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Democrats angry at delegate for switching vote on speaker's bill

Anita Kumar

The Democratic lawmaker who switched his vote to support an obscure bill that would help protect a single Fortune 500 company from asbestos lawsuits -- a proposal pushed aggressively by Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford) -- was chastised by his fellow Democrats during a closed door caucus meeting this week.

Del. Joseph P. Johnson Jr. (D-Washington) was not only one of the three delegates who switched votes and supported the bill, he was the one who asked that the bill be reconsidered after it failed on a surprising 49-49 tie vote Tuesday.

"No one twisted my arm to change my vote,'' Johnson said in an interview.

Johnson said he meant to vote for the bill all along, as he had in committee, and wanted to be consistent.

"I felt badly about it,'' he said. "I led some people to believe I would vote for it and I did not keep my word. If I tell someone I will do something, I do it."

Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), who introduced the bill on Howell's behalf, said he spoke to Johnson after the initial vote and asked him for a favor. The two men have known each other for years, and both represent far southwest Virginia.

Howell has been quietly maneuvering to have his chamber support the bill for weeks -- pleading his case to his caucus behind closed doors, personally visiting individual delegates to ask them to vote for the bill as a "personal favor" and reshuffling the committee that considered the bill. Howell recently completed a term as national chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that has been pushing the Crown Cork & Seal bill in state legislatures across the nation since 2006. Read the full story on Howell's efforts here.

"The Speaker did not twist my arm,'' Johnson said. He said he knows that members of his party are angry with him. "If they want to be, that's fine. I don't agree with everything they do,'' he said.

Howell, who was presiding over the debate on the floor, looked stunned when the bill failed on the 49-49 vote. Del. Thomas D. Gear (R-Hampton) did not vote although he was in the chamber.

Under House rules, the measure was able to be reconsidered and was brought back up a couple of hours later at the end of yesterday's session. On its final try, it passed 49 to 48.

Johnson and two Republicans -- Dels. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) and James Edmunds (R-Halifax) -- switched their votes.

Edmunds, a freshman, said he was initially concerned that the bill would allow companies to absolve themselves of liability simply by reoganizing under a different name. But, he said, he came to realize that would not be the case. Kilgore said he did not speak to Edmunds.

Albo told us the speaker did not ask him to reconsider but several others did, including Kilgore and House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). He said he was not threatened, but rather was persuaded to back the bill in order to win approval of his own priorities later in the legislative session.

Griffith said he did not speak directly to Albo. He was, however, sitting next to Kilgore when Kilgore spoke to Albo.

On the second vote, Gear opposed the bill, but two other delegates failed to vote -- Dels. Algie T. Howell Jr. (D-Norfolk) and Samuel A. Nixon Jr. (R-Chesterfield). Nixon, who is part of the Republican leadership team and voted for the bill in committee, said later that he was in the bathroom at the time.

By Anita Kumar  |  February 12, 2010; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  Anita Kumar , General Assembly 2010 , House of Delegates  
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Comments

what leadership. with one gun a month and now this, nice to see our electeds are addressing issues that matter and not simplying carrying the water for special interests.

Posted by: ChrisD4 | February 12, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

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