Nothing puts a spring in the step of legislators heading to Richmond to do the people’s business like the fact that it’s an election year, and all 140 members of the General Assembly are up for reelection. Oh, and it’s the 400th year since the colonies’ first legislative body, the House of Burgesses, met in Jamestown in 1619, adding historical significance to this year’s session.
“I still get a tingle when I walk into that building and look at that statuary,” says state Senator Creigh Deeds, the area’s longest-serving legislator. He’s marking his 28th session this year.
Charlottesville and Albemarle are represented by four delegates and two senators who have racked up a lot of seniority, and with longevity comes power. Delegate David Toscano from the 57th District, which includes Charlottesville and part of Albemarle, was House minority leader until this past December.
Delegate Steve Landes, who’s there for his 24th session representing his mostly Shenandoah Valley 25th District, which includes a slice of western Albemarle, is chair of the Education Committee, as well as vice chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
And the 58th District’s Rob Bell, now in his 18th session representing eastern and northern Albemarle, chairs Courts of Justice.
After years of Republican domination in the General Assembly, last year saw the GOP with a slim two-member majority in each house. Perhaps it was the looming election and Dem midterm victories that led Governor Ralph Northam to propose a bold agenda on gun safety—including universal background checks, extreme-risk protective orders, reinstating the one-handgun-a-month law, an assault weapons ban, prevention of child access to guns, and stricter regulations on reporting lost or stolen weapons.
He’s also called for voting reform that includes instituting no-excuse absentee voting, abolishing the photo ID requirement, and limiting campaign contributions.
Two years ago, neither gun safety nor measures making it easier to vote would have stood a prayer. Not that they will succeed this year.
Stephen Farnsworth, political analyst at the University of Mary Washington, says, “While passage is not impossible, odds are the most Democrats can hope for with those measures is that they will become part of a rallying cry for the party during the 2019 Virginia midterm elections. Gun control is popular, particularly in the suburbs, where Democrats have had a great deal of success in recent elections.”
Farnsworth also says there might be some opportunity for agreement along the lines of no-excuse-required absentee voting.
More money, more problems
“The budget is always the biggest issue,” says Bell. This year’s short, 45-day session is when adjustments are made to the biennial plan. “Before we can do that we have to address conformity with the federal tax law.”
The state expects to reap an estimated $1.2 billion windfall from federal tax changes that double the standard deduction. Unfortunately for Virginians, if you don’t itemize on federal filings, you can’t itemize state returns.
“How do we handle problems generated by the Trump tax package that transferred wealth to the wealthy?” queries Toscano. “Some Virginia taxpayers will pay more.”
“We can’t write the budget until we figure that out,” says Bell. “Republicans want to return the money.”
Northam wants to refund some of that to households making less than $54,000, and use the rest to invest in major state initiatives, such as teacher pay and rural broadband.
Says Farnsworth, “During this session, the Republicans are going to want to focus on something they can take to the voters in November. The GOP’s first choice would be some form of a tax cut to deal with the windfall the state will be getting because of changes in federal tax laws. There’s an opportunity for a bipartisan deal here—something for the rainy day fund, something for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and something for a tax cut.”
He thinks some Republicans are ready to support the Equal Rights Amendment as part of a strategy to make the party more appealing in the suburbs, where it’s struggled lately. “But what to do with that windfall is likely to be the most important things the legislature deals with this year,” says Farnsworth.
Another issue that may have a glimmer of a chance is redistricting reform, particularly with a federal court ordering Virginia to redraw racially gerrymandered districts.
Deeds has carried redistricting bills just about every year since he was first elected to the Senate in 2001. “My sense is you can do something this year,” he says. “Republicans know they could lose and they’ll want some rules to protect the minority.”
He prefers a nonpartisan commission that “leaves the legislature out of it.”
Landes, on the other hand, believes redistricting is the responsibility of the legislature. He supports a politically neutral, race-blind effort and doesn’t want it handed over to “an unelected body.”
Bob Gibson is co-chair of the bipartisan advisory committee for OneVirginia2021: Virginians for Fair Redistricting, and he’s not optimistic about this year’s chances of getting it out of the Privileges and Elections Committee. That committee’s chair, Republican Mark Cole of Fredericksburg, is “dead set against nonpartisan redistricting,” he says. Subcommittees are where legislation is buried, and previous gerrymandering reform has died in 7:30am Republican-majority meetings, he says.
“If they could ever get it out of committee and onto the floor, I think it would have a good chance,” says Gibson.
Gaming is also getting buzz, particularly in areas that are struggling like Danville, Bristol, and Portsmouth, says Deeds. “Economically there’s not much going on there. Gambling is seen as an idea that could generate tax revenue and jobs.”
And now that some Native American tribes have gotten federal recognition, Landes says, “They’re going to move forward.” He urges caution. “I don’t see doing it in every locality in the state.”
Both Deeds and Landes, whose districts are in the western part of the state, are onboard with investing in Interstate 81, although that could mean tolls. “I-81 is going to get some serious attention,” promises Deeds.
It might be his 28th time, but being a state legislator still excites Deeds. “The history of that place still thrills me, that I have a chance to be a part of that.”
What your local legislators are up to
We checked in with our six—count ’em—six legislators to see what they’re working on this session.
House of Delegates
David Toscano (D)
Toscano is going a little more progressive this session now that the mantle of minority leader has been lifted. The bills he carried last year stemming from August 12 were shot down, but he’s trying again. Since state law prohibits the removal of war memorials, he’s written a narrower bill that would allow localities to remove Confederate statues. He’s also carrying a bill that Attorney General Mark Herring requested that restricts firearms at events that have permits.
“Both of those bills are going to have a hard time,” acknowledges Toscano. “They’re going to be sent to committees headed by rural Republicans.”
Perhaps more well-received will be another bill to make the use of flamethrowers to intimidate a Class 6 felony.
Charlottesville was hit with the highest health insurance rates in the country last year, and Toscano has a bill that would give the State Corporation Commission more teeth to regulate astronomical increases.
And Dominion probably won’t like his legislation that prohibits publicly regulated electric utilities from making political donations greater than $500.
Rob Bell (R)
Bell has worked with Senator Creigh Deeds on mental health issues since the tragic death of Deeds’ son in 2013, and he continues to focus on that. This year he’s concentrating on the intersection of criminal justice and mental illness.
“We want to divert the mentally ill from jail in the first place,” he says. But if in jail, “we want to coordinate their care in jail and after they get out.” He’s carrying a bill that sets standards of care while incarcerated and regulates discharge planning to make sure progress isn’t lost once an inmate is released, he says.
Bell also sits on the Virginia State Crime Commission and is perturbed by the “extraordinary, multi-hundreds of thousands” of fingerprints missing from the state’s database.
Matt Fariss (R)
Rustburg resident Fariss is a cattle farmer, and he wants to make it easier for farmers to shoot nuisance animals on private land without having to get out of their trucks. “If you have vultures and coyotes bothering a cow while calving, and you have to pull up and get out of the truck before firing, that gives them a lot of time for flight,” he explains.
He also wants to toughen the penalty for passing a stopped school bus, and to make it easier to register as a tow truck driver even with a violent crime or driving under the influence conviction—if it happened 10 or more years ago. “Everyone needs a second chance,” he says.
Fariss says he’s planning to seek a fifth term. “My wife insists I run for reelection so she gets a six- or nine-week vacation every year.”
Steve Landes (R)
Landes is chair of the Education Committee, and he usually has bills dealing with education. “Two are recommendations from the select committee on school safety,” he says. One bill moves election primary dates to the third Tuesday in June so there aren’t a lot of non-students on school grounds (presumably on the assumption that voters are dangerous). The other requires school counselors to spend 80 percent of their time actually counseling. “That’s very important to head off problems,” he says.
One bill makes changes in the Virginia529 college savings plan that he says could help parents and grandparents who contribute save $3,000 a year.
Landes is also keen on funding early childhood education and improvements to I-81. “Eighty percent of what we do is not a Republican or Democratic issue,” he says. “It’s what the government should do.”
Creigh Deeds (D)
As a senator, Deeds gets to carry 25 bills compared to the House of Delegates limit of 15 during the short session.
Not surprisingly, several focus on mental health, including two that require training standards for law enforcement, school resource officers, and school administrators.
Like Toscano, Deeds has a bill that limits firearms at events that require a permit. He also sponsors one that would add Charlottesville and Albemarle to localities that can restrict certain firearms in public places.
In addition to his perennial redistricting bills, this year Deeds is carrying a constitutional amendment that says an interstate natural gas pipeline is not considered a public service when exercising eminent domain. “That could protect people from some of the abuses that have been alleged,” he says.
Bryce Reeves (R)
Eastern Albemarle makes up a pretty small part of Reeves’ mostly Spotsylvania district, so maybe that’s why he didn’t respond to multiple requests from C-VILLE.
We can tell you that he’s running for reelection, and he reports an “A+” rating from the NRA.
Minority Report: Toscano looks back on seven years as Dem leader
Leading the Democratic caucus in the overwhelmingly Republican House of Delegates was not a job that many coveted back in 2011, when Delegate David Toscano was elected minority leader.
Democrats had been drubbed in that year’s election, and even former minority leader Ward Armstrong lost his seat. In the 100- member body, “I came in as leader and there were 32 Democrats,” remembers Toscano, 68.
It was quite a different picture when Toscano resigned the leadership position in December. Fifteen Dems unseated Republicans in 2017, and if not for losing a random drawing, the party would have had parity with the GOP. Even at 49-51, the change was resounding enough that Toscano started calling himself “Democratic leader” rather than minority leader.
“With 49, you can do things you never could have done in the past,” says Toscano, such as Medicaid expansion, a Dem dream for years, which passed last spring.
For much of his term as leader, Democrats were vastly outnumbered in the House, which meant they didn’t control committees and had little chance of passing legislation, even when Terry McAuliffe won the governor’s race in 2013.
“I like to think we did the best we could,” says Toscano. In 2015, Dems picked up two more seats, and with 34 members, were able to prevent the majority Republicans from overturning McAuliffe’s veto, which he used more than any Virginia governor. By keeping the caucus together, Dems were able to sustain all of McAuliffe’s vetoes. “I’m very proud of that,” says Toscano.
Delegate Steve Landes, who was a Republican caucus leader in the early 2000s, says, “Keeping everyone together when they’ve got divergent views is not easy.”
Toscano, says Landes, “played an aggressive advocate for his caucus, but he did it in a way that people in our caucus had a great deal of respect for him.” And Landes doesn’t think Toscano gets enough credit for upping the number of Democrats in the House in 2017.
Some of the newly elected Dems believed that if more had been done to support Democratic candidates, they could have gained the majority. Last summer, there was a challenge to Toscano’s leadership, but it went nowhere.
Toscano initially said he would remain leader through the 2019 session and then turn over the reins to someone else. But in December, the caucus elected Eileen Filler-Corn as the new minority leader.
“I’m fine with that,” says Toscano. “I [could] enjoy the holidays with my family.”
Toscano tried to get out of the leadership role before. He resigned in 2015, citing the time and energy the job took and the effect it had on his family and law practice. A day later, he was back on the job when caucus members clamored for him to stay and said they’d help ease the burden.
When he was first elected minority leader, back in November 2011, Toscano had a short learning curve without the former leader there to guide him. “So much comes at you so fast, you can hardly think,” he says. “You have to be on your toes, especially on the floor. And where you’re in the minority, you have to pick your fights.”
You also have to be willing to work hard. Delegate Rob Bell noticed that Toscano often was at work late at night. “I think David was always a good-faith negotiator. He was a fierce advocate for his positions. And he enjoyed the essence of lawmaking.”
Says Bell, “It’s harder to be minority leader than majority leader.”
Matt Fariss, the third Republican who represents Albemarle, also says he had a good working relationship with Toscano. “He was a gentleman,” says Fariss, who is looking forward to working with the new minority leader.
Filler-Corn calls Toscano the “leader emeritus” and says she’ll continue to rely on his knowledge and expertise. “David has been a wonderful friend, colleague, and partner ever since I first came to the House of Delegates. I have learned a great deal from watching him and he has been a valuable resource for me as I transition into my new role as Democratic leader in the House,” she says.
Toscano foresees benefits to not being the leader, including fewer meetings to attend. “I’m free to do my own thing as delegate,” he says. “As leader, I had to be more careful about what I introduced because I represented the whole state. Now I can be more progressive.”
State Senator Creigh Deeds, who encouraged Toscano to run for the job in 2011, echoes the dilemma of the party leader. “You’re responsible not just to constituents, but to the caucus as well.”
He says, “David has brought the right skill level to the job. He did a phenomenal job as a fundraiser.”
Toscano was elected to Charlottesville City Council in 1990 and served for 12 years, including a stint as mayor. His first run for office was for Congress in 1982 as a member of the Citizen’s Party, a race he resoundingly lost.
Since his days as a bearded firebrand, Toscano says he has a lot more gray hair and he’s more mindful of the complexity of policymaking, especially the importance of making alliances to get initiatives passed.
“I used to think if I made a good speech or wrote a good article, it would have an impact,” he says. “It’s a lot more complicated than I thought.”
He’s also come to appreciate “the beauty of checks and balances” in our system of government. “I’m sometimes frustrated at how slow it can be to make changes. Then you see a Trump in office and see how fast these things can swing without checks and balances.”
Although he’s previously said he would run for reelection, Toscano now says he’s going to see what the session looks like not being leader, and make up his mind in February. Meanwhile, UVA professor Sally Hudson has already announced her candidacy for the seat.
Toscano did reveal his New Year’s resolution: to finish his book on 25 years in politics, from City Council to the General Assembly.