Anemic start for Virginia’s campaign finance study could delay final report

‘These are people who you know have no interest in changing the system’

By: - July 29, 2021 12:08 am

The Virginia General Assembly included $7 million in the 2019 and 2020 fiscal year budgets to implement an alternative mental health transportation model throughout the whole state for adults and children. The next year, the state provided $4.5 million for the program.

As both political parties flood supporters with desperate-sounding pleas for money to win the 2021 elections, an effort to study campaign finance reform in Virginia is off to a decidedly less urgent start.

A joint General Assembly subcommittee approved in February to study whether Virginia needs stricter laws on money in politics still hasn’t held its first meeting.

With most of the summer gone and less than 100 days left to finish its work by a Nov. 1 deadline, some policymakers are now wondering if they have enough time to complete the study on time.

“I think the whole thing could be pushed back,” Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, a subcommittee co-chair, said in an interview this week.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, the other co-chair, agreed. He said the group may need to rethink how comprehensive the study can realistically be whenever it meets for the first time, probably at some point in August.

“We’ll try and set the table then figure out what things we can do,” said Simon, who has advocated for banning the personal use of campaign funds, which is prohibited in federal elections and most other states but allowed under Virginia law.

Often dubbed “the Wild West” of campaign finance rules, Virginia requires state and local politicians to disclose their donors but imposes almost no limits beyond that, leaving wealthy individuals and corporate interests free to give as much as they want. Though many state lawmakers insist those donations don’t influence policy, it’s not uncommon for donors to open up their checkbooks just as the legislature takes up an issue affecting their interests.

Almost all of the subcommittee’s 14 members were appointed over the last few months, but Gov. Ralph Northam hasn’t made an appointment for the one citizen seat his administration gets to fill. Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said she expects the appointment to come soon but couldn’t give an estimated timeline. Northam called for campaign finance reform as a candidate in 2017, including banning corporate donations, but Democrats have yet to deliver the types of restrictions he said he supported.

Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, who proposed the study and is serving on the subcommittee, said he’s confident the group can still do “meaningful work” this year but will probably need more time to “adequately flesh out what we want to see happen.”

“I have been hearing from stakeholders with some suggestions about how it is that they can be involved and what kind of issues they can throw into the mix,” Bulova said. “We want to make sure that we get a good solid grounding as far as what are the options out there.”

The report to the full legislature in November, Bulova said, could potentially include a recommendation to continue the study for another year.

Deeds and Simon, who oversee election-policy committees in their respective chambers, blamed several factors for the study’s slow start. 

The COVID-19 pandemic remains a drain time and scheduling, and legislative staffers who assist with election policy already have an unusually  high workload helping the new Virginia Redistricting Commission, which will redraw legislative and congressional maps this fall.

Deeds said he’s been working on addressing the crisis in the state’s mental health hospitals and his initiative to establish a permanent Behavioral Health Commission. He also suggested some of his colleagues saw the study as an “excuse” not to act on the proposal to ban the personal use of campaign funds. That bill passed the House of Delegates unanimously earlier this year and seemed headed for approval in the Senate before being stopped and rolled into the study.

Redistricting was already a sore spot for some Democrats who felt the party made a mistake by handing its map-drawing power to a bipartisan commission just after winning majority control in the legislature. With that shift, more money started flowing to Democrats who now call the shots on what legislation passes or fails. 

Fear of weakening their majority power further with new limits on political donations, Simon said, is also a factor in some Democrats’ reluctance to move on campaign finance reform.

“That sentiment is out there,” said Simon. “I don’t want to attribute it to any one particular person.”

Josh Stanfield, a progressive activist who has advocated for campaign finance reform for years, offered a more direct theory: Many Democrats don’t actually want to do it. And the legislators appointed to the subcommittee, he said, don’t appear to be the most reform-friendly bunch.

“You put all the big fish on the commission but these are people who you know have no interest in changing the system and complete interest in keeping it the same,” Stanfield said.

Simon and Deeds got automatic spots on the study subcommittee. Five legislative seats were filled by House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, and three were filled by the Senate Committee on Rules. The speaker also got to appoint two citizen members, while the Senate got to fill one citizen seat.

The chosen senators are Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, Barbara Favola, D-Fairfax, and Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.

The House members are Bulova, Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, Kathy Byron, R-Lynchburg, and Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol. 

Apart from Bulova and Simon, few of the appointed legislators are seen as clear backers of campaign finance reform, and legislators who have sponsored major reform bills were largely excluded from the roster.

In a high-stakes election year, there’s been ample evidence of Virginia’s wide-open system at work.

Several Democrats facing primary challengers earlier ran ads denouncing the big-money influence of Clean Virginia, an advocacy group backed by Charlottesville hedge fund manager Michael Bills that has made sizable donations to Democratic incumbents and challengers alike. Bills and his group say they’re working to oppose the political clout of Dominion Energy, the regulated utility that has long been one of the state’s top corporate donors.

Just before the June primaries, the House Democratic Caucus approved a mailer implying Bills is a “dark money billionaire,” even though his group has donated heavily to dozens of the caucus’s own members.

Days later, Democratic Del. Hala Ayala, now her party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, broke a pledge not to accept Dominion donations, accepting a $100,000 contribution from the company in the final stretch of a competitive primary.

In the Republican nominating contest for governor, several shadowy PACs emerged to attack various candidates, leading to a wave of accusations and denials as to which campaign might secretly be behind them.

Skeptics of limiting the size of donations to Virginia candidates contend it could simply push spending underground, forcing big spenders to do it through pop-up PACS instead of giving directly to campaigns.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive and newcomer to state politics, dipped into his own fortune en route to winning the GOP nomination as a newcomer to state politics. He’s loaned his own campaign a total of $12 million this year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

In the Democratic primary, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, known as a prolific fundraiser, dominated his lesser-known rivals in the money race. He spent more than $11 million in the primary, more than his four opponents combined.

McAuliffe hasn’t been a vocal proponent of campaign finance reform, and his gubernatorial campaign is accepting six-figure checks far beyond the limits envisioned in some Democratic reform bills. Those contributions include $250,000 from BET founder Robert L. Johnson and $250,000 from Napster co-founder Sean Parker.

Against that backdrop, Stanfield, the progressive activist, said he doesn’t have much optimism about the study committee producing substantial change.

“And I’m not really sure who’s calling the shots in terms of what’s going to happen with it,” he said.

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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.