Henry Evans Howell Jr. was born in Norfolk on September 5, 1920. His father was a lumber salesman; his mother, Susan Creekmur Howell, came from Deep Creek in Norfolk County. After attending Norfolk’s public schools, Howell spent two years at the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary (later Old Dominion University) before earning his law degree at the University of Virginia in 1943. He married Elizabeth McCarty, of Portsmouth, on January 18, 1947, in Charlottesville. Betty McCarty Howell served on the Norfolk City Council from 1974 to 1992. The couple had three children: a son, Henry E. Howell III, and two daughters, Mary and Susan.
Howell was admitted to law practice in Virginia in 1943 and in Florida in 1944. After working as a lawyer in Florida, in about 1946 he returned to Norfolk, where he clerked for federal judges and in 1948 began to practice privately with another Norfolk attorney. In 1949 he experienced a political awakening after reading an article on Virginia’s “Byrd Machine” in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Howell became a precinct captain for Francis Pickens Miller, a retired U.S. Army colonel and the anti-Byrd candidate, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1949. Although Miller lost, in 1952 he challenged Byrd himself in the Democratic primary for Byrd’s seat in the U.S. Senate. In that campaign Howell served as co-chair of Miller’s campaign in Norfolk.
Howell launched his own political career by running for the House of Delegates in 1953. Criticizing Byrd Organization rule as undemocratic, Howell proposed abolition of the poll tax and more oversight of the political activities of state employees. He also advocated higher starting salaries for teachers, a four-year college for Norfolk, further development of port facilities in Hampton Roads, and increased funding for Virginia’s mental health institutions. Organization candidates, however, co-opted much of Howell’s platform. Howell’s populist campaign ended in defeat in the Democratic primary as he trailed the lowest of the six victorious organization candidates by more than 2,000 votes. Surprisingly, the limited African American vote did not provide substantial support. Howell blamed a private arrangement between a prominent black leader and an incumbent organization delegate.
In 1959 Howell won election to the House of Delegates under much different political circumstances. The Democratic primary occurred in the aftermath ofto court-ordered . The governor had closed schools in Warren County, Norfolk, and Charlottesville—Prince Edward County closed its own schools later that year—before state and federal courts declared the closings unconstitutional. Howell later recalled that Massive Resistance was the primary reason he ran in 1959. He recruited a young attorney and a decorated World War II veteran, Calvin H. Childress, to join him on the ticket. Howell privately opposed racial segregation, but chose the political benefits of endorsing the freedom of choice plan that Governor and the General Assembly adopted earlier that year. A number of hard-line segregationists also ran in the Democratic primary. Although Howell and Childress trailed the incumbents, they captured the two open seats in the Norfolk delegation in the July primary and in the November general election. In contrast to 1953, black voters embraced Howell. White parents angered by the school closings also played a major role in his election.
As the 1960s began, Howell believed it was time to wage all-out war against the Byrd Organization in Norfolk. After the election of John F. Kennedy as president, Howell launched the Citizens for Democratic Government (CDG). The group was intended to serve as a counter to the regular party organization under Byrd loyalist William Lee Prieur Jr., the clerk of the corporation court. Howell recruited candidates for city council and the General Assembly. Most significant was his persuading Childress to run against Prieur in the Democratic primary in July 1961. Howell wrote a platform for the CDG candidates which foreshadowed many of the themes he later emphasized in his statewide races, especially reform of the State Corporation Commission (SCC). In a bitter campaign Prieur attacked Childress as a stand-in for Howell.
At times Howell seemed more focused on local issues than his role as a state legislator. The organization’s legislative incumbents added two newcomers to complete a slate that excluded Howell. With the highly respected former governor,, serving as Prieur’s campaign manager, the organization’s campaign quickly refuted all charges of corruption against Prieur. The CDG candidates, including Howell, met defeat in the primary. They had failed to make their case against Prieur. The organization candidates were moderates whom Senator Byrd tolerated, and most of Norfolk’s voters found them compatible with their views. Howell and his allies, however, found some consolation in that both Howell and Childress lost by narrow margins.
State Legislator and Litigator
Demographic developments and judicial rulings portended political change in Virginia in the 1960s. Howell played a major role in those changes. In 1963 he reclaimed his seat in the House of Delegates, placing third among the eight challengers for Norfolk’s six seats. He also represented Norfolk intervenors in the case of Davis v. Mann, which challenged the constitutionality of the legislative apportionment carried out by the 1962 General Assembly. In a highly significant decision the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 for the plaintiffs, stating that both houses of the assembly must be apportioned on a population basis and that military personnel and their families, numerous in Norfolk, must be included in calculating the population. In 1964 Howell challenged the state’s congressional districts based on the wide population disparity among them. In Wilkins v. Davis the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals agreed with Howell, and called for the General Assembly to redraw the districts based on population. Those changes reduced the base of support for the Byrd Organization in Congress and the General Assembly.
In 1965 Howell won Norfolk’s new seat in the Senate of Virginia occasioned by reapportionment for an abbreviated two-year term. Denouncing Virginia’s fiscal policy of pay-as-you-go for capital improvements, he was easily reelected to a full term in 1967. By that time he had emerged as the leader of the progressive forces in the state’s Democratic Party. Many of the changes he demanded came to pass. In 1960 he called for legislation permitting restaurants to sell liquor by the drink. The General Assembly enacted such a law in 1968. In 1964 he called for a commission to revise the state’s out-dated constitution. Governorappointed such a commission in 1968. In Shepheard v. Godwin (1968), Howell successfully sued the governor to stop the state from deducting federal impact aid funds from the basic school aid formula. Congress appropriated impact funds to assist communities such as Norfolk, which contained large federal installations not subject to local taxes. The money assisted the communities in paying for the education of children of federal employees.
During the 1960s Howell emerged as Virginia’s leading advocate for consumers. Cultivating an antiestablishment, populist image, he won numerous cases against automobile insurers as well as electric power and telephone companies. He challenged rate increases and won rebates for consumers. He also introduced legislation that led to the creation of a department of consumer counsel in the Attorney General’s office and the inclusion of language in the 1971 revision of the state constitution declaring that the State Corporation Commission must ensure that consumer interests are represented in its proceedings.
By 1969 the political environment in Virginia had undergone profound alteration. The end of the poll tax, urban and suburban growth, reapportionment, the rise of African American political organizations, reemergence of the, the death of Byrd, and the demise of his political organization signaled the dawn of a new era. Howell’s populist approach and fiery rhetoric appealed to many voters. He received enthusiastic support from the African American community, organized labor, many blue-collar whites, and middle-class white liberals. The Democratic Party divided into three factions consisting of liberals led by Howell, moderates, and the conservative remnant of the old Byrd Organization. Each faction offered a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1969: Howell, the liberal; William C. Battle, former ambassador to Australia, the moderate; and Lieutenant Governor Fred Pollard, the conservative.
In the first primary, Battle won 39 percent to Howell’s 38 and Pollard’s 23. No candidate having secured a majority, Battle and Howell faced each other in a run-off. Governor Godwin, whose distaste for Howell’s political philosophy was widely known, decided to break the traditional neutrality of incumbent governors in the Democratic primary and endorsed Battle. Godwin’s action angered Howell and his supporters. Howell lost the runoff by 18,603 votes. After advising his supporters that they were “free spirits” who could vote for whomever they wanted, Howell remained aloof from the general election clash between Battle and Republican
Late in October, however, Howell belatedly announced his support for Battle and accepted an invitation to attend a fund-raising luncheon in Richmond. Any possibility of a rapprochement disappeared when Howell was not seated at the head table and not included among the Democratic dignitaries to be introduced. For this snub Howell blamed Godwin and the state party chairman, Congressman Watkins Abbitt. In the general election Holton defeated Battle by 65,000 votes, some of which undoubtedly came from embittered Howell supporters.
In 1971 Howell sought and won statewide office.had been elected lieutenant governor in 1969. Deemed the likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1973, Reynolds enjoyed widespread popularity, but died in June 1971 of an inoperable brain tumor. Howell decided to run in the autumn election to succeed Reynolds. For Howell the lieutenant governorship would enhance his standing statewide prior to seeking the governorship again in 1973. When the Democrats decided to choose their nominee by convention, Howell announced that he would run as an Independent. In a three-way contest on November 2, 1971, he received a plurality of the vote (40 percent), leading his closest challenger by 27,792 votes. (His opponents were both members of the House of Delegates: Democrat George J. Kostel, who finished second, and Republican George P. Shafran.)
The prospect of a Howell governorship was enough, in 1973, to provoke the interest of Mills Godwin, who had remained politically active. Godwin no longer felt comfortable in Virginia’s Democratic Party, which had moved to the left after the implementation of reforms the national party imposed on state parties. While preferring to run as an Independent, Godwin knew that a three-candidate race would likely ensure Howell’s election. He reluctantly became a Republican at the urging of the state party chairman, Richard Obenshain, and others. Howell, reflecting on Virginia’s massive rejection of U.S. Senator George McGovern, the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1972, decided to seek office again as an Independent. The state Democratic Party did not nominate a candidate and officially “commended” his candidacy to the voters.
Pundits described the 1973 gubernatorial campaign as a political “Armageddon” between two diametrically opposed philosophies. Although Howell tried to soften the stridency of his 1969 rhetoric, the animosity between the candidates contributed to an acrimonious campaign. Once again Howell attacked Virginia’s corporate elites and pledged to repeal the state sales tax on food and nonprescription drugs. Although Godwin had instituted many policy innovations in his first term, he was cast in the role of guardian of Virginia’s traditional order in 1973. Godwin’s campaign consisted of former Byrd Organization stalwarts who were not in tune with the changing nature of political campaigns in the 1970s. Continuing revelations in the Watergate scandal sapped the energy of Republican workers, many of whom lacked enthusiasm for their old adversary.
Blunders by Howell, however, played a decisive role in the outcome of the election. On October 3 Howell released an internal poll that showed him leading Godwin by 9.5 percent. Howell believed that publicizing the poll would generate badly needed campaign contributions. What it accomplished, however, was to energize the Republican campaign. Contributions from conservatives poured in, and state chairman Obenshain, working with operatives dispatched to Virginia by the Republican National Committee, orchestrated a highly effective parallel campaign. Surrogate speakers, fliers, and pamphlets attacked Howell on emotional issues such as busing children to achieve school racial balance, and gun control. A network of regional telephone banks identified potential Godwin voters and got them to the polls. Howell’s second major blunder occurred in mid-October when he announced his “ABC” tax plan to replace revenue lost by his proposed changes in the sales tax. The plan included increased taxes on alcoholic beverages and corporate income as well as a new duty on bank and corporate stock dividends. Godwin and leading members of the General Assembly denounced the plan, and Republican fliers attacked it as a “tax on jobs.”
Despite Howell’s missteps the race remained highly competitive. Godwin won by 15,000 votes, receiving 50.7 percent of the ballots. Howell attributed his defeat to a statement by news anchor Frank McGee on NBC’s Today show shortly after 8 a.m. on Election Day that Howell favored busing and had supported Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. In fact, Howell had never endorsed busing. Howell planned to sue NBC for damages, but the death of McGee from cancer caused him to reconsider legal action.
Despite two unsuccessful attempts, Howell had not surrendered his dream of becoming governor of Virginia. In 1977 Attorney General Andrew Pickens Miller, a political moderate, was the frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination when Howell entered the contest. Once again the campaign turned ugly when the candidates’ mutual antipathy revealed itself. The Republican nominee, Lieutenant Governor, urged conservatives to skip the Democratic primary and wait for the November election. Organized labor and African American political organizations mobilized for Howell. Both groups made major contributions to Howell’s upset victory.
Early in the general election campaign Howell attempted to craft a more moderate image. He sabotaged these efforts, however, in a speech at the AFL-CIO state convention, held August 19–20. Citing no evidence, he charged Dalton with a conflict of interest by initiating banking legislation while owning bank stock. His words resurrected the image of Howell as a strident politician with a tendency toward demagoguery. A month later, on September 13, Howell’s harsh attack on Dalton at the end of a joint appearance before the Richmond Jaycees caused the Republican to cancel further joint appearances. Howell went on to denounce Republican direct-mailings to voters as reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. Dalton, however, was relying on Howell’s controversial past statements, such as his support for repealing Virginia’s right-to-work law. Howell’s campaign suffered financially, technically, and organizationally compared with Dalton’s, having already drawn heavily on its financial base during the primary. On election day Dalton defeated Howell by 157,983 votes and thereby ended the Norfolk populist’s political career.
Although he never achieved his goal of winning the governorship, Howell’s legacy was in promoting a more democratic political order and advancing the cause of the consumer in battles with corporate power. He also brought a new vitality to Virginia’s staid political culture. In the words of the former governor Colgate Darden: “He stirred Virginia politics only like dynamite could have done in a pond. Howell gave greater impetus to mass voting in Virginia and stirred people more than anybody in my lifetime.”
After his last campaign Howell returned to the practice of law in Norfolk. Moderates regained control of the state Democratic Party, casting Howell aside. While still campaigning for Democratic presidential candidates, he continued his law practice and in 1985 was honored by the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association with its Distinguished Service Award. He also served a four-year term on Old Dominion University’s board of visitors, from 1991 to 1995. Howell’s health was deteriorating at the time, and on July 7, 1997, he died of cancer at his Norfolk home. He was buried in the city’s Forest Lawn Cemetery.