Though many Americans focus their attention on the national political scene, with his new book, political veteran David J. Toscano hopes to shift that engagement to where he says it really matters: state governments.
Toscano, a Democrat, was a member of the Charlottesville City Council from 1990 to 2002, serving as mayor from 1994 to 1996. After that, he held the 57th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he was minority leader from 2011 to 2018.
It’s through this lens of public service that Toscano wrote “Fighting Political Gridlock: How States Shape Our Nation and Our Lives,” which spotlights the sometimes overlooked efforts of state governments and their guiding impact on the nation.
In the book, Toscano details how various states are handling a broad range of issues, from the COVID-19 pandemic and voting rights to criminal justice and culture wars.
“Most people like to focus their attention on the national scene, what’s happening in Congress and what’s happening with the presidency,” Toscano said. “And while those institutions are more gridlocked now than ever before, there are still a lot of very important things happening in the states that both affect the quality of our lives and, frankly, the course of the country.”
Much of the book is guided by his own experiences in both the legislature and working as an attorney, Toscano said. Each year that he served in the House of Delegates, Toscano said he kept a detailed journal about his experiences and perceptions, much of which he was able to return to when writing the book.
Both in conversation and in the book, Toscano pointed to various ways state governments manage to control the political course of the country, not the least of which being how congressional district lines are drawn. Citing the Virginia state government, which until recently had a majority Republican legislature despite years of Democrats holding the highest statewide offices, Toscano said the party in control can design the districts to benefit itself.
“So you can see that even though a state may have a majority Democratic voting position, if its House and Senate composition is Republican, they can draw lines that disadvantage the Democrats,” he said. “You see that in other states, like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, that all have Democratic governors but the lines drawn by the legislature were such that Republicans control it.”
By controlling a state’s legislature, Toscano said the majority party is able to determine voting laws that impact people more directly than many federal laws. These efforts can include setting voter ID laws, determining how much early voting is permitted, whether there will be mobile voting sites and other rules.
Voting laws represent a huge battle going on now in many states, Toscano said, and ultimately those state legislatures are going to make a big difference in who ends up elected to Congress.
“Fighting Political Gridlock” also considers changes to the electorate’s perspective, which Toscano argues is now more politicized and aligned more with a particular party than any individual. This is at least partially tied to the decline of local news media, he said, which has led to consumers turning to larger national media outlets for information.
“Whether it’s MSNBC, Fox, CNN, or The Washington Post, we have people basically segmenting themselves into two separate tribes: one that is the Democratic Party and the other that’s the Republican Party,” he said. “How do we bring it back to the days off crossover and compromise? Well, that’s going to be difficult because we leaders in both parties essentially have to try to find ways to break down that polarization, and that’s gonna take a while.”
Though a veteran of public service, Toscano said he learned a lot while writing the book, including the importance and nuanced variations of state constitutions. One of these differences is the ability in some states for citizens to draft an initiative petition, a petition signed by a certain number of registered voters that can force a state government to enact a law or hold a public vote.
“It just sets up different dynamics in different states and explains why some states act one way and other states act another,” he said. “I knew some of these nuances when I went to Richmond, but I didn’t really appreciate them in quite the same way as I did when I started writing this book.”
Toscano said he hopes the book reaches a broad audience and not just the expected academics and political junkies. By pairing political analysis with stories and experiences from his own time in the Virginia General Assembly, he said he has written something that is less focused on the academic framing of policymaking and more on the importance of personalities in passing legislation.
“The big takeaway is, I hope, that [“Fighting Political Gridlock”] gets people more focused on state governments around the country, recognizing that they make a huge difference in what the country looks like and how their lives are affected,” he said.
The book is published by the University of Virginia Press and will be released online and in bookstores Tuesday.