Top Virginia House Dem David Toscano recaps the legislative session

 The 2012 state legislative session was David Toscano’s first as top Democrat in the House of Delegates, and though Republicans came out of the high-profile session claiming victory for Governor Bob McDonnell’s agenda, Toscano said Democrats saw some triumphs of their own as he helped push for a more unified party.

David Toscano (pictured) just wrapped up his first legislative session as the Minority Leader in Virginia’s House of Delegates. (Photo by Kelly Kollar)

“The Virginia General Assembly is one big adrenaline rush,” he said. “It feels like your whole life is consumed for those two months. You get up early and stay up late, and it’s a constant balancing of various pressures and trying to meet various deadlines.”

The heat’s only increased since he became House Minority Leader ahead of his seventh year in the House. Toscano’s duties now go beyond representing Charlottesville as the 57th district’s delegate. He’s also the voice of the Democratic party in an elected body where red outnumbers blue nearly two to one.

“My primary role is to represent this district,” he said. “But I’ve always seen my role as going a little beyond that. I’ve always thought it was important to think about the region and to go beyond to think about the Commonwealth.”

Sometimes that means taking up the banner for causes that don’t matter much to his Charlottesville supporters, but that those from Democrat-rich northern Virginia count as key issues, including securing funding for new road construction in traffic-choked northern counties and ensuring cost-to-compete dollars—intended to flesh out teacher salaries in high-cost-of-living areas—flow to those school districts.

That’s part and parcel to building party unity, he said, something he took seriously this session.

“There are always going to be fissures to some extent, but I think we’re more unified now than we’ve been any time since I’ve been there,” said Toscano. He’s arranged more regular meetings within the House and with Democratic counterparts in the Senate, and said that as a result, “we tend to vote together more often.”

But Toscano said his duties as top House Democrat haven’t been at odds with what his constituents expect of him. “They’ve always dovetailed,” he said. He’s continued to push for upping funding for education, a key issue among district Democrats. And when it came to the high-profile pro-life bills put forth this session, local supporters “went absolutely ballistic,” he said, “and that’s very consistent with what my role was as the Democratic leader.”

Toscano said he believes those measures affecting women’s rights—an ultrasound bill that sparked national backlash when it became clear the language would require some women to get a transvaginal procedure, and the “personhood” bill, which was carried over to next session to await a vote in the Senate—are the unfortunate legacy of this session. That impression won’t help Republicans, Toscano said.

“My take is the whole session was about legislative overreach in the social arena,” he said. “If you think about it, what is this session going to be known for? It’s going to be known for ultrasound.”

And, perhaps, Republican backpedaling. In the face of outcry and protests in Richmond, McDonnell ultimately supported stripping the bill of language that would have required what some labeled as state-sanctioned rape. Toscano said what was left wasn’t a good bill, either, and he said Republicans are set to keep pushing legislation that restricts women’s access to abortion and contraception into the spotlight.

“I think they do it at their peril,” he said. “The legislature has the lowest favorability rating of any time in recent memory. McDonell’s favorable ratings have dropped, while his unfavorables have risen. I think it’s pretty fair to say that that’s a reflection of peoples’ reactions to socially divisive legislation being pushed through.”

But with the close of the session earlier this month, Republicans were quick to point out victories. In a press release, McDonnell said 88 percent of his legislative agenda passed in the General Assembly, highlighting measures he said are creating jobs and shoring up the Virginia economy.

“The focus of this session has been getting Virginians back to work, putting our economy back on track and enacting significant reforms,” McDonnell said in the release, pointing to measures that gave businesses more acccess to captial and changes to the state’s retirement system he said will correct long-term unfunded liabilities.

Toscano doesn’t share the GOP’s perspective.

“Every bill the Governor wanted this session doesn’t take effect until July 1,” he said. “Job creation is a function of the national economy turning around. It has very little to do with what the Republicans are pushing through the general assembly.”

And the legislature managed to stymie some of McDonnell’s other efforts, Toscano said. “The budget he proposed had dramatic cuts in the safety net and shortchanged education,” he said. “And it doesn’t look like he’s going to win on that front. He proposed a transportation package, and all that’s left of it is naming rights for bridges. That’s not much of a success.”
Locally, he said, the city dodged a bullet when a budget amendment proposed by Albemarle Republican Delegate Rob Bell that would have slashed funding by $2.6 million failed to pass. “That was huge for Charlottesville schools,” Toscano said.

But with an amended budget still up for negotiation between the House and Senate as of this story’s deadline, the session’s work isn’t over yet. Toscano said he believes lawmakers will come together and ultimately pass a spending plan that restores some of the social safety net and education spending that McDonnell’s bill cut. Because besides trying to rally Democrats, he said, he’s also worked to reach across the aisle on key issues.

“I try to be inclsive,” he said. “That’s just my style, and so I tend to reach out to people to see what’s on their mind and build consensus.”

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