With money behind progressive challengers, 2021 could be test case

By: - May 17, 2021 12:01 am

Michael Bills, a multi-millionaire investor, in his office on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As lawmakers prepare to study the prospects for campaign finance reform in Virginia, the sheer size of some checks flowing to Democratic candidates for statewide office has renewed debate about the boosts offered by a wealthy Charlottesville couple topping charts as the biggest donors in state politics.

Though they backed opposing candidates in the 2017 Democratic primary for governor, donations connected to Michael Bills, a hedge fund manager and primary backer of the advocacy group Clean Virginia, and Sonjia Smith, a philanthropist and former lawyer married to Bills, are working in tandem this year in a big way.

Smith and Clean Virginia have given a combined $1.1 million, $600,000 from Clean Virginia and $500,000 from Smith, to former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, whom they believe has the best shot at challenging former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a five-person Democratic primary field. That’s almost a third of the roughly $3.6 million in cash contributions Carroll Foy reported raising as of March 31.

“When you get to these levels you say ‘Oh my God,'” said former House Democratic leader David Toscano, who retired in 2019. “Five hundred thousand dollars? That just doesn’t sound right.”

In the Democratic primary for attorney general, Smith and Clean Virginia have given a combined $350,000 to Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, as he tries to unseat incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring, about a third of of his fundraising total at the last filing deadline.

Bills and Smith say they share certain values but make their political-giving decisions independently of one another. Others don’t see a strong distinction and feel the dollar amounts raise questions about the couple’s role in Democratic politics. Are they using their wealth to change a system overly reliant on traditional power brokers and pushing Virginia Democrats in a more progressive direction? Or have they become another vector of big-money influence and hardball tactics?

In an interview, Bills said he knows people conflate his political activity with Smith’s. He says they’re mostly wrong, and thinks some of the pushback smacks of sexism.

“I asked a practicing lawyer, Sonjia Smith, who had more degrees and better scores than me on any common test, who was a fully functioning, absolutely strong-willed woman, to marry me a long time ago,” Bills said in an interview last week. “And the fact that people have a hard time thinking that she’s still strong-willed and she still has her own mind, I think that’s just blatantly sexist. And denies modern reality that women can have their own lives and their own thoughts.”

Sonjia Smith has become a major Virginia political donor. (The Daily Progress)

In 2017, Bills backed then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam to the tune of $566,000. Smith gave a total of $650,000 to ex-congressman Tom Perriello, who lost to Northam after running as an opponent of natural gas pipeline projects willing to swear off political donations from Dominion Energy.

Asked how she justifies accepting a $500,000 donation from one source, Carroll Foy, whose campaign finance reform plan calls for capping donations from individuals and PACs at $2,800 per cycle, said reform-minded candidates have to win to enact change.

Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“You have to be in a position of power as governor in order to bring the systemic, transformational change you want to see,” Carroll Foy said. “They’re behind me because they know that I’m principled.”

Clean Virginia, which Bills launched in 2018 with the goal of countering Dominion, the largest corporate donor in Virginia politics, by pushing for stronger utility regulation and tighter campaign finance laws, has also endorsed two House of Delegates candidates running primary challenges to Democratic incumbents who have accepted Dominion donations. 

The group is backing Nadarius Clark against Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, and Pamela Montgomery against new Del. Candi King, D-Prince William, who now holds the House seat Carroll Foy resigned from last year to focus on her gubernatorial run.

The two challengers’ most recent fundraising reports both show Smith as a top donor. Smith had also given $30,000 to Dumfries Town Council Member Cydny Neville, who was planning a primary challenge against powerful House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, but failed to qualify for the ballot due to paperwork errors. Dominion gave Torian $90,000 in 2020, making the utility his top donor for the current election cycle.

In a written statement, Smith too said it’s inaccurate to conclude her giving is “merely an extension of Michael’s donations,” a view she said rests on “sexist assumptions.” One of her main preferences in politics, she said, is “underdog campaigns.”

“Serving in our state government, sadly, was designed to be inaccessible to most Virginians,” Smith said. “My political giving is my chance to level the playing field a little bit, especially when it comes to helping people purposefully excluded, like women, candidates of color and candidates who don’t come from wealth or have a built-in network of wealthy friends. Because I can help in that regard, I choose to do so.”

Bills said Clean Virginia is backing Carroll Foy and Jones, both facing better-funded opponents who have been slower to repudiate Dominion, because they’ve been strong on the issues Clean Virginia cares about.

“These are really good candidates,” Bills said. “They just don’t have the same money and resources. And we want to make sure that their message and their ability to tell people their story… gets full airing. And we’re willing to do that even if the odds are against us.”

Toscano, who has endorsed McAuliffe for governor, said he’s long harbored concern about the nature of the pledge Clean Virginia asks candidates to take disavowing Dominion donations. If candidates who reject the pledge and take Dominion money are now being targeted for removal, Toscano said, the effort begins to look like an attempt to “exercise influence on the Democratic Party and reformulate it into something that supports their points of view.”

Former Virginia House of Delegates Minority Leader Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“People seem to think that if it’s progressive money somehow it’s cleaner than money that comes from corporations or other advocacy groups,” said Toscano. “I’m a progressive. I support progressive issues. I like to get progressive money. But you have to always be guarded about any money that comes to you to make sure it doesn’t influence the way you think about an issue.”

Virginia has no cap on the size of donations political candidates can accept. Clean Virginia has backed legislative efforts to impose more rules on what is now a wide-open system, but those bills have failed to clear the General Assembly.

In the 2021 session lawmakers authorized a campaign finance reform study, but it remains unclear who will serve on the subcommittee taking on the topic and what kind recommendations the effort will produce for the 2022 session.

Toscano retired while facing a primary challenge from now-Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, who received $100,000 from Smith for her House campaign. Hudson said having a big donation to begin a campaign for office allows candidates to run differently, spending less time making phone calls to rich donors and more time with those who aren’t as well-off.

“In my case, having upstart support from women with experience in political fundraising made it possible for me to spend my time talking to people who hadn’t been talked to in a very long time,” Hudson said.

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, said he didn’t appreciate Clean Virginia’s approach when the group met with him while he was making his first run for the House in 2019. He felt its representatives implied he’d be a “sellout” for taking Dominion’s money, and he didn’t like the idea of making pledges to potential donors instead of his constituents.

“I said: ‘I haven’t been in this very long but this sounds like some kind of contract,’” said Scott, who is also backing McAuliffe for governor.

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, speaks on the floor of the House of Delegates during the 2020 session.

The McAuliffe campaign, which establishment Democrats have rallied behind in the gubernatorial primary, declined to comment on the donations made by Clean Virginia and Smith.

When McAuliffe announced his planned return to Virginia politics in December after a three-year hiatus, one of his first pronouncements was that he would no longer accept money from Dominion Energy. He had made a similar promise before his first run for governor in 2009. But he accepted Dominion donations during his time in office and supported the company’s controversial and now-scuttled Atlantic Coast Pipeline as an economic benefit to the state.

Before endorsing Carroll Foy, Clean Virginia gave initial donations of $100,000 to both Carroll Foy and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, both seeking to overcome McAuliffe to become the first Black woman elected governor of any state. Bills said both Carroll Foy and McClellan would be “great governors,” but he and his group decided backing two candidates wouldn’t be effective and felt Carroll Foy was best positioned to compete. He said there was nothing “anti-Terry” about Clean Virginia’s outlook on the 2021 field, and he anticipates McAuliffe too would change with the times.

“There’s no personal story here or animus or anything,” Bills said. “I hope if he ends up as governor that he’ll understand the importance and saliency of our issues and some of the errors of his past ways. And that we’ll get to have a very productive relationship with whoever ends up governor in Virginia.”

The McAuliffe campaign would not comment on whether the former governor’s support for the pipeline and acceptance of Dominion contributions were indeed errors. Instead, the campaign issued a general statement defending McAuliffe’s environmental record.

As governor, Terry fought for climate action against an extreme, climate-denying Republican legislature,” said McAuliffe spokesman Jake Rubenstein. “He achieved unprecedented progress addressing the threat of climate change including joining Virginia to the U.S. Paris Climate Agreement, appointing the state’s first chief resilience officer and creating a Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission.”

As scrutiny of Bills has grown, critics have dug into his business record for signs his investments haven’t always aligned neatly with his clean energy vision. 

A hedge fund Bills previously worked for in a senior role, Tiger Management, was once a major shareholder in Transocean, the offshore drilling company made infamous for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Bills said he left Tiger Management in 1999 and the firm was dissolved in 2000, a decade before the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In 2011, Bills’ Bluestem Partners LP sold a $2 million stake in Rock Solid Images, an oil and gas exploration company. Bills said his firm’s connection to the company arose from being a limited partner in a Norwegian fund that invested in the company. When that fund folded, he said, Bluestem was left with some of its assets, including the Rock Solid Images position, which he said was “quickly sold.”

“We have never liked extractive businesses since they are typically bad companies and risky investments, but our stridency in avoiding these investments has increased significantly over the past decade as the severity and immediacy of climate change has become clearer,” Bills said in an email.

Bills said he rejects what he sees as a false equivalence detractors draw between Clean Virginia’s giving and contributions from Dominion, the top corporate donor in state politics. Unlike a regulated power monopoly whose practices and profitability are closely intertwined with state policymakers’ decisions, he said, “there’s nothing in the Clean Virginia effort that has any meaningful impact in the returns of my fund or my personal economics.”

“When the state gives its power and its imprimatur to say ‘You have a monopoly,’ then it has such a strong moral obligation to make sure they do everything in their power to make sure that’s not abused,” Bills said. “And it has been abused mightily the last couple decades. And we need to counter that.”

No one in his investment firm, he said, is allowed to have a position in Dominion stock.

Dominion Energy’s new office tower in Downtown Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style weekly)

One of Clean Virginia’s priorities since its inception has been changing the state’s utility rate review system to limit Dominion’s ability to keep excess profits when regulators determine the utility has overcharged customers who can’t opt out of Dominion’s service for another energy provider. State regulators say Dominion has racked up an estimated $500 million in overearnings between 2017 and 2019. Legislation to change the review system has cleared the House of Delegates, but failed twice in the Democratic-led Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. 

Carroll Foy supported the effort during the 2020 session, and Jones has been one of its top proponents in the House. Dominion opposed it, and the company has characterized Clean Virginia’s efforts as a misguided effort to tinker with a system that isn’t broken.

“Virginia has a state regulatory model for electricity that has resulted in reliable, affordable and clean energy,” said Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani. “The lobbying groups and their funders that want to undo that seek a Texas-styled deregulated electricity market that has failed customers everywhere it has been enacted.“

Clean Virginia was part of the Virginia Energy Reform Coalition that supported a broad deregulation of the state’s energy sector, potentially breaking monopolies and giving customers more choice in how they get electricity. The group insists it doesn’t favor one particular regulatory model for the future and mainly wants to convince legislators the system Virginia has isn’t serving Dominion’s customers. Some of the pushback Clean Virginia gets, Bills said, derives from “Dominion and its minions” feeling threatened.

“It’s so morally clear that whatever slings and arrows happen, I’m willing to accept,” Bills said.

Though Bills said he thinks his group is succeeding on that front and could be helped even more if Jones and/or Carroll Foy win their respective races, he’s also looking ahead to another goal: changing the makeup of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, where many utility reform bills go to die at the hands of lawmakers who get big donations from Dominion, via the 2023 Senate elections.

“We’ve done the things necessary to have these discussions happening,” Bills said. “And people who are on the wrong side of these issues are increasingly going to pay a price for it.”

Editor’s note: Sonjia Smith made a $5,000 donation to States Newsroom, the Virginia Mercury’s parent organization, last year. Reader donations help the Mercury cover mileage, freelancers, public records requests and other extra costs. They never influence our news coverage. For more information on States Newsroom’s funding click here. See here for our ethics policy


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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.