by Dick Hall-Sizemore
Toscano, David. Bellwether: Virginia’s Political Transformation, 2006-2020. Lanham: Hamilton Books, 2022
In this book, David Toscano, whose prior work was Fighting Political Gridlock: How States Shape Our Nation and Our Lives (2021), turns his focus on Virginia. The author is a former Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates (2006-2020) from Charlottesville and served as the House Minority Leader from 2011 to 2018.
The book can be viewed from several perspectives. At the highest level, it is an analysis of the changes in Virginia’s demographics and corresponding changes in its electoral politics in the first two decades of this century. On another level, it is partly a political memoir. Finally, it is an insider’s account of the legislative personalities and process in Virginia.
It needs to be said up front that this is not a nonpartisan account. Toscano is a liberal Democrat and he does not try to disguise that fact. He revels in the expansion of Medicaid, Democrats taking control of the House, and the legislation enacted in the 2020 and 2021 Sessions. However, he does not demonize Republicans. His attitude is that Republicans’ positions are legitimate and sincerely held, but generally wrong-headed.
In a bipartisan spirit, Toscano singles out several Republican legislators for praise. He obviously likes and respects William Howell, who was the Speaker for most of the years that Toscano was in the House, although he may have disagreed with many of his positions. As Toscano remarks, “Members generally liked [Howell] whether they agreed with him or not.” He praises Howell for defying his caucus and ruling Senate amendments on a redistricting bill as out of order, thereby reinforcing “the traditions and norms of the Body.” (The House Republican caucus briefly considered removing Howell from his post because of the ruling.)
Other Republicans singled out for praise:
Chris Jones (Suffolk)—As chair of the Appropriations Committee, he “would specifically ask the minority about their priorities as the budget was being developed and often incorporated their initiatives.”
Kirk Cox (Chesterfield)—One of the Republican “persuasive advocates” who would give “impassioned speeches on the floor.”
Lee Ware (Powhatan)—“Erudite, thoughtful”. “When Ware would rise on the House floor, Delegates on both sides of the partisan divide would listen.”
David Albo (Fairfax)—“Albo became known for his analytical skills, his commitment to work long hours, and his sense of humor.”
Rob Bell (Albemarle)—With regard to providing “emergency assistance to persons with mental health challenges who were risks to themselves or others, [Bell] was on the front lines of this effort, and the committee spent countless hours reviewing bills word-by-word….This was legislative practice at its best, detached from the partisan disputes of the day.”
The title of the book is the author’s thesis: the Commonwealth of Virginia has become an electoral bellwether. Toscano is not alone on this assessment. It has been a common theme in the national media over the past year, with, Newt Gingrich in Newsweek, among others, declaring Virginia a “national bellwether.”
In simple terms, a “bellwether “is “someone or something that shows how a situation will develop or change.” In political terms, “bellwethers tend to be a leading indicator relating to voting trends and elections. Usually, political bellwethers reference the voting behavior of a specific state or county that gives larger indicators to a national trend.” By the end of the book, Toscano clearly thinks that, with the Democrats gaining a majority in both houses of the General Assembly and enacting major policy changes in the 2020 and 2021 Sessions, Virginia had become the bellwether for the nation.
The 2021 election upended that scenario. In an Epilogue appropriately titled, “The GOP Strikes Back,” and obviously written after the book was largely completed, Toscano briefly analyzes the election results. Based on recent trends, he posits (hopes?) that the 2021 election was “a disruptive outlier.” However, as he concludes the book he seems less sure of what being a bellwether means: “Recent trends favored Virginia Democrats, but fortunes can change in a November minute. What the 2021 election portends for our bellwether Commonwealth is a story yet to be written.”
For Toscano, the concept of Virginia being a bellwether is closely intertwined with that cherished tradition of the “Virginia Way”. A good part of the first half of the book is devoted to exploring what constitutes the Virginia Way.
This reader was surprised to learn that the term originally did not mean what it came to mean later. It was first used by Douglas Southall Freeman, the biographer and editor of the Richmond News Leader. It was meant to differentiate Virginia from the rest of the South in terms of race relations. According to Freeman, “The Virginia Way…would dispose the Negroes to cooperate in the right way of residential separation, by consent.” As Toscano summarizes, “At its core, the Virginia Way embodied civility in public matters while maintaining a paternalistic relationship with blacks.”
At some point, the term lost is connection with race relations and came to refer to “an approach to government that values fiscal responsibility, support for business, and civil discourse.” The concept is also said to include a willingness to put aside differences and to compromise in order to get things done. By adapting the Virginia Way to changing times, Toscano holds out the hope that it can be “a bellwether for the rest of the Nation…a model for how state lawmakers can construct thoughtful policies to serve the constituents they represent.”
Another theme he emphasizes is the importance of being personally involved in the development of policy. It is the familiar idea of “being in the room”, which he labels as the Cardinal Rule. He leads off one chapter with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics from Hamilton about “the room where it happens.” He provides a couple of anecdotes illustrating how he was able to affect policy because he was there when it was being made. The point is quite valid, but Toscano comes close to beating that horse to death.
The interviews Toscano conducted in researching the book lend depth and credibility to the narrative. Those interviewed included former Governor Robert McDonnell and then-Governor Ralph Northam. Also included were lobbyists, issue advocates, and members of the General Assembly. Those interviews lend depth and creditability to the narrative.
Undoubtedly, the most difficult experience that Toscano faced was the Northam “blackface” episode and his difficulty in reconciling with it shows in his discussion.
He begins this discussion with a straightforward narrative of the events surrounding the release of the infamous yearbook photo. He poses the obvious questions that many were asking as Northam vacillated from admitting to being in the photo to absolute denial the next day.
By this time, Toscano had stepped down from his position as Minority Leader in the House and was not in direct contact with the Governor’s office. As Toscano tells it, Northam had several meetings with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) and, prior to the emergency meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, a smaller group of Black legislators, composed of the younger and newer members, met again with Northam. At the House Democratic Caucus meeting, these members called for Northam’s resignation and represented that this was the position of the entire VLBC. Deferring to the VLBC, the House Democratic Caucus called for Northam to resign. Toscano issued a separate statement along the same lines later.
It turned out that the VLBC was divided. Although outraged by the photo, many of the older members did not necessarily think Northam should resign. In fact, Del. Delores McQuinn, a long-time delegate from Richmond, told Toscano that she urged the Governor not to resign. She explained that she told Northam, “It is not a time for retreat, but a time to teach. You are in a unique position to speak to others with influence. If you leave now, you will be forgotten and will have lost an important opportunity to make change.”
Toscano is obviously conflicted. He laments that most people, including himself, had engaged in “Groupthink” in which participants, anxious to minimize conflict, “reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints from the outside.” He does not say so directly, but he seems to wish that everyone had resisted the urge to rush to judgment and had waited until the next day. By then, the division of the VLBC would have been clearer and perhaps the idea of using the incident as a “time to teach” would have been appealing to members of the entire caucus. (One unanswered question is why the older VLBC members did not speak up in the House Democratic Caucus and make it clear that the VLBC was not of one mind.) Of course, Northam made things worse on Saturday by backtracking on his admission the day before that he was in the photo.
Toscano’s narrative is unsatisfactory in several respects. Did he think at the time that Northam should resign? He issued a statement calling for the resignation, but says that he regretted doing so the next morning “after hearing more details.” The “more details” seem to have been that the VLBC was not united on the question. But, why should the position of the VLBC be the deciding factor? Toscano does make it clear that he is satisfied with the final result, concluding by saying, “The events of the next several months illustrated the force of quiet leadership and the power of political redemption.”
One weakness of the book is its organization. The first few chapters are general in nature, covering the concepts of the Virginia Way, the importance of “being in the room”, and demographic changes. Next are a few chapters dealing with different aspects of the political scene—governors, legislatures, advocates, etc. The last chapters deal with the Democratic comeback and the actions of the 2020 and 2021 Sessions.
There is a chronological feel to the organization, but, because there are also topical chapters, there is something of a choppy feel and some repetition. Also, sometimes, it feels as if the author is getting ahead of himself. For example, in the discussion of the 2018 House redistricting that resulted from a federal court decision, a reader coming across this statement, “Democrats now had forty-nine members in the House….”, could justifiably say, “Whoa. How did that come about?”. The answer would be in the next chapter.
There is a lengthy discussion of the 2011 redistricting and the ensuing court battles by Democrats to overturn it that some readers may find too detailed. However, the story is intriguing because it illustrates some of the dynamics of the legislative process. For example, members of the VLBC and Northern Virginia Democrats made deals with Republicans for favorable districts in exchange for their support of the overall plan. The story is also important because it was those battles that finally resulted in the courts overturning the Republican-drawn plan and the federal court redrawing some of the district lines. That court-ordered redistricting was integral (along with the unpopularity of Donald Trump) to the Democrats being able to claim the majority in the House in the 2019 election.
One weakness, perhaps inevitable, of the book is its institutional “one-sidedness”. Toscano deals primarily with the norms, personalities, and actions of the House of Delegates. Because all his experience, including as party floor leader, was in the House, this was to be expected. However, certainly as his party’s leader in the House, he had a lot of interaction with his party in the Senate and has an understanding of many of its norms and peculiarities. Perhaps, not being a member, he felt a certain reluctance to comment a lot on the Senate. Nevertheless, as far as the general reader is concerned, many of the aspects of the legislative process, such as the importance of “being in the room” and the role of lobbyists, are equally applicable to both chambers.
The strongest parts of the book, and the most fun to read, are those instances in which Toscano provides an insider’s description of how some things came about. Some examples include:
- How Va. Tech beat out UVa. for the lead role in putting together the incentive package for the Amazon HQ2 deal. (Hint: McAuliffe’s point person for finding additional resources for the package was a friend of the government affairs officer for Tech.)
- How a transportation funding bill, introduced in 2013 by Speaker of the House William Howell at the request of Governor McDonnell, that was originally “largely smoke and mirrors and provided little additional money” morphed into one that included “major new transportation taxes and funding.”
- How Toscano engineered the “unthinkable”—altering a major utility bill on the floor of the House in a way the utilities did not support (the “double dip”).
Despite his liberalism, conservatives on this blog will be heartened by some of Toscano’s positions. He calls for reforms in campaign finance, including “a cap on individual contributions, out-of-state contributions, and, if possible, ideologically based political action committees.” He recognizes that some school divisions, primarily those in urban centers and in poorer rural areas lag “substantially behind”. He calls for relaxing the Dillon Rule and doing away with Virginia’s unique system of independent cities. He also advocates letting governors succeed themselves.
While criticizing Dominion Energy, Toscano also criticizes Michael Bills and Clean Virginia and their requirement that recipients of their campaign donations pledge not to take donations from Dominion. Toscano declares such a practice to be “perilously close” to the classic quid pro quo or “pay to play” approach that has drawn so much criticism. He relates that, although he had stopped taking contributions from Dominion, he refused to take the “pledge”. In response, Sonjia Smith, the wife of Michael Bills, donated $100,000 to Toscano’s primary challenger.
On the other hand, those same Bacon’s Rebellion conservatives will throw up their hands in disbelief and dismay at such statements as: “McAuliffe became a terrific Governor” and “Northam’s management of the state’s response to the pandemic earned him high marks.”
In summary, regardless of one’s political leanings, Bellwether is a valuable book for anyone interested in the public affairs of the Commonwealth. It provides a pragmatic view of the legislative process along with an insider’s perspective on many of the recent policy fights. Its main theme is provocative, leaving the reader to wonder if, in light of recent legislative actions, the Commonwealth will be a bellwether for the country with a “reimagined” Virginia Way that encompasses “civil discourse, respect for each other, thoughtful debate and discussion, support for the rule of law, and redemption” or will the state, instead, become more like the nation, polarized and with less and less civility. Toscano concludes that is “ a story yet to be written.”