Former Democratic leader David Toscano said Saturday that he’s retiring from the Virginia House of Delegates at the end of his term, a surprise announcement that comes as Democrats prepare an all-out push for control of the chamber.
In a floor speech, Toscano said his retirement has been in the making for “some time” and wasn’t driven by the recent political turmoil involving the state’s Democratic leaders.
“There comes a time to write a new chapter,” he said. “And for me that time is now.”
A lawyer and former Charlottesville mayor, Toscano, 68, served as the Democratic leader from 2011 to 2018.
Calling his service in the House “the experience of a lifetime,” Toscano said he was most proud of his vote for Medicaid expansion last year and spoke of the democratic importance of “strong minorities.”
“While I can’t say I always enjoyed serving in the minority, I always recognized the important role we played in challenging assumptions, in raising questions and forcefully articulating opposing points of view,” Toscano said.
Toscano led the caucus during the 2017 wave election that saw Democrats flip 15 GOP-held House seats, putting them on the verge of taking control this year and potentially electing a Democratic speaker. When he stepped down from his leadership position last year, Toscano didn’t close the door to running for speaker in 2020 if Democrats were to win a majority in November.
Toscano was facing a primary challenge from the left. Sally Hudson, a University of Virginia professor, announced a run against Toscano in December, saying she felt the strongly progressive district was ready for “new leadership.”
In a statement Saturday, Hudson called Toscano a “tireless champion for public education and civic engagement” who spent his “final hours” in the legislature trying unsuccessfully to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment.
In his farewell speech, Toscano included a call for moderation, building relationships across partisan and regional divides, and resisting the nationalization of state politics.
“I know some feel that the so-called Virginia Way is either outmoded or has only served as a disguise for oppression,” Toscano said. “But some elements, antiquated as they may appear at times, really serve us well. Things like civility, respect for each other, the rule of law, thoughtful debate and discussion.
“And Mr. Speaker, 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 have.”
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, commended Toscano from the dais.
“You did a tremendous job representing your side of the aisle,” Cox said. “You’re a very principled man ... that we all respect greatly. Godspeed.”
In December, Democrats elected Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, as the new minority leader, making her the first woman to lead a legislative caucus in Virginia history. Toscano continued to be a strong presence in House floor debates this session, frequently rising to speak and debate protocol with the Republican majority.
Toscano’s news prompted a lengthy succession of speeches. Democrats praised Toscano as a mentor whose institutional knowledge will be difficult to replace.
“The commonwealth is truly a better place for the mark that you have made,” Filler-Corn said.
Republicans called him a good-faith operator and worthy adversary.
Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, a lawyer who shares an office building with Toscano, said Charlottesville “would not be the same place” without him. Bell, who chairs the House Courts of Justice Committee, said Republicans had largely ceded policy issues dealing with family law to Toscano because they trusted his judgment.
“I think it’s unimaginable that that happens someplace else,” Bell said.
Toscano has served in the House since 2006.
Republicans hold a 51-49 edge in the House. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election this year.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Toscano said he grew up working in his father’s tuxedo rental store, where he once encountered another famous Syracusan who found his way to Virginia politics.
“Yes, it is true that I measured Terry McAuliffe for his high school prom tuxedo,” Toscano said. “And in fact, I did size him up a long time ago.”
Toscano said he never envisioned going into politics, but felt a calling after living through the turbulent 1960s and the civil rights era. But he decided to run for local office after moving to his wife’s hometown in central Virginia.
“Between my family and public service and community that is so special in so many ways, I have been and continue to be the luckiest guy alive,” Toscano said.
Lawmakers also paid tribute on Saturday to Del. Gordon Helsel, R-Poquoson, who announced he is retiring after having served in the House since 2011. Helsel, a former mayor of Poquoson, was remembered for his work in the legislature and for his service in Vietnam, for which he received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
Dels. Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, and Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell, and state Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, previously announced that they will not seek re-election in November.