Vir­ginia can be less be­holden to cor­po­rate in­ter­ests

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY STEPHEN NASH

What if they didn’t take the cash? Some Democrats in Wash­ing­ton and Rich­mond mill and mull, dazed and Trump-flum­moxed. They’re com­pelled to look for new roles to play but can’t un­stick from the old ones — can’t find clar­ity or hope to of­fer a mis­trust­ful elec­torate.

Cam­paign fi­nance re­form at the state leg­is­la­ture would be a great place to start, but it’s hard for some Democrats to think out­side the trea­sure box. Three-quar­ters of Amer­i­can vot­ers — nearly equal num­bers in both par­ties — are con­vinced that Congress is for sale. Given its record, the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture can’t make a cred­i­ble claim to higher pub­lic con­fi­dence. Maybe Roanoke, of all places, of­fers in­spi­ra­tion.

Why are the real es­tate agents, the health in­dus­try, the beer whole­salers and bankers shov­ing all that cash into the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture? Law pro­fes­sor Wil­liam Black, a for­mer bank reg­u­la­tor, sum­ma­rizes the or­di­nary ci­ti­zen’s street-level, tragic view when he writes that “a cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion al­ways gen­er­ates the best re­turn on in­vest­ment.”

When I asked Repub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Frank Wag­ner, a state sen­a­tor from Vir­ginia Beach, about big money in state pol­i­tics last year, he re­marked that he “can cer­tainly un­der­stand the sen­ti­ment of some of the pub­lic that ‘Oh, he re­ceived money from them, there­fore he is be­holden.’ . . . I think it’s a con­clu­sion that many peo­ple would draw.”

A mis­taken con­clu­sion, he as­sured me. But — funny thing — the state-reg­u­lated power util­ity Do­min­ion En­ergy gave more than $7.4 mil­lion to Vir­ginia leg­is­la­tors over the past decade, in­clud­ing $770,000 in 2016-2017 alone, ac­cord­ing to the non­profit, non­par­ti­san Vir­ginia Pub­lic Ac­cess Project. Co­in­ci­den­tally, Do­min­ion has racked up an as­ton­ish­ing string of leg­isla­tive tri­umphs over those years, amp­ing up its profit mar­gins along the way.

You could ask your state sen­a­tor or del­e­gate: Why is it eth­i­cal to take money from a state-reg­u­lated en­tity or any cor­po­ra­tion and then vote on mea­sures that af­fect those cor­po­ra­tions’ prof­its? Don’t ac­cept the easy an­swer: “I need the money to get elected.” Ver­mont, Con­necti­cut and con­ser­va­tive Ari­zona have fig­ured that out, with vol­un­tary do­na­tion lim­its and pub­lic fi­nanc­ing for can­di­dates. Is your sen­a­tor or del­e­gate push­ing — nois­ily — for that? Why not?

Democrats could change and grab onto this pop­ulist eth­i­cal is­sue, but many of them would burn their hands. Do­min­ion — the top cor­po­rate giver on a long list of big donors — gives money to dozens in both par­ties. State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fair­fax) is the big­gest in­di­vid­ual prizewin­ner, thanks to his long leg­isla­tive ser­vice, per­haps, with gifts of $298,000 from Do­min­ion over the years.

Roanoke Del. Sam Ra­soul, a 35year-old man­age­ment con­sul­tant, ex­ited a lead­er­ship role in that cham­ber’s Demo­cratic cau­cus: “My party needs to evolve,” he told me. “Af­ter the elec­tion, which re­ally sig­naled an all-time low for Democrats in mod­ern his­tory, it be­came ev­i­dent that we were stuck in our ra­tio­nal­iza­tions as to why we are los­ing. I don’t want to be part of an es­tab­lish­ment lead­er­ship ap­pa­ra­tus that doesn’t want to rad­i­cally change the way they do busi­ness.”

Soon af­ter, he an­nounced that he’ll de­cline cam­paign do­na­tions above $5,000 from any­one and will take no more cam­paign cash from special-in­ter­est PACs and cor­po­ra­tions.

Does money re­ally buy in­flu­ence in Rich­mond? “It’s so ob­vi­ous that this is not in the in­ter­est of Vir­gini­ans, yet some­how this leg­is­la­tion passes with over­whelm­ing sup­port,” Ra­soul told me. “It’s sad to watch to watch that hap­pen, be­cause it’s clear that the leg­is­la­ture, as far as Do­min­ion is con­cerned, is bought and paid for.”

A higher mul­ti­ple of $25 cam­paign donors can out­weigh the few be­he­moths, and in­tegrity in­spires voter en­gage­ment. Ra­soul thinks that in the so­cial-me­dia era, vot­ers pay far less at­ten­tion to all that high-dol­lar junk mail, the blar­ing tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials and fake tele­phone push polls. Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) and Pres­i­dent Trump proved that.

Ra­soul doesn’t seem to be strut­ting over his de­ci­sion, though. It just feels bet­ter, he told me. “It’s not per­fect un­til we have pub­lic fi­nanc­ing of cam­paigns, or some other mech­a­nism to limit dol­lars so peo­ple are play­ing on a level field. What I did is not the whole so­lu­tion, but it was the big­gest step I think I could take right now to send a clear mes­sage to the peo­ple of Vir­ginia, or across this coun­try, that we are not be­holden to special in­ter­ests — that we are op­er­at­ing in the in­ter­ests of the peo­ple.”

Can­di­dates could gain sup­port by sig­nal­ing that. It would be great to see some more of them try. Stephen Nash is the au­thor of “Vir­ginia Cli­mate Fever — How Cli­mate Change Will Trans­form Our Cities, Shore­lines and Forests.”

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