News came out this week that a small group of House Democrats are attempting a coup, to replace House minority leader David Toscano with Delegate Jennifer Boysko. Toscano has been criticized in the past, especially by Ross Mittiga, who challenged him in a primary last year, for his big corporate utility donations, and for not being progressive enough.
I liked Ross a lot, thought he was courageous to take on the minority leader, and I always support anyone running who thinks they have something unique to offer voters. I followed the primary with some interest, although not knowing all that much about Delegate Toscano’s record, I wasn’t especially invested in the outcome.
This year I watched countless hours of General Assembly sessions, and because I was tracking bills for the Progressive Legislative Alert Network (VAPLAN), I paid fairly close attention to the votes our Democrats were taking. Based on my observations, I find that I suddenly have pretty strong opinions about the potential ousting of Delegate Toscano from leadership.
To my surprise, Toscano voted far more like a progressive than I expected. Here’s how I judge that: the vast majority of the bills that make it to the floor are either voted along strict party lines, or are unanimous. There are only a small handful of bills where Democrats aren’t unified in their votes. These were some of the ones that I paid great attention to this session:
SB 966 The infamous “Dominion bill”: Delegate Toscano was the one who came up with the amendment to ensure that Dominion wouldn’t be able to double dip (charge consumers twice for their investments), arguing that everyone should vote for the amendment because either the original bill already prevented double dipping and the amendment was redundant, or it didn’t, in which case the amendment was binding. But then, guess what? He still voted against the bill! Despite all the money he takes from the energy industry, he still voted no. (Jennifer Boysko voted yes.)
HB 484 Restitution: This bill puts offenders on probation indefinitely until full restitution is paid, subjecting low-income people to a “debt sentence.” Toscano voted against it. (Jennifer Boysko voted yes.)
HB 1193 Insanity plea hospitalization: This bill forced persons pleading insanity following another conviction to serve their prison sentence before hospitalization, placing mentally ill into the regular prison population rather than getting them the treatment they need. Toscano voted no. (Boysko voted yes.)
SB 106 Redistricting: This bill was a watered-down set of redistricting criteria that was ultimately vetoed by the Governor because it did not provide protections for racial and ethnic minorities. Toscano voted against it. (Boysko voted yes.)
(The only bill I noticed where Delegate Boysko cast a more progressive vote than Delegate Toscano was HB900, the civil asset forfeiture bill.)
Beyond the votes, in the hours of House floor sessions I watched, I learned a bit about floor leadership. Before this year, I had no idea what that entailed, or what kind of leadership was needed. Since the cameras are always rolling, there’s some planned theatrics by both sides–for example, how to let someone running for Congress make a passionate speech that might go viral, or how to catch someone making an embarrassing gaffe. I noticed House Democrats’ choreographed theatrics several times this session, and I was pretty proud to call that my “team.” And the captain of the team, was David Toscano.
One example was when the Republicans used an obscure procedural move to push to the floor Delegate Simon’s Democracy Vouchers bill–a nice idea, but (even Simons admitted it was) not quite ready for prime time, since it didn’t have a funding mechanism and could have cost tens of millions of dollars as introduced. This put every member of the Democratic Caucus in the awkward position of having to vote against Delegate Simon’s bill, or to take a vote that they’d be surely criticized for in the next election.
Toscano tried multiple ploys to prevent the vote from occurring and then ultimately chastised the Republicans for taking “the body’s time to engage in this charade,” before making clear that everyone in his Caucus should vote no. It was interesting to watch, but also gave me some insight into what the leader’s role is, and why it’s important.
I’m left wondering what’s motivating this coup? What qualities or abilities are the members hoping to pick up with Jennifer Boysko that David Toscano doesn’t possess? It certainly doesn’t seem to be about progressiveness or political ideology, or floor leadership either. Why fix what ain’t broke?