‘Virginia’s the wild wild west:’ Northam’s campaign finance reform effort dies in House subcommittee

By: - January 24, 2019 12:41 pm

Voters in suburban Henrico’s Short Pump precinct cast their ballots. The area saw a surge in Democratic voters after Trump’s 2016 election. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Efforts to limit certain campaign contributions, including several endorsed by Gov. Ralph Northam, were left in a House subcommittee Thursday because of concerns that the rules would make it more difficult to trace donations to their origin and inadvertently remove some people from the political process.

Dels. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, and Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, filed bills that would curb the ability of certain corporations and other businesses entities to donate to political campaigns.

“Virginia’s the Wild Wild West, anybody can give any amount they want,” Toscano said while presenting one of his bills.

He specifically wanted to limit the amount of money that electric utility companies —like Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy — could give in election cycle to $500 per candidate.

Dominion is known to be a prolific donor to candidates to both major parties, donating tens of thousands of dollars to political action committees and large amounts to individual lawmakers.

In 2018, Dominion donated $22,500 to Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and $10,500 to Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City County, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Saslaw, along with other lawmakers who received major donations from Dominion, spearheaded the rewrite of utility regulations last year that allows the company to hold onto excess profits provided it invests them in certain eligible projects.

Guzman’s bill, which was filed on behalf of the governor, cast a wider net and would have banned any direct contributions from corporations or business entities to campaigns. Employees could still donate as individuals.

“The governor believes this is common-sense legislation that will curb the perception that there’s undue corporate influence in Virginia elections,” said Rita Davis, counselor to the governor.

Toscano said there are voters who feel like elections are bought, not won. He sponsored another bill that would put a $10,000 cap on any campaign contribution. Davis said the governor also supports that bill.

“As you have seen, there are a lot of individuals with a large amount of money who try to get engaged in campaigns in a way that makes people cynical,” Toscano said.

Del. Steve Landes, R-Verona, said he’s heard that too, especially around Albemarle County, which he and Toscano share in representation.

“We’ve got individuals that can fund total campaigns, and I don’t think that’s what the public is really looking for,” Landes said. “We’ve got to start somewhere with some of these limits.”

A bill by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, that would prohibit candidates from accepting donations from a public service corporation is still alive in the Senate, along with another measure that would prohibit individuals from making any “single contribution, or any combination of contributions” over $10,000 to a single state candidate.

Not every lawmaker in the House subcommittee was convinced putting limits on contributions would make a more fair or transparent political system.

“I understand the intent and on the surface, having limits sounds good, but if you look at what it did to the federal system — all it did was make it harder to see who’s giving money to who,” said Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania. “The money will still flow, however, it will be much more difficult and less transparent to see who’s actually supporting who.”

It’s difficult to make sweeping campaign finance reform through individual pieces of legislation and without a study, Toscano said. Guzman said lawmakers should make changes as they can.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of moving forward,” she said. “I think we should allow, just for once, for Virginians to believe and trust the elections process.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.