The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dear voters: Pay attention to state politics (especially Virginia’s)

The Virginia Capitol in Richmond. In his book on state politics, former delegate David J. Toscano expounds on “the Virginia Way” — an ideal of civility in politics — and argues that it needs rejuvenation. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

After a quarter-century in public office, former Virginia lawmaker David J. Toscano has developed an insight that can be boiled down to two deceptively simple words:

States matter.

Yes, it sounds obvious. But look no further than the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade — delivering the issue of abortion into the hands of state legislatures — for a demonstration of the power of that idea.

Toscano, a former Charlottesville mayor who represented the city in the General Assembly from 2006 to 2020, has written a pair of books that make an emphatic case for caring about whom you send to uphold your interests in the state capitol.

Fighting Political Gridlock: How States Shape Our Nation and Our Lives,” published last year, argues that states hold the best hope for healing our national political wounds, while “Bellwether: Virginia’s Political Transformation, 2006-2020” out this year, goes deeper on a corollary insight: Virginia matters, as a case study for everyone else.

Why Virginia?

It’s a big, wealthy, diverse state on the doorstep of the nation’s capital (a local might say Washington is on Virginia’s doorstep). Its history encompasses the origins of American democracy (from Jamestown to Jefferson) and the roots of slavery and the Civil War.

Okay, there are also less-grand reasons. Virginia holds elections every year, so it’s a constant political engine. It’s one of only two states that elects a governor the year after a presidential contest (along with New Jersey), making it a convenient referendum on each new White House administration.

And oh, by the way, that attention imbues every new Virginia governor with enough national glow to routinely inspire higher ambitions.

In an era of ugly political polarization, Toscano finds reason for both hope and concern at the state level. State legislatures, he points out, are where things happen while Congress is mired in dysfunction.

Across a spectrum of policy areas, states create “laboratories” for trying out different approaches to society’s problems. And if the feds, say, refuse to coordinate the national response to a dangerous pandemic, state leaders “attempt to fill the void,” he writes.

That can mean wildly different outcomes for people living in different parts of the country. Toscano sounds the alarm about the public’s tendency to sleep on state elections (reflected in anemic voter turnout) while fixating on the latest national political outrage whipped up by social media or cable TV.

Education policy, criminal justice, access to health care, even who gets to vote and where — presidential candidates might talk about all of those topics, Toscano points out, but state legislatures really call the shots.

“Nonetheless,” he writes, “there remains a massive disconnect between citizens’ perceptions of where the decisions that affect their lives are made and where those policies actually are enacted.”

He laments that the death of so many statehouse news bureaus makes it much harder for members of the public to stay in touch with what their lawmakers are up to.

And statehouses risk drifting toward the same kind of unproductive polarization that afflicts federal lawmakers. But Toscano, who generally avoids partisan prescriptions but can’t hide his Democratic faith in government, believes that states can light the way out of the mess we’re all in.

“One thing appears clear: some of the greatest opportunities we have for rejuvenation will involve governments closest to the people,” Toscano writes.

That doesn’t necessarily mean local government. In most places it’s state lawmakers who have control over the big fundamental issues, such as taxes and access to guns or abortions.

As Toscano points out, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t even talk about local government. Any power not granted to the federal government — or to the people — is reserved for the states. “If you ever wanted an argument to support the principle that states matter,” Toscano writes, “this is it.”

He concludes “Gridlock” with prescriptions for restoring “civic engagement,” aimed at encouraging citizens to see that they have a stake in the actions of their representatives. Toscano’s recommendations are defiantly idealistic, based on humility, the embrace of truth and “dynamic listening.”

In that sense, they form a bridge to his next work, “Bellwether,” which focuses on Toscano’s experiences in Virginia state government. His lens is something called “the Virginia Way,” a trope that state leaders have been touting for generations to signify Virginia exceptionalism.

Ideally, the notion conveys Virginia’s image of itself as a lofty paragon of civility in the public arena. But Toscano looks at how the Virginia Way has subtly changed over the years, and how its original incarnation was code for a White patriarchy of polite exclusion.

(I keep referring to “state” in the generic sense — but Virginia is a commonwealth, and Toscano calls it “the commonwealth” throughout.)

“Bellwether” charts the state’s recent evolution from reliably red to blue — or apparently blue. Unfortunately, the narrative stops just before Republican Glenn Youngkin won the 2021 election over Toscano’s old friend, former governor Terry McAuliffe (D).

Toscano has updated here and there, and he provides an epilogue (“The GOP Strikes Back”) that serves as a kind of flashing question mark about where things might be headed next. It would be fascinating to see Toscano parse the lessons of that last election, which are still unfolding.

Otherwise, “Bellwether” is an easy-to-read insider’s look at the past decade and a half of political change in Virginia. If anybody out there is a reporter getting ready to cover Richmond, the book would be a valuable primer on how we got where we are.

You’d like to see a little more dish — what did you really think of your colleagues, David?? — but Toscano is admirably nonpartisan, crediting Republicans and Democrats alike for various accomplishments.

And there are many uplifting examples of statesmanship, large and small. Such as in 2013, when then-House Speaker William J. Howell, a Republican, confronted a dilemma.

Republicans in the Senate had just taken a routine House bill relating to elections and doctored it up to redraw districts around the state, seeking GOP advantages for years to come. They did so in a tricky way: The Senate was evenly divided between Rs and Ds at the time, but a senior Democrat was out of town attending President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Republicans had a one-time numerical advantage to force something through.

When the bill got back over to the House, Howell had to make a ruling on whether the changes were germane, or allowable. Under enormous pressure from his party to approve them, Howell ruled against them — and it almost cost him the speakership.

An action like Howell’s constitutes “a powerful statement of the importance of upholding the rules and traditions of democracy,” Toscano writes. In other words: the Virginia Way.

For the past three years — the time since Toscano decided not to run for reelection — Virginia has gone through a wild series of political plot twists. Democrats took control of the legislature in rebellion against President Donald Trump; the party’s executive branch leaders survived massive scandals to preside over historic policy changes in Richmond (ending the death penalty, legalizing marijuana); Confederate statues fell; and the pandemic altered everything.

The fact that a Republican governor emerged from that period has focused national attention, once again, on Virginia.

Will other states learn anything from the Virginia Way? Toscano concludes that the concept needs rejuvenating to stay relevant. The Virginia Way needs to signify inclusion, he says, not elitism. It must be “a vehicle for getting more citizens of different experiences and backgrounds ‘into the room’ where decisions are made.”

Which gets back to the original point. States matter. And voters need to pay attention to them.

Greg Schneider covers Virginia from The Washington Post’s Richmond bureau. He was The Post’s business editor for more than seven years, and before that served stints as deputy business editor, national security editor and technology editor.

Fighting Political Gridlock

How States Shape Our Nation and Our Lives

By David J. Toscano

University of Virginia. 282 pp. $29.95

Bellwether

Virginia’s Political Transformation, 2006-2020

By David J. Toscano

Hamilton Books. 340 pp. $24.99

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