The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy hosted alumni Bill Howell and David Toscano Monday, both former members of the Virginia House of Delegates, to speak about the legislative process and challenges facing Virginia during the weekly “Batten Hour” series. The event was jointly sponsored with the Center for Effective Lawmaking.Craig Volden, public policy and politics professor, moderated the event.
Toscano is a former Charlottesville mayor and former Democratic House of Delegates minority leader, as well as an alumnus of the School of Law. Howell is also a School of Law alumnus and served in the Virginia House of Delegates for over 25 years, including a stint as Republican speaker of the Virginia House.
Speaking on changes which he observed during his time in the House of Delegates, Toscano said that a big difference between when he first began serving in the House and today is the decline of local media outlets reporting on issues facing the state, and how that nationalizes politics.
“As [local] media has fallen away, people have heard the news basically by going to national outlets and what that is doing is nationalizing the politics within the state,” Toscano said. “It’s happening all over the country and that is one of the reasons why we see the levels of polarization rising across the nation.”
Howell also spoke on changes between his first term in 1988 and his retirement in 2018. Howell said that a big difference is the amount of engagement he got from his constituents and the form in which he got it.
“When I first went in in 1988, I might get eight letters a week from constituents,” Howell said. “Today, I would get, on any given day, 60, 70, 80 emails from people all over the country upset about [something], and it’s really changed, I think, the way that legislators work with different bills.”
In an interview after the event, second-year College student Deanna Wilbourn said she found the most surprising part of the event to be the focus on bipartisan relationships.
“We had both a Republican and a Democratic speaker, and they refer to one another as friends and emphasize working together in session but also interacting with one another out of session,” Wilbourn said. “I found it inspiring to have them promote certain policies that don't necessarily align with their party.”
While Wilbourn praised the event for promoting comradery across the aisle, Howell stated that the level of harmony in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate is a concern of his.
“I’m concerned about the lack of stability that we’re seeing today,” Howell said. “We used to [say] ‘we’re not like those people up in Washington, we get stuff done and we work together,’ and I’m not so sure I can say that anymore.”
Despite this worry, in a post-event interview, Howell said that it may take a new generation of lawmakers until the country sees more bipartisanship, but that he is hopeful about that generation’s ability to overcome challenges in the General Assembly.
“I have great faith in the next generation,” Howell said. “I worry about the future of the country and of Virginia, but we’ve always had issues and we’ve overcome them, and that’s what my hope is here.”
The Virginia General Assembly began its current session Jan. 10. It meets for a maximum of 60 days during even numbered years. The session will conclude March 9 at the latest.