The Bulletin

Delegate agrees to pay full costs of primary-season mailer sent on House letterhead

By: - June 22, 2021 12:02 am
Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Del. Mark Levine has agreed to cover the full costs of a political mailer critics said crossed the line separating campaign messaging and official House of Delegates business.

As a perk of office, House members have access to up to $750 of taxpayer-funded postage to send mail keeping their constituents up to speed on state policy issues and how they’re being represented in Richmond.

But a 17-page update Levine, D-Alexandria, sent before the June 8 primaries, when he was on the ballot both as a candidate for lieutenant governor and as an incumbent seeking re-election to his House seat, drew fire for its specific references to upcoming elections.

Earlier this month, Alexandria Now reported that the mailing included the web addresses for both of Levine’s campaign websites and an appeal for support, but no disclaimer indicating the message was funded through one of Levine’s campaign accounts.

In an interview Monday, House Clerk Suzette Denslow, who oversees the administrative side of the legislative chamber, said she “raised the issue” with Levine after being made aware of it.

“He volunteered to repay $750, which is the maximum postage allowance that delegates get per year,” Denslow said.

Denslow said House members’ mailings get a “pretty cursory look” from her office before being approved, and Levine’s was not flagged before it went out. The full cost of the mailing was a little more than $3,400, she said, and Levine would have had to pay for anything over $750 anyway.

Levine, who lost both his primary contests, said in an interview he saw the mailing as an “informational letter” explaining the unique circumstances of why he was appearing on the ballot twice. He said he still doesn’t think it clearly qualified as campaign advertising, but agreed to reimburse the clerk’s office to clear up the matter after others complained.

“I think the line is murky,” Levine said. “And I just decided to pay for it myself so that people couldn’t claim I used taxpayer money on this letter.”

Many of Virginia’s ethics rules function more on an honor system rather than strict oversight.

Unlike with federal office, there is no prohibition on legislative staffers performing work on their bosses’ political campaigns, and it’s not uncommon to see staffers with taxpayer-funded jobs also being paid from campaign accounts.

Levine said all legislators might benefit from clearer rules on mailings.

“There’s no real standard here,” he said. “If you say early voting begins on such and such date, does that cross the line? I don’t think so.”

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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.