Growing up in Syracuse, New York, I never dreamed that I would have a role in
politics or ever find my way to Virginia, which I only knew as a place you drove
through on the way to Florida, hoping you could escape getting stopped by an
overeager sheriff targeting the Yankee driver for an undeserved speeding ticket
(talk about stereotypes). For me at the time, it was all about studies, sports,
rock and roll, and working in my dad’s tuxedo rental store (yes, it is true that
I measured Terry McAuliffe for his high school prom tuxedo).
Then, the sixties happened — and my world (heck, the world) turned upside down. I came of age when race relations, civil rights, and the war in Vietnam occupied center stage. I felt a calling to change the world. Initially, that meant academia and teaching, and then the law. Eventually, I found my way to Charlottesville, my wife’s hometown. I got elected to local office, and after 12 years in local government, won election to this body, the House of Delegates. Between my family and public service in a community that is special in so many ways, I have been (and continue to be) the luckiest guy alive.
I am proud of my contributions over the last 25 years of public service. But there comes a time to write a new chapter. And for me, that time is now. I have decided that I will retire from this office at the end of my term, and therefore will not be seeking reelection this fall.
People may try to read a lot into this announcement, especially in light of recent developments. That would be a mistake. As some of you in this body already know, my decision has been in the making for some time, though various events have conspired to delay it. For months, I have been told that I should not retire, or could not retire. But I have some new and exciting opportunities for my next chapter, so if I needed a reason to stop postponing, I now have several. It is the right time.
I’m immensely proud, and eternally grateful, for having had the opportunity to play a role in public service for the last 25 years, including 14 in this body. It has been the honor of my life. And it’s simply not possible for me to adequately repay the love that my friends, neighbors and family have given me during my public service. I want to thank my staff — especially Jane Dittmar and Erin Monaghan, and my former chief of staff, Carmen Bingham — for helping me along the way. I also want to thank the community of Charlottesville and Albemarle, and of course, all of you, for the experience of a lifetime.
But I would be remiss if I did not single out the one person without whom I never could have done all of this: my wife, partner, confidant, advisor of 45 years, Nancy. Without her patience and love, and the support of our dear son Matthew, this could never have happened, and I will never be able thank them enough.They are here with me today just as they’ve been with me all along. The sacrifice of loved ones in helping us do our jobs is something we speak a lot about in public, but no one but us really understand how critical it is to doing this job. So for all of our families who are watching this session online, or may watch at some point in the future, please know that all of us so appreciate your sacrifices and we are forever grateful.
Naturally, I will remember the big bills we passed while I was here — the 2013 Transportation bill and,of course, Medicaid Expansion, which I believe was the most consequential vote I have taken in this body, not just for my constituents, but for so many who perhaps have never voted for a Democrat and maybe never will. Those two bills show we can put aside regional and ideological differences in recognition of the fact that we are truly one Commonwealth, and that we rise and fall together.
I will, of course, never forget the honor of serving my caucus as Democratic leader for 7 years. While I can’t say I enjoyed serving in the minority, I always recognized the important role we played in challenging assumptions, raising questions, and forcefully articulating opposing points of view. Without strong minorities, our democratic systems of checks and balances will fail mightily, and our constituents will suffer. And I am most proud of the small part I played in bringing this Democratic caucus to the brink of the majority. I look forward to how you will govern after you achieve that goal in the November election.
And I will also remember the bills that might appear less weighty, but are no less significant to those who benefit from their passage. I remember when I first arrived and was appointed to the Courts Committee. A bill to totally rewrite the adoption law in Virginia came before us. I had a deep personal interest in adoption, and even as a freshman, I was able to jump in, finding myself in the middle of shaping a law that helped many children and infants find good homes and give joy to countless families who sought to make adoption easier.
I remember a little bill proposed by 4th grade students in my district to create a day for Healthy Families and a not-so-little bill that will help restore the graves of several hundred as-yet unidentified African Americans in Charlottesville. These measures do not necessarily gain big headlines, but they make a difference.
As I have traveled this journey, I have learned many things, but several really stand out.
First, Thomas Jefferson still looms large. For all of his problems, most notably his failure to reconcile the words of the Declaration with his support of slavery, still holds much to inspire us, whether it involves support for public education, his ideas about religious freedom and particularly his assertion, so audacious at the time, that all of us are endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness was not a concept calling us to pursue our narrow self interest, but a way by which we can find virtue and fulfillment in the service of others.
Second, great states just don’t magically happen. They are the products of decisions, large and small; much of what we do here has huge consequences for our families, communities, and the Commonwealth. Our politics have been nationalized but States really do matter!
Third, getting things done still is all about relationships you have and the trust you build; your worst detractor today can be your best ally tomorrow. I know some feel the so-called Virginia Way is either outmoded or has only served as disguise for oppression, but some elements, antiquated as they appear at times, can serve us well–things like civility, respect for each other and the rule of law, thoughtful debate and discussion. And for good measure, let’s include a healthy dose of redemption and giving people the benefit of the doubt, two things frequently lost in the instantaneous twitter universe that we now inhabit. Yes, extending others the benefit of the doubt when we can is not a bad thing, because it allows us to find common ground in challenging circumstances. And remembering that will serve us well as we confront our uncertain future. Our good news is that for all of the partisan rancor, Virginia still has a government that works — and that is largely because of our relationships and our respect for this institution.
My final take-away from my experience is a simple one that we sometimes forget. In democracies, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in sacred trust for the people we represent. For all of the trappings of power that we sometimes see and feel, most of us are still just regular people trying to do the best we can for those we represent.
There remain incredible challenges that we will face in the years and decades ahead. For all of our wealth in our state and nation, there is greater inequality than ever before, and it’s still growing. For all of our technological might, we are witnessing changes in the climate of the planet that could dramatically change our quality of life and create unimaginable risks for future generations. For all of our enlightened thought and legislation, we are still sorely lagging in our efforts at racial reconciliation and justice. But to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we must confront these challenges not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
I will never forgot the people who gave me the privilege of representing them. They come in all stripes, some rich, some poor, a mixture of races and ethnic groups, young and old, liberal and conservative, friendly and obnoxious, the wide diversity that makes this state and country a great place to live. They all have many needs, desires, and perspectives, but at base, the most important thing they want is to be heard. In this people’s house, one of our greatest challenges is to create that space for them, to listen and learn, and even change our minds as we do.
In conclusion, I want to thank all of you for the time we have spent together, the challenges we have endured, the positive change we have created. I wish you all “God Speed” and hope you will continue your efforts to make the Commonwealth greater than it is today. Thanks for including me in the journey.
Delegate David Toscano (February 23, 2019)