By Stephen P. Nash
It’s a little mystery that Rappahannock County voters have almost figured out, but not quite. Why are the realtors, the health industry, the beer wholesalers and bankers, coal operators and electric utilities shoving all that cash into the Virginia legislature?
“Puzzles plus money produce the view that the money explains the puzzles,” legal scholar Lawrence Lessig has written. “In a line: We don’t trust our government.”
If he’s talking about you, you have lots of company. Three-quarters of American voters — nearly equal numbers in both parties — are convinced that the U.S. Congress is for sale. Given its record, the Virginia legislature can’t make a credible claim to higher public confidence, either.
William Black, a former bank regulator, summarizes the ordinary citizen’s street-level, tragic view when he writes that “a campaign contribution always generates the best return on investment.” But your government’s yours, not Dominion Energy’s. It’s not for the benefit of the roster of corporate high-rollers that have given large amounts to this area’s lawmakers — although we keep electing them.
So the missing puzzle piece is this: if they’re making monkeys of us and we know it, what can we do about it? And you can find the answer in Roanoke.
Start here: forty-five House of Delegates candidates so far, mostly Democrats, have signed a pledge that they’ll refuse to accept campaign cash from Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy, the two state-regulated electric power monopolies. Among them is Will Green, a Green-party candidate for delegate in the Rappahannock County region’s District 18.
But Roanoke’s Sam Rasoul, a 35-year-old management consultant who has served in the House of Delegates since 2014, has gone even further. He has announced that he’ll refuse campaign donations not only from Dominion and Appalachian, but any “gifts” above $5,000 from anyone. In fact, he will take no more campaign cash at all from special-interest PACS and corporations.
Rasoul’s a Democrat, but “it is conservatives who should be leading the fight for campaign-finance reform,” Richard Painter of the University of Minnesota Law School has written. “Why should conservative voters care? First, big money in politics encourages big government. . . . When politicians are dependent on campaign money from contractors and lobbyists, they’re incapable of holding spending programs to account.”
So whether you’re conservative, green, libertarian or liberal, here’s the question: can your legislator explain why it’s okay to accept “donations” from the two power companies and still cast votes on legislation that affects not only their profits, but also our electric bills and, crucially, our environment? For that matter, why is it legitimate to take money from any corporate interests who also have legislative needs that should not preempt the public interest?
The non-profit, non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project provides local data. Rappahannock County-area Delegate Michael Webert (R-18) has gotten $5,000 from Dominion Energy. State Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26) has received $53,000 from Dominion.
Meanwhile, those same public servants who take Dominion’s money have voted on countless Dominion-related bills, listened to the pitches of the sturdy corps of Dominion lobbyists. Overall, the legislature has handed the company a lengthening series of legislative home runs worth hundreds of millions of dollars — perhaps a billion or two by some estimates. And they routinely vote on legislation affecting the bankers, realtors, beer wholesalers, the health industry and their other benefactors.
Don’t accept their easy answer: “I need the money to get elected.” Realistically: they don’t need Dominion Energy money. And they should fight to transition our politics away from the other corporate payouts. Vermont, Connecticut and conservative Arizona have figured that out, with voluntary donation limits and public financing for candidates. Is your state senator or delegate pushing, noisily, for that? Why not? Never too late to start.
This isn’t a partisan issue. In fact, Dominion has given more than $7.5 million to legislators of both parties since 2006 — $900,000 in 2016-17 alone. It is Virginia’s top corporate donor. Its biggest recipient is a Democrat, though the Republicans have taken in more Dominion donations, over all. These are odd bedfellows for the Dems. Dominion is a member of the destructive ultra-radical American Legislative Exchange Council. That’s a polluter’s fan club, bankrolled by the Koch brothers, who’ve made most of their tens of billions in the fossil fuel industry. ALEC promotes climate-science denial and efforts to block clean energy to state legislators around the nation.
So ask each of your legislators and candidates: Will you pledge to reject that kind of campaign cash from now on, or fight to make public financing a major issue? Can you at least decline donations from the state-regulated utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power? If you think it’s okay to accept their money, then will you pledge to abstain from voting on legislation involving those interests?
And get ’em on the record. We’d all like to know.
Stephen P. Nash is author of Virginia Climate Fever: How Climate Change Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests, which received the American Institute of Physics’ 2015 Science Writing Award for books; and Blue Ridge 2020: An Owner’s Manual. A reader of the Rappahannock News, he is a visiting research scholar in the journalism department at the University of Richmond.