A Changing Virginia 

The new book, “Bellwether,’ by a former mayor of Charlottesville recounts Virginia’s recent political transformation.


Forty-one years ago, Chuck Robb, a moderate Democrat, was running for Virginia governor. His slogan was odd – “a future worthy of her past.”

That prompted veteran columnist Mary McGrory to write: “The whole thing is a perfect illustration of the ‘Virginia Way,’ which is to reproduce as far as possible the atmosphere of Brigadoon, where time stands still, and ambiguity, mist and fog prevail.”

McGrory nailed that one but the Old Dominion has since changed in profound ways, writes David J. Toscano in his new book “Bellwether.”

A left- leaning Democrat, Toscano is the former mayor of Charlottesville and served for 14 years in the House of Delegates where he was minority leader. His excellent, deeply research book shows how a variety of factors – demographic shifts, more people from other states and countries and economic changes have turned Virginia from ruby-red to purple and at times, clear blue.

Since the middle of the 20th century, state politics has moved from being ruled by conservative white males, many with ties to rural areas. Today, the vast expansion of urban areas, notably in Northern Virginia, have changed legislative power and given the state an entirely new focus.

The change is so important that other states watch Virginia carefully for signals on which way the public mood is going. Not that long ago, Virginia was pretty much ignored because it was, as political scientist V.O. Key wrote in the 1940s, a “political museum piece.” It has since become a closely watched bellwether, hence the book’s title.

Toscano carefully takes the reader through the sometimes-complex reasons why this happened.

A key reason was the emergence of Black voters and officials taking more power, starting in the 1940s. For decades, Blacks were held down. One tool was the “Virginia Way,” in which white elites would be polite to Blacks as long as they went along with segregation.

Black civil rights lawyers, such as Richmond’s Oliver Hill, started filing numerous lawsuits to end segregation in schools and other public places.

This deeply troubled the white ruling class. Toscano writes that “as legal crusaders continued to probe for the next opportunity to advance the cause in Virginia, their assertiveness dismayed white elites such as (Richmond News Leader Editor Douglas Southall) Freeman and Virginius Dabney, the influential editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who said in 1943 that ‘any effort to force the abolition of segregation over the protest of a strongly hostile white South,’ is bound to do far more harm than good.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation, white leaders quickly erected “Massive Resistance” that would require schools to be closed if they integrated. Many shut down.

But Black persistence prevailed and by 1970, the new governor, Linwood Holton, a moderate Republican, made a very public display of his support for integration by personally walking his daughter to a mostly-Black school in Richmond.

Toscano runs through his remembrances of more recent governors, including George Allen, Mark Warner, Tom Kaine, Robert F. McDonnell, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam.

The author takes great pains to be as kind as he can to all of the above. He stresses a kind of bipartisan cooperation that was also supposedly part of the genteel “Virginia Way” of governing. Sadly, the atmosphere has since eroded thanks to former President Donald Trump.

Toscano and McDonnell, for instance, disagreed on many things such as McDonnell’s idea that women be forced to undergo a trans vaginal examination before having an abortion. Yet, Toscano and the governor were able to meet in private for useful and friendly talks.

Toscano also provides glimpses of how governors work. McAuliffe was flying on a business trip in a state helicopter in 2017 when he learned that Amazon was about to send out requests for proposals for a second headquarters. McAuliffe insisted that the pilot land immediately so that he could reach Amazon chief Jeff Bezos to make a pitch. Virginia eventually won he project.

As demographics changed, Virginia started electing more women and people of color. Eileen Filler-Corn, for instance became the first female House Speaker.

There’s one area where I think that Toscano is weak. He seems to shrug off Virginia’s ridiculously lax campaign finance laws. He does get into McDonnell’s embarrassing bribery scandal yet soft-pedals the political catastrophe.

Another problem not of his making is that Toscano apparently had publishing deadlines that did not give enough [time] to address the Republican sweep of the state’s three top elected offices that brought Glenn Youngkin into power. The GOP also gained control of the House of Delegates.

The author does manage an add-on chapter after the election but the election results tend to undercut his overall theory. He writes: “Youngkin’s victory was neither a landslide nor a mandate. If the Republican win had happened 10 years ago, it would have appeared to be just another Republican victory. But the formerly reliable red state has changed in the past two decades – and the GOP win was therefore perceived as a disruptive outlier.”

In recent years, the new Virginia Way has resulted in some legislation unimaginable before such as ending the death penalty, decriminalizing marijuana and expanding Medicaid to lower income people. Youngkin is trying to roll back some of that, especially in education and environmental rules.

This should be good fodder for another Toscano book. It has so many notes and citations it could easily be used in a college course.

Plus it’s a better read than many textbooks.



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