Va. House Democratic Caucus OKs mailers portraying top Democratic donors as ‘dark money billionaires’

By: - May 26, 2021 7:10 pm
A legally required disclosure says the anti-Montgomery mailer was paid for and authorized by the House Democratic Caucus, as well as being authorized by King's campaign.

A legally required disclosure says the anti-Montgomery mailer was paid for and authorized by the House Democratic Caucus, as well as being authorized by King’s campaign.

The Virginia House Democratic Caucus authorized and funded attack mailers that falsely imply two of the state’s top donors to Democrats are right-wing “dark money billionaires,” according to an image of the mailer obtained by The Virginia Mercury.

The caucus-backed messages were sent in support of new Del. Candi King, D-Prince William, who has accepted money from Dominion Energy, against primary challenger Pam Montgomery, who is backed by the advocacy group Clean Virginia, which presses Virginia legislators to refuse campaign donations from Dominion.

The mailers include a picture of a book labeled “RIGHT WING PLAYBOOK,” call Montgomery “a distraction, not a Democrat” and include an unexplained photo of Montgomery with former New York Mayor and occasional Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, an image that appeared to be taken from an old website for an investment company Montgomery ran with her husband. Montgomery works as the chief of staff for a Democratic member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.

A legally required disclosure says the anti-Montgomery mailer was paid for and authorized by the House Democratic Caucus, as well as being authorized by King's campaign.
A legally required disclosure says the anti-Montgomery mailer was paid for and authorized by the House Democratic Caucus, as well as being authorized by King’s campaign.

The mailers are a significant escalation in an internal Democratic feud over the roles of Clean Virginia, backed by deep-pocketed Charlottesville investor Michael Bills, and Dominion, one of the top corporate donors in state politics. Dozens of sitting House Democrats have also accepted money from Clean Virginia without facing accusations they’re in league with Republican extremists. But party leaders appear to be increasingly upset Clean Virginia is now supporting challengers trying to oust Democratic incumbents.

Though many House Democrats have also sworn off Dominion money in their individual campaigns, the caucus itself accepted $50,000 from Dominion this year.

A legally required disclosure says the anti-Montgomery mailer was paid for and authorized by the House Democratic Caucus, as well as being authorized by King’s campaign.

In a statement, Montgomery campaign manager Maddie Summers said Montgomery is a “progressive Democrat” and has “never voted for a Republican and never given a dime to a Republican candidate.”

“Anything said otherwise is a political hoax by those who have shown they’ll take the side of big corporations over Virginia families,” Summers said.

Summers said Giuliani was a “celebrity guest” at a real estate conference Montgomery attended “about a decade ago.”

“She is no more responsible for what Rudy Guliani did 10 years later than you or I,” Summers said.

The mailers take indirect aim at Bills and his wife, philanthropist Sonjia Smith, suggesting Clean Virginia and Smith’s support for Montgomery is more evidence of Montgomery’s “Republican connections” because Clean Virginia once made a donation to controversial state Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield.

But Bills, Smith and Clean Virginia have overwhelmingly donated to Democrats, making major contributions to dozens of candidates as Democrats retook majorities in Richmond for the first time in decades. Since Clean Virginia’s founding in 2018, the group and Bills have given more than $1.8 million to House Democrats and Democratic candidates running in general-election House races, according to a Clean Virginia spokesperson. Clean Virginia has given money to about 40 of the House Democratic Caucus’s 55 current members.

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The group has occasionally donated to Republicans who support its goals of reducing Dominion Energy’s influence at the General Assembly. Smith has not donated to Republicans, and has contributed nearly $4.2 million to Democratic candidates and left-leaning causes, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

King was elected in the 2nd House District late last year after former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy resigned from the seat to focus on her run for governor. King defeated Montgomery in a firehouse primary in December that drew less than 1,000 voters. Montgomery is running against King again in a June 8 primary expected to draw much higher turnout, and Montgomery received a $40,000 donation from Smith to jumpstart that effort. Clean Virginia also endorsed Montgomery and but has not yet reported a donation to her.

The term “dark money” typically refers to spending from outside groups that don’t reveal their original funding sources. Clean Virginia discloses that Bills is its funder and both its giving and Smith’s is easily traceable on VPAP, the nonprofit website that tracks money in state politics.

The mailer doesn’t name Bills, Smith or Clean Virginia by name, but cites VPAP as its source for the claim Montgomery is backed by the same donors who fund “Republican extremist Amanda Chase.” Chase has challenged Dominion in the past, particularly on the issue of cleaning up toxic coal ash. Clean Virginia had said its mission to reduce Dominion’s influence cut across party lines, but the group announced last summer it would no longer be donating to Chase due to her “dangerous and divisive” rhetoric on race.

Coal ash has also been an issue in the Northern Virginia district King and Montgomery are competing in, where the company will be required to clean up millions of tons of coal ash at its Possum Point power station.

In a statement, Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said the group “will proudly and unapologetically fight for any candidate who will hold Dominion Energy accountable.”

“The recent attack ad against Pam Montgomery — paid for by the Virginia House Democratic Caucus — is a shameful smear campaign full of inaccuracies,” Gilmore said. “Groundlessly besmirching the name of a lifelong civil servant and community leader simply because, unlike the short-term incumbent, she refuses contributions from Dominion Energy is both disgraceful and an illogical strategy.”

Clean Virginia is backing Carroll Foy for governor over frontrunning ex-Gov. Terry McAuliffe and has endorsed Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, in his primary against incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, are backing McAuliffe and Herring in those races.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Filler-Corn spokesman Kunal Atit said the speaker did not authorize the mailers. He would not answer when asked if the speaker’s office was aware they were going out.

“I’m going to have to cut off the conversation,” he said.

In a text message hours later, Atit said the speaker’s office wasn’t aware the mailers were being sent.

Charniele Herring’s office deferred comment to Kate Sarna, a spokeswoman for the caucus. Given four hours to respond, Sarna offered an emailed statement Wednesday evening.

“House Democratic Leadership did not see the mailer before it went out,” she said.

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. Contact him at [email protected]

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