit and legacy of Henry Howell.

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  • Frank B.

    Henry Howell beat Andy Miller in the gubernatorial primary in 1977 and lost to John Dalton in the general election thanks to the direct mail assault by Richard V. and his many friends on the right. Just a brief review of the careers of those who once served on Henry’s staff during his three runs for governor will attest to his legacy. Still Keep(ing) the Big Boys Honest!