David J. Toscano (Fighting Political Gridlock: How States Shape Our Nation and Our Lives) discusses how state governments, in response to federal government gridlock, have taken action on issues of vital importance to their citizens. Toscano served fourteen years in the Virginia House of Delegates, including eight years as the Democratic leader in the House. In conversation with Christopher K. Peace who also served fourteen years in the Virginia House of Delegates, seated across the aisle.
Watch the video from this event and read the transcript below:
“As a state legislator from ‘the other Washington,’ I’ve seen time and again how mine and other states have led the way on moving good policy forward. Whether it’s ending discrimination, expanding health care access, or acting on climate, when states lead on big issues we bring the nation with us.”—Laurie Jinkins, Washington State Speaker of the House
“If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that state government has more to say about how votes are counted, how pandemics are addressed, how students are educated, and how guns and maternal health are regulated than any other entity. Yet we mostly ignore these laboratories of democracy–and the myriad ways in which they can be engines for civic engagement and public welfare. David Toscano brings his keen eye for state and local politics and his lawyerly analytic tools to this timely new look at how powerful states can fill in the broken spaces of current American democracy–and also work to tear it apart, if we decline to pay attention.”—Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
“Unity of purpose is very difficult to achieve in a gridlocked era of bitter disagreement between liberals and conservatives. In a timely book, David Toscano has focused us on the path forward in this divided, polarized country—the states, where within a federal framework the laboratories of democracy can experiment with ideas and solutions. He shows us how the states can tackle a wide range of problems with perhaps more success than one-size-fits-all proposals from Washington, D.C.”—Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at UVA
JANE KULOW: Hello, welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
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Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers. David Toscano, author of Fighting Political Gridlock, is a veteran of twenty-five years of public service. He served as city councilor and as mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, and was then elected to the seat in the Virginia House of Delegates once held by Thomas Jefferson. You can learn more at DavidToscano.com.
Christopher Peace represented Virginia’s 97th District in the House of Delegates from 2006 to 2020. He is an attorney with a general practice in the Metro Richmond region, and he serves as co-chair of the Virginia Consumer Healthcare Alliance.
David and Chris, thank you both for joining us for Shelf Life. Over to you, Chris.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Thank you so much, Jane, and thank you to the Festival of the Book and the Virginia Foundation for Humanities for all of its wonderful work supporting arts and culture and the humanities in the Commonwealth.
David, it’s a true honor to reconnect with you after our years of mutual service to the Commonwealth. For fourteen years—and boy did that go by fast—we sat across from one another and, in our own unique ways, we worked to make Virginia a better place to live, a better place to work and raise a family. I’m sure you would agree that it was an honor of a lifetime.
If anyone was watching you like I did for those many years—and we sat on some committees together as well, including Courts of Justice—I think it would be said that you were a skilled orator, a deft legislator, but more importantly (at least from my perspective) always a gentleman. Civil but not just polite. Willing to bring the fight, if you will, when necessary. And you always carried yourself with a particular humility, which I think is incredibly important when you’re in public service and particularly in a legislative body—with a lot of Type A personalities, I’ll say. You certainly advocated for the protections for the minority. You were a dynamic listener. And those who have read your book, like I have, will understand that these were some of the recommendations and traits that you try to impart as solutions to what you call the fight of our lives. So David, I just want to begin by thanking you for your public service and all the work that you have done and, with this book, continue to do to make the Commonwealth a better place.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Well thanks so much, Chris. It’s great to see you. We came in at the same time in 2006, and now with COVID and all, we don’t see very much of people these days. So it’s great to be with you. It’s great to exchange some ideas today. And I want to thank the Virginia Festival of the Book, a Charlottesville homegrown enterprise that has had to experience some challenges with COVID. But this Shelf Life activity that the Festival has going on has really been terrific and given opportunities for people to learn more about books and hopefully engage more in the conservation that we need to be having as a country. So thanks very much for having me on.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: David, I really like the introduction that you had where Jane noted that you held the seat formerly held by Thomas Jefferson. Those are big shoes to fill. My district was the birthplace of Patrick Henry. And as historians will note and probably some of our audience know, Jefferson and Henry really saw the world and our framing from different perspectives. And I think maybe the same could be said for us in our service, although I think we found a lot of common ground.
But one thing that occurred to me, and as we were preparing for today, I don’t think I ever really knew what was going on in your mind. And you could probably say the same about me. Sitting as a Republican on our side of the aisle, I didn’t know what was going on in your caucus. And I’m sure you could say the same about our caucus.
It’s important for the audience to know that when you’re in leadership positions and in public service, you don’t always have all of the information. How do you think that that impacts public policy, David?
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Well I think in our society, we’re becoming increasingly siloed, and that’s because of a number of factors: demographic factors, factors that have to do with how we get our news. And I think it makes it more difficult for people to work together, to build a common framework, and develop sound public policy. I have to laugh. Chris and I over the years have exchanged the Jefferson and Patrick Henry stories. And it wasn’t just that they disagreed. They didn’t like each other at all.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: That’s right.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Chris hails from a district that is very strongly Republican, and Charlottesville of course is the blue dot in central Virginia. But we do like each other, and we have liked each other over the years. Our disagreements have been over policy, not quite in the same way as Jefferson and Henry.
But putting that aside, the thesis of the book is that people need to pay attention to states. They’re spending so much time focused on federal gridlock and the division in Washington that they lose track of the fact that the most important things that are happening in their lives, and that are going to affect their lives, and frankly affect the future of the country—those decisions are being made in states, not in Washington. And the quicker we wake up to that, the better we’re all going to be.
Now, how states operate and how legislators operate is the key challenge with this. And as Chris pointed out, a lot of that has to do with how people get their information and whether they’re really willing to listen to each other in the presentation of that information so they can assess what makes sense and what doesn’t.
And I think that—I hope Chris would agree with me—but during my time in the General Assembly, I felt that the disease of Washington D.C. gridlock was seeping slowly across the Potomac and trying to filter into Richmond and destroy what a lot of people think has been a wonderful experiment in democracy known as the Virginia General Assembly. And I think we have to guard against that in Richmond. I think we have to guard against it in every state capital across this country.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: I agree, David. And maybe unlike Henry and Jefferson, I don’t think we ever called each other names. So that was a good thing.
I appreciated getting the opportunity to get a glimpse of what was going on in your mind as I read your book, and I really have to just commend your book to all of our audience and beyond. It is a wonderful manual and really a tool, I think, to help not only public policymakers understand better how effective they can be in the state legislature to change people’s situations and lives, but also how those who are not in elected office or in policymaking can have an effect on those who do. So I just commend it to everyone.
But before we get into sort of how to preserve the social compact and promote the general welfare, which are themes of your book, you talk about how the fight of our lives begins with the laboratories of democracy in states. Can you tell the audience a little bit about how your book came to be? Just sort of the backstory. And then we’ll talk about sort of these broad-brush subjects that you touch on in your book.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Well, beyond the fourteen years in the General Assembly, I also served twelve years in local government. And between those two experiences, that’s twenty-six years. And toward the end of my term in the General Assembly, I thought, well, I have some experience. Maybe I can share it and illuminate some of the issues that are before us. I had, fortunately, been keeping notebooks of every session since I entered the General Assembly. So I had good notes. And eventually, I sort of wove this into a tapestry of words that was 1500 pages long—which my publisher said, “You’re not going to do that!”
So I sort of broke it into two parts, and this is the first part. It has to do with states across the country. It has some Virginia vignettes, but it really isn’t about Virginia. It’s about the states across the country, and it takes people through the issues that are relevant to the future of the country, from voting rights (which is a uniquely state opportunity—hopefully we’ll get into that discussion in a few minutes), redistricting, education, criminal justice, the whole issue involving local versus state control, climate change—things that are happening all around us in states.
And the second book, which will be out sometime in the spring, is all about Virginia and the fourteen years of experience in Virginia and how what was really a ruby red state became one that was pretty reliably Democratic. And there are lots of stories behind how that came to be. But that’s for another time. We can talk about this book now.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Well I tell you with the transfer of power to the new governor in Virginia and the events of last weekend—and more recently the executive orders issued by the new governor—having read your book, I said I want volume two. I want to know what David is thinking now about these things. And we can touch on that in just a minute.
But you mentioned that politics is growing increasingly nationalized, and that creep is coming down from Washington to Richmond, and we need to guard against that. We’re seeing less compromise and greater division. And I think that’s actually something everyone agrees on. Where we don’t find common ground is how to solve it, or maybe even people willing to make changes to address it.
Your book presents a lot of facts. There’s a lot of data. You did a lot of research—things from other states which I didn’t know. And I thought it was incredibly illuminating how the state where you’re born can really shape your outcome, whether it’s access to education or healthcare. These things we know intuitively, but you provide real data and facts to support those arguments.
When you read the book, many people could grow concerned about the future health of our republic. But really your tone was hopeful and optimistic and I think reflects who you are, David—even though you were providing these anecdotes of complex and divisive issues.
Just one more sort of personal question before we get into some of the nuts and bolts. I almost describe you as the happy warrior. In your book, you have a quote from John Grisham, who was a state legislator. And he said he became cynical in service. How did you not get likewise affected by that?
DAVID J. TOSCANO: That’s a really great question. I guess ever since I was younger, my view was that I wanted to be involved in trying to change the world, and I never lost the idealism. You know, at base America is an idealistic country. I mean, you really think about things that we celebrate. If you go to things like a Veterans’ Day celebration and you listen to how people discuss how America got into World War I—it was all about making the world safe for democracy. And we have had this idealistic streak within us, and I hope we don’t lose it. We’ve had this sense that Americans can do anything if they put their minds to it.
The risk is that we’re losing some of that. The book starts with a chapter, “Fights of Our Lives.” It was written during the Trump administration. And we differ in our party perspective, but Trump was a real danger to the republic, and there’s some vestiges of that that still exist. I talk about some of the things that are happening in states right now, which have the possibility of creating huge problems in the next presidential election. We were lucky last time because the political guardrails held, and state legislators generally didn’t decide that they were going to circumvent the rules and appoint electors that were not really elected in their states to go to Washington in the Electoral College to choose the next president. So we’ve got some really serious problems.
There was a study just out today that said that 36 percent of Americans agree that the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may need to use force to save it. That’s one-third of the population. Of course, the good news is that 73 percent still believe America is a force for good in the world. So we’ve got this dichotomy, and the risk is that it goes one way or the other and we lose our democracy in the process. That fight’s got to occur at the state legislatures as well as in D.C.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: And David, you touched on your local government experience. We had a participant ask a question that kind of touches on this macro-level conversation we’ve started. And it’s from a mutual friend that we have. And he asks, “How do we reverse and cure the problem of local governments, even school boards, now seeing their elections and policymaking becoming more nationalized and actions becoming more partisan in an us-versus-them sense—since in many local governments, individuals are elected without partisan affiliation?”
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Well, that’s the first thing. Don’t pass a law in Virginia that allows those people to put their D or R on the ballot. There are states right now—primarily Republican states, I have to say—that are trying to get people to identify their party affiliation when they run for the school board. That will be a disaster because that’ll further politicize something that is already overly political.
The other thing is we have to guard against the state trying to come in and dictate to local bodies what they should or should not be doing. Governor Youngkin—he’s had a couple of oops moments here, where maybe not out of political machinations or whatever you call it—he puts through a couple of executive orders that now it turns out legally he’s got some problems with. And I think that the executive branch of government has to be very careful not to overstep its bounds. Legislatures will come up and try to restrict them if they do that.
Okay, so back to the local government issue. First, you’ve got to keep those Ds and Rs identifications off. Secondly, you’ve got to give people the ability to solve problems that are unique to their communities. And I think if we give them some flexibility, we’ll help them. That’s not to say that it’s still not going to be nationalized. Still, elements of that’ll creep in. But if we give them the ability to solve the problems that are unique to their communities with their unique solutions, I think we’ll be better off.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Well, I appreciate the question from the participant. I certainly encourage more participants to use the online chat to ask questions of David. And we’ll get to those as we go through our conversation. Just to digress briefly on your response, David. I come from a county, Hanover, which still maintains appointed school boards. There are only a couple left in the Commonwealth. Has adding more elections and more democracy, if you will, to that level changed any outcomes? Is the appointed process preferable now, based on your answer of the further nationalization of politics at all levels?
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Great question and one that, as an elected official at the local level, I had to deal with. Because when I was on the City Council, we got to appoint our school board members. And there was always some degree of politics in it; but from personal experience, we were looking for people with sound judgments that didn’t have axes to grind. We didn’t care about their politics. In fact, we were trying to appoint a diverse body.
Once you went to elected school boards, you had no control. The City Council had no control over who got elected to school boards. I’m kind of old school. In some ways, I’d like to go back to appointed school boards because I think that might take some of the politics out of it.
The analogy at the state level is judges. We’re one of the few states where judges are not elected.
We select judges in Virginia, and I don’t know, maybe I spent too much time in the legislature, but I think it’s a pretty good process. Now there has been a tendency to try to stock the judiciary with certain people, primarily former prosecutors in Virginia. But still, I think there’s a sense that maybe it’s a better way than having to offer yourself for election, having to raise incredible amounts of money that potentially could create problems in terms of your judicial responsibility and conflicts of interest, and further politicizing the judiciary in ways we don’t want.
So you sort of have these contrasts in America, where some people say majoritarianism is the way to go, and you ought to elect everybody. And other people say, well, in finding the best people for the job, maybe to some degree appointments by elected leaders makes more sense.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: I tend to agree with you, David, and share that—as you described—old-school view. It’s particularly important—not to get too much into the weeds—but school boards don’t have the power of the purse either. So when you have elected representatives making commitments regarding spending, but only make spending recommendations and don’t actually raise the revenue or make the ultimate decisions on budgets, it poses some challenges.
You referenced executive orders and Governor Youngkin. Unquestionably, the use of executive orders has increased—over I would say the past two decades at the federal level—in response to growing polarization and gridlock in Congress. More recently, due to states’ statutory authority here in Virginia and the inability of state legislatures to respond rapidly to emergencies (we’re a part-time legislature in Virginia) executive orders by governors have also become more prevalent. I just say that their use now is notwithstanding the legislature. And I think that is a real problem, and it poses challenges to—I think—the good maintenance of government, the separation of powers between branches.
You use a great terminology in your book about the prerogatives of power. And so I’d ask you—and I’m going to follow up with a participant question on this same point—are the prerogatives of power—and you can separate federal and state—are they out of balance? And what is the impact and sort of state of federalism right now?
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Well, the book starts—the first chapter of the book is about the pandemic because it was written as the pandemic was unfolding. And for those of you who don’t remember in Virginia, the pandemic hit just as the Assembly was wrapping up its session. And there weren’t—there wasn’t really a case in Virginia until right about that time. And throughout the country—if you want to understand how states matter, the pandemic proves it to you. Because with the exception of Operation Warp Speed at the federal level, where Trump (to his credit) put together a group of people who ended up producing vaccines faster than they ever would’ve thought we could do, most of the fight on the pandemic has occurred at the state level. It’s occurred with state emergency orders being issued by governors. It’s occurred at the health departments. It’s occurred with mandates one way or the other. And governors had tremendous power in this situation, and it creates a very interesting dynamic because this was largely a governors’ show in terms of the pandemic.
If people are interested in reading about this and they go to my website, DavidToscano.com, they can see a recent post about how the legislatures are now saying, “Hold on here. Emergency order is okay, but we want to be part of this game. We make the laws.” And the emergency orders in the pandemic allowed governors to suspend the laws or change regulations.
And Louise Lucas said the other day—Senator Louise Lucas said the other day, “Governor, we make the laws. Wake up.” But it could just as easily have been sent by a Republican legislator in response to Governor Northam or other parties in response to their governors in other states. It’s not uniquely Democratic or Republican. This is an issue that transcends party lines and has to do with the basic balance of power—separation of powers—within our states.
So now legislators are now starting to place legislative constraints on governors’ emergency powers. I hope the Virginia General Assembly and Governor Youngkin will convene a group of people—smart lawyers on both sides of the aisle—to say, look, we’ve got to tweak this to make sure it makes sense and so the legislature can be involved in future emergencies. Because there are likely to be more of them like this.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: I think you’re exactly right, and there’s a certain balance that has to be struck there between the powers but also with the understanding that you have to—based on emergency—have certain nimbleness in the law. In order to act with the police power that’s inherent with the state to protect one’s health, safety, welfare, etcetera as a governor. And at the same time not have the governor enjoy plenary power, basically, which is what we have today.
But I don’t think it has been tested like it has, certainly, in the last two years. And it hearkens back probably to some colonial angst about royal governors, in fact. And I’m sure those are points where Jefferson and Henry would have agreed.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Yeah, I think that’s very true. But think about this. I don’t think there’s an example in the United States where the governors have actually consulted legislatures during these emergency orders. I think if that had happened early on in the process, maybe things like mandates might not have been as politicized. It’s hard to say. But the legislature loves its prerogatives, and it doesn’t like the executive tramping over them, whether you’re a Democratic legislator with a Republican governor or a Republican legislature with a Democratic governor.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Well, the state legislature certainly enjoys its prerogatives with respect to its political subdivisions as well, David. And you touch on localities and its impact throughout your book as well. Virginia and other states have a Dillon Rule that can be compared to a home rule structure. But this is another example where separation of powers between branches and political subdivisions are checked and tested regularly.
And I recall when we were serving, localities blamed the state, but then the states blamed the federal government. The feds blame each other when things aren’t going well. Can you touch on the Dillon Rule? Is it working? Is it the best system for Virginia compared to all the rest?
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Well, it’s interesting. The localities blame the state, everybody blames each other, and nobody understands the rules anyway. I mean, how many times has an elected official—I’ve experienced it myself—where people come to the body, the City Council or the Board of Supervisors, and say, “Will you do this?” And our response is, “We can’t do it. The state won’t let us.” Right? That’s a really easy response for a local politician because then they don’t have to do it. They just blame the state.
To some extent that is true, but the flipside of course is that there’s some value in having uniformity across a state. That’s the argument for a Dillon Rule. That you don’t want to have fifteen different jurisdictions with fifteen different minimum wage ordinances. Or you want to have consistency in how we enforce our stormwater management. There are arguments for consistency.
At the same time, there are some problems that are so unique that they lend themselves to a local decision. And I think mask mandates is one of them. If you are a school division in Charlottesville, and you think mask mandates are best for your community, why shouldn’t you be able to make that decision? If you’re in Rockingham County, you conclude that you shouldn’t. Well, maybe you should be able to make that decision too. There should be some flexibility.
And right now, the way this works, unless the state allows you to do something in Virginia—unless the state allows a locality to do it—you can’t do it. That’s different from a home rule state, like Texas has some elements of home rule in it and some of their bigger cities can do basically what they want. But that’s not the end of the issue because Texas can also preempt localities from doing something. And that’s what’s happening in Texas now, where the governor and the legislature are trying to prevent certain localities from enacting mask mandates, even though those localities may think it’s in their interest.
So it all gets very complicated. I think it would be a better system if we basically had given localities greater options to control their own destiny. And then if the state felt like they had to get involved, enact some preemption that says you can’t do that—it’s not good for the state as a whole.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Uniformity is important, as you described. I’m recalling that one of my very first votes was on a grass cutting bill. I believe you mention that in your book. And it was something that I was sort of philosophically opposed to—you know—the government coming onto your property and cutting your grass and then sending you a bill for it. I voted against it, and it requires a particular number of votes to pass—not just fifty-one votes. And it was being carried by my colleague, the senior delegate from Hanover who recently passed, Frank Hargrove. And he was doing it by request, which is a special designation that members place on the bills they file that they carry for their jurisdiction. And I remember he brought it back and then carried it over to the next day. And in the meantime, I had a very special note from him on my desk, instructing me on how I should rethink the matter. But it was a great learning experience for a young delegate.
Now that power has been delegated to all localities, and our current assembly doesn’t have to deal with such pedantic issues.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Can I build on that briefly?
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Sure.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: This is very serious business. States—it’s very serious business. What’s happening with redistricting, voting rights, all that—it’s very serious. But one of the other things that’s fun about states is that you have these weird things that happen in different states. And people don’t understand that one person can come down to the General Assembly and testify on a bill and basically defeat the bill because nobody else knows anything about the bill and it’s not that important.
And you also have things like this weed ordinance. Who would think that that would be a major issue in any state government? And yet we would get these bills every single year trying to add a locality to the list of those who were allowed to come on your property, cut your grass, and send you a bill. Eventually, we got rid of that.
You have really weird things happen in states like naming the state rock or the state reptile. It is fun to watch the states, in addition to it being serious business.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Yeah, I believe I saw a note recently that there is not a state cheese for Virginia, and that’s possibly being considered this session—so very important matters going on in Richmond.
You know David, in your book you highlight that while we have uniformity and sort of application of law, Virginia is an incredibly diverse state in terms of its populace, in terms of concentrations of wealth, access to healthcare, access to quality education. There are areas of the state with limited access to resources where residents view the world through a cultural lens—many who believe their world is collapsing. They’ve got limited means to become more socially mobile.
Your book describes this point of view as individuals who are strangers in their own land, afraid, resentful, displaced. From your perspective, having served at local and state levels, how is this current sort of cultural alienation affecting how states govern?
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Well, it’s having a pretty dramatic effect because things seem to be fissuring even more than they used to be. And part of that, frankly, is inequality that exists within states. Virginia has, I think, maybe a greater degree of inequality between the northern regions of the state and the southern regions than maybe any other state in the country. But these things occur in every state. How many times have you heard about downstate Illinois versus the Chicago area? Upstate New York versus New York proper?
So you have these fissures, and they seem to be exacerbated because of globalization—these are things that are somewhat out of our control—and automation. And it becomes more of a challenge for elected officials to realize that, as we say in Virginia, we’re a commonwealth. We’re trying to help everyone in the Commonwealth thrive.
And then you throw in the cultural mix. In Virginia, it’s guns, it’s immigration, it’s abortion. You throw in the cultural mix, and that makes it more difficult. Because sometimes people who could be helped by a state action—let’s take Medicaid expansion is a good one because we went through those debates for how many years before Virginia took it on?
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Five years.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Medicaid expansion had a greater impact on people who vote Republican in rural areas of the Commonwealth than any place else, and yet it had been the Democrats that had been pushing it for so long, and the people in the Southwest didn’t think it was really all that good for them anyway.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Well even in Metro Richmond, David, that was my argument.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Exactly. So you have these things that are happening, and they’re happening all around the country. And it does point, again, to the need to show up at places where you’re not expected to be, talk about things that you’re not expected to talk about. Don’t get so wedded to an ideological position that you can’t recognize that some people have a legitimate point of view, and you have to accommodate it.
I’m from Charlottesville. It’s probably one of the most anti-gun places in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I don’t think that people who live in rural parts of Virginia who are worried about their firearms being taken away are evil people. They are not. They are people who’ve grown up in a culture that has become used to this, and they are fearful for a lot of different reasons about where the country is going. Those folks have to be engaged, just like they have to engage us because we’re worried about the next school shooting.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Right. Well, we certainly have to all play a role in building bridges across those divides and healing cultural wounds because ultimately it does affect the republic. And you make special mention, I think, throughout your book that we are a republic. It’s important to remember—and the distinction between that and direct democracy. Can you build on your thoughts about the cultural landscape and then how the quote-unquote bipartisan redistricting process came out? And then maybe a bit of a forecast on whether that will help heal some of these wounds or bridge those divides.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: Right. Well, as we’ve understood historically, redistricting of course is a uniquely state-run operation. I don’t know how many people have implied to you over the years, Chris, that the lines for Congress are drawn by the people who sit in Congress—lots of people. And that’s totally false. The lines are all drawn by state legislatures.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: And David, you remember, that was the only time we ever saw our representatives come to the General Assembly.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: That’s right. So the state legislatures control the redistricting process. And they can either exacerbate polarization or not, depending on what they do. Now what has happened in Virginia over the years, as has happened in some Democratic-leaning states, is that until we changed our constitution, the legislatures were drawing lines where they were packing Republican votes into one district and Democratic votes into another district. In Virginia, they were packing and creating more Republican districts in Virginia.
But the result of that is that the extremes of both parties tend to win these certain districts and are more beholden to the base of both parties. So when people come down to Richmond, they’re sort of locked down in their positions, and it’s very hard for them to move to the center where the really good policy can be made. And that was happening all over the country.
So in Virginia, people started pushing for an independent or nonpartisan redistricting process to take the politicians out of it. What we got was a quasi-independent process where politicians were still there at the table and still had some kind of control over it, and it didn’t lead us to anything except that the Virginia Supreme Court drew the districts. How that’s going to end up it’s not clear yet. We haven’t had an election with the new lines that are drawn by the Virginia Supreme Court.
You have these redistricting commissions all across the country. I think it’s maybe eleven or twelve places now that have them. They’ve had mixed results. There have been some places where it works very well, and there are some places that have some degree of partisanship built in, and it hasn’t worked very well. So we’re going to see.
I think I tend to support the independent redistricting approach because the politicians aren’t in the room. But it’s hard to get a genuinely independent redistricting commission.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: I guess the proof is going to be in the pudding. We’re still waiting on the results of some pending litigation on whether the members will be running in a bye year in between and not waiting for the natural cycle to occur. So we have to stay tuned for that. And maybe you can touch on a bit of this concept of redistricting and its impacts in your volume two. I would certainly continue to encourage all of our audience to pick up a copy of your book.
I noted that while there is a lot to be concerned about, the general takeaway that I had from your tone, even on today’s forum, is that we should remain optimistic. That we maintain the capacity and the capability to solve our own problems and that the ongoing tension and testing of the framework, whether it’s federal and state or state and local, is possibly really part of the dynamic design that the founding generation established for us and that we have worked over centuries to make more perfect. Maybe we should just embrace this gray. It’s not just black and white. We sort of live in that tension. Am I interpreting you accurately, David?
DAVID J. TOSCANO: I think you’re right. There are a lot of good things to celebrate, and one of them is that the states are all very different, and they have different state constitutions. Who would ever think that while the US Constitution doesn’t include in it a right to vote that every state constitution does? Or that some state constitutions include protections for the environment, where the federal constitution doesn’t have that. The right to an education. That’s not in the federal constitution, but it’s in almost every state constitution.
So there are opportunities at the state level and the judicial area to push for change that might be good for each individual state, depending on their unique situations. There are a lot of facts out there to lead to optimism, but they’re all premised on the notion of people being engaged and understanding how their states operate and participate in the political process. Otherwise, it’s easy to lose democracy.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Absolutely, David. And if people read your book, I think they will have an even deeper understanding of how the states matter and how this is the fight of our lives, as you say. And I can’t thank you enough for taking your own time to put pen to paper and provide the public with so much data, great anecdotes, examples, and the tool that a citizen can use to make a difference and be engaged in state government—to make, at least from our perspective, say the Commonwealth a better place or their own state a better place.
So thank you. I thank everyone who has tuned in. I’d ask that you consider buying David’s book from your local bookseller or through the links on VaBook.org. You can also check out virtual events in the future or even watch past events from the Virginia Festival of the Book at that same website: VaBook.org. That’s VaBook.org. David, great to see you, and I hope I see you in person at some point in the near future.
DAVID J. TOSCANO: I hope so too. It’s been a joy to do this. Thank you very much.
CHRISTOPHER K. PEACE: Thank you.