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Former Virginia lawmakers David Toscano, Bill Howell talk partisanship and pizza at UVa

In a panel conversation at the University of Virginia meant to reveal the secrets of “effective lawmaking,” David Toscano started by praising pizza.

“Pizza is important in legislatures,” said the Charlottesville Democrat who served as minority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates from 2011 to 2018. “Eating pizza was a way people got to know each other and break down some of the partisanship.”

On Monday, Toscano took the stage at Garrett Hall alongside Bill Howell, a Northern Virginia Republican who served as speaker of the House from 2003 until his retirement in 2018.

Their conversation was part of a UVa Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy event titled, “Effective Lawmaking in Virginia: Past, Present and future.” It was billed as an opportunity for students and the broader public to learn how today’s General Assembly can accomplish policy priorities in a highly polarized political climate.

Pizza, and the conversations it can generate at late-night meetings, has historically been a helpful tool for tearing down barriers between polarized politicians, Toscano said.

Overcoming polarization is important for any legislative body that wants to get things done, but over the course of the past few decades the gap between Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative has widened in the U.S.

An index produced by Voteview, an organization that sorts lawmakers based on how their voting records overlap with their peers, found that gap hit a record high in the U.S. Congress last year. Typically, the index has varied between 0.5 and 0.85; as of last year, it stood at roughly 0.9 in both chambers of Congress.

Richmond has not been immune from that same polarization.

“We used to talk about the Virginia Way and said, ‘We’re not like those people up in Washington. We get stuff done, and we work together,’” Howell recalled at Monday’s dialogue. “And I’m not so sure I can say that anymore.”

For all the dysfunction and gridlock in Washington, state legislatures have often been able to stay above the partisan fray, finding ways to have productive sessions and pass laws, the two men said. But that’s getting harder for state houses, including the Virginia General Assembly.

The Virginia Way, referenced by Howell, has long been the political philosophy in the commonwealth: a call to rise above petty fights and frivolity.

“I’m concerned about the lack of civility that we’re seeing today that I think we used to have,” Howell said.

Part of that can be traced to changing technology and how constituents communicate with representatives.

When Howell first joined the General Assembly in 1988, he said he might receive 10 letters a week from constituents. When he left office five years ago, he was getting upwards of 80 emails a day, not just from constituents but from people all over the country, he said.

“It’s really changed, I think, the way that legislators look at different bills. If you get 40 people from back home sending an email saying, ‘You need to do this,’ or, ‘You don’t need to do that,’ you pay attention to it,” Howell said.

Toscano pointed to the decline in local legacy media — newspaper, radio and television — and the consequent decline in statehouse reporters, not just in Richmond but in capitals nationwide.

“When I first came in, there would be 10 or 12 reporters on the back row every single day, and they’d be from Virginia Beach, and they’d be from Charlottesville, and they’d be from Richmond, Northern Virginia, the Washington Post. It’s not like that anymore,” Toscano said. “And as the traditional media has fallen away, people look for their news basically by going to national outlets. And what that is doing is nationalizing the politics within the statehouse. And it’s happening all over the country.”

While technology has made it easier for legislators to communicate with their constituents, having fewer media outlets visiting Richmond has also made it more challenging. In his 14 years representing the 57th District, which included all of Charlottesville and parts of Albemarle County, Toscano remembers having roughly six television outlets and newspapers covering his every move. That’s no longer the case.

Howell suggested that there is less willingness today for Virginia’s legislators to cooperate with officials in the opposite party. Both he and Toscano spoke of a 2013 transportation bill, the first road and rail bill the commonwealth had passed in decades; it did so with bipartisan support.

Neither party had the votes to pass it on their own, so Toscano, Howell and others had to work together to get it across the finish line. Howell remembers some his Republican colleagues fretting over the possibility of Democrats voting for the bill. He faced a primary challenger after it passed successfully.

“But we just went ahead and did it. It was the right thing to do,” Howell said. “I really learned a good lesson from that about being able to work across the aisle, and I wish we could see more of it today. But we don’t seem to.”

Toscano chimed in, quoting the Rolling Stones.

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need. So we went ahead and supported that,” he said of the transportation bill. “Now contrast that with what’s going on in Washington right now.”

He pointed to recent news that President Biden and Congress had put together a package to address the immigration crisis at the nation’s southern border, something that has been a Republican rallying cry for years. But former President Donald Trump reportedly did not want to see Biden get credit and asked Republicans to vote against it. As of Tuesday, it was primed to fail without GOP support.

“So that’s how Virginia works a little bit differently than say the federal government. With federal government, everything is politics, and sometimes they lose track of the policy,” he said.

That’s not to say everything was or is perfect in Virginia’s governing body. Toscano, for instance, remembers being in the House when Republicans had the majority.

“Trying to get your bills passed was a very difficult process, even if the bills were innocuous,” he said. “But you learn your way around and you learn how to get things passed over time.”

Because most of Monday’s crowd consisted of students, Toscano and Howell’s audience was of a generation accustomed to seeing bitter partisanship in politics. That’s a view Toscano believes has trickled down from Washington.

“If any of them went to Richmond just to view a session of the General Assembly, I think they’d have a different view,” Toscano told The Daily Progress after the event as students filed out of the room. “Now it wouldn’t be perfect because we are polarized in Virginia too, but it would be better than what they see in Washington.”

Why do state legislatures tend to be less partisan? Toscano, who served on Charlottesville City Council from 1990 to 2002, offered that it’s partly because Virginia legislators have day jobs; they aren’t full-time politicians.

“They’re closer to the people,” he said. “And a lot of them came out of local government where you have to get along better to get things done.”

And the issues that a state official deals with typically aren’t as polarizing as national ones. How to fund schools, for instance, isn’t as nationalized as issues such as gun or abortion restrictions — though even that has changed in recent years.

With the federal government largely in gridlock, and with the U.S. Supreme Court deferring to states on issues such as abortion, Toscano believes there is an opportunity for statehouses across the nation to take the lead and deliver policies that benefit voters.

“States are going to have to make a lot more decisions that the federal government might have made in the past, so there are opportunities as a state that don’t exist at the federal level for people to get things done,” he said.


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