Greg Habeeb in his Richmond office. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
Greg Habeeb in his Richmond office. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

One of Greg Habeeb’s favorite pieces of wisdom comes not from some Greek philosopher but from one of the Batman movies, “The Dark Knight.” It goes like this: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Habeeb decided he would die a hero – figuratively speaking, anyway.

In 2018, the Republican state legislator from Salem shocked many when he resigned his seat and moved out of the Roanoke Valley entirely. From his point of view, the Batman logic held sway: Better to quit after seven years than pursue a decades-long career in the legislature, something he never intended anyway.

Often when politicians leave office, they disappear from public view – sometimes happily so. Habeeb no longer makes headlines (except maybe this one today) but he’s arguably more influential in shaping public policy today than he ever was in the legislature. Habeeb left the legislature to lead a new office that his law firm – the Roanoke-based Gentry Locke – wanted to open in Richmond. In that capacity, he and his firm have become major players in some fields that you wouldn’t ordinarily think a former Republican legislator would be advocating. “We’re by far the biggest solar and renewable energy firm – we have 10 lawyers dedicated to that,” Habeeb said. “We do the policy work, the land use work, the negotiations. … We’re at the forefront of gaming law, the forefront of marijuana law.” As a lobbyist, Habeeb was involved with drafting the Clean Economy Act, the law that phases out a carbon-based electric grid – and that Democrats regard as one of their key achievements in recent years.

“Greg was very helpful,” confirms the act’s House sponsor, Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan, D-Fairfax. “He brings credibility and a great eye for strategy” – and access to Republicans that Sullivan may not have had. “The Clean Economy Act was a bit of a legislative miracle,” Sullivan said. “We wouldn’t have been able to pass it without a broad coalition that we put together.” Sullivan says that as legislators he and Habeeb rarely voted alike, but as a solar lobbyist, Habeeb is “an able and valuable ally.”

So how in the world did a former Republican legislator from Salem (who I remember as a particularly partisan one) turn into one of the state’s leading solar energy and cannabis advocates?

Habeeb’s story shines light (solar-generated or otherwise) on both the changing politics of those two things – “solar and cannabis in the time I’ve been in the legislature have become less partisan issues,” Sullivan says – and also the quiet growth of a Roanoke business into a statewide player. To understand all that, let’s go back to 2010 when Salem’s member in the House of Delegates was Morgan Griffith. That was also the midterms of President Barack Obama’s first term and Griffith was the Republican candidate for Congress against longtime Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon. Habeeb was tasked with finding a likely Republican candidate for the House in the event that Griffith won. He says he had a lot of names on the list – then Griffith unexpectedly won: “All the potential successors said, ‘We didn’t think Morgan was actually going to win and I’m not in a position to run for office.’” So Habeeb ran – and won.

“It was never a career thing,” he told me during a recent interview in his Richmond office. “It was never going to be a long-term thing.” Twice during his seven-year run in the House he came close to leaving but was talked out of it by Republican leaders. Then came a time when they couldn’t talk him out of it.

“I felt it had run its course for me,” he said of his time in the legislature. “Politics changed a lot in 2016 and not in a way I was comfortable continuing with – that’s my subtle way of answering the 2016 question.”

Habeeb was also finding that, as his children grew up and approached their teens, they were often being identified as “the delegate’s kids.” He wasn’t keen on that. Once he was on a family trip to Disney World when he had to interrupt the trip to cast a vote in a one-day special session. “Anybody who makes themselves out as a martyr is making a mistake,” he said, because every legislator made a conscious decision to ask people to vote for them. On the other hand, some sacrifices are required to serve in the legislature and that was one of them. “I don’t have to leave my family at Disney World anymore,” he said.

Come 2018, Habeeb also had what seemed an exciting professional opportunity – to expand Gentry Locke into Richmond and move into the “governmental affairs” space. “It’s not just lobbying, it’s state agency work, it’s procurement,” Habeeb said. He teamed with a former Democratic legislator – Chip Dicks – because that’s how such things usually work. “We were going to work virtually before that was a thing,” Habeeb says. Instead, business came so fast that the firm has now outgrown its quarters in the Truist building in downtown Richmond several times and is now on the lookout for additional space. In the process, Gentry Locke has grown from 50 lawyers to about 80, now with locations in four cities — Roanoke, Lynchburg, Richmond and, most recently, Norfolk, according to managing partner Brett Marston. The Richmond office, Marston says, has enabled the firm to expand its practice into new fields. “We now have a significant practice in solar, a significant practice in government relations, a significant practice in cannabis,” Marston says. (Disclosure: Gentry Locke is one of our more than 2,220 donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy).

As a business story, this is a success story, the expansion of a Roanoke-based firm. As a political story, it’s even more fascinating. So just how did a conservative Republican become a solar energy and cannabis advocate? “I always described myself as a pro-life libertarian,” Habeeb said. “The Republican Party was the best place for me but there were a lot of places where I deviated from the party.” They were just not readily apparent when Habeeb was in the legislature, at least in most news coverage.

Ronald Reagan was famous for saying government is the problem. “My version is that government isn’t always the problem but it’s rarely the solution,” Habeeb said. “I’m not anti-government, it’s just not my go-to solution.”

There was never a serious push for legalizing cannabis when Habeeb was casting votes but he says he’s always seen marijuana prohibition as bad policy. “That’s not a radical departure,” he said. These days there are lots of Republicans who are of the view that government shouldn’t be banning cannabis; the challenge is how the state goes about setting up a legal retail market. He now represents companies that would like to operate in that market – if the state allows them to. Habeeb sees this as a framing question: “It’s not about expanding people’s ability to get high. It’s about creating a new industry.” His firm helped create the Virginia Cannabis Association to elevate the idea of cannabis as a legitimate business. True to his Republican roots, Habeeb can also frame cannabis legalization as a tough-on-crime measure. Right now, Virginia has legalized personal possession but not allowed a retail market, so what flourishes is a black market of pot dealers. “Right now we have an illicit black market of dealers who don’t live in Virginia, who don’t create jobs, and the money leaves the state.” Democrats set in motion the framework for a legal market when they controlled the General Assembly but it required more work this year. Then Republicans won the House and couldn’t agree on how to proceed. Habeeb is hopeful that a consensus is now starting to emerge. “We’re working with a lot of Republicans,” Habeeb said. “They tend to be ones from Southwest, Southside, the Shenandoah Valley, the ones in the most rural, agricultural parts of Virginia” – so they see cannabis as a potential source of jobs.

Habeeb’s role in repping solar energy is more surprising, even to him. “Renewable energy is more of a departure for me but society has moved a lot,” he said. “Technology has changed the economics of renewable energy so much that I think Republicans should be embracing it, and more and more you’re seeing that.” In other words, renewable energy is often cheaper.

He confesses that, as a legislator, he’d have likely voted against the Clean Economy Act because it had the effect of raising energy costs for his constituents in the Roanoke and New River valleys – and the payoffs for them are much further out. As a lobbyist, though, he was in favor of it because, he says, he took a broader view. “More and more, our end users – be they data centers or technology companies or manufacturers – are demanding access to renewables,” Habeeb said. To attract those employers, Virginia needed a more robust clean energy sector. “Government has a role in nudging markets into existence,” he said, and that’s where he sees the value in the Clean Economy Act. He’s not keen on decommissioning fossil fuel plants, but “I think if you had to choose between where we were before and having a robust mix, we’re better off with a robust mix, and the Clean Economy Act does this.”

Habeeb, in particular, has represented companies pushing “shared solar” – which allows renters, for instance, to buy into a solar project so they can benefit from the lower costs. “There’s no reason why Republicans shouldn’t like that,” he said. “There are reasons why Democrats like it but there’s no reasons why Republicans shouldn’t.” For more on shared solar, see the story by Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel: “Shared solar is coming to Virginia. Just not all of Virginia.” Habeeb represents Dimension Renewable Energy, one of the companies quoted in that story, which was what caught my eye and led me to visit with him.

Habeeb says he still considers the Roanoke Valley home, even though he now lives in Henrico County. “I feel I’m in Richmond representing our Roanoke law firm,” he said. Except he doesn’t have to worry about being called away from Disney World to cast a vote. “I get as much General Assembly as I want but it never invades my life and tells me what to do the way it used to.”

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.