Monday, December 11, 2023

Millions Funneled into Virginia Primaries Reignite Calls for Campaign Finance Reform

House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, during the 2023 General Assembly session. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — In this year’s primary elections, the biggest spenders were Dominion Energy and Clean Virginia, which contributed over $12 million combined to campaigns this election cycle.

The $5.2 million in funding from the Clean Virginia Fund and $7 million from Dominion resulted in more primary wins for Clean Virginia-backed candidates than Dominion-backed candidates in competitive races last month. (While figures from the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in politics, list Clean Virginia founder and millionaire Michael Bills as the top donor of the 2022-23 cycle, the vast majority of his donations went directly to the Clean Virginia Fund, which then doled out contributions to candidates and groups.)

But even though candidates who received larger amounts of money from Clean Virginia than their opponents got from Dominion ended up winning in most cases, in some races the opposite happened, showing both that other factors like voter dissatisfaction or candidate familiarity in some districts had a bigger impact and the electric utility still remains a significant player in state politics.

The spending also resparked calls for campaign finance reform in Virginia, which has long placed some of the fewest restrictions on campaign spending in the nation.

“When you look at the amount of money from Dominion and Clean Virginia going into these elections, it’s a money arms war,” said Nancy Morgan, coordinator of BigMoneyOutVA, a campaign finance reform advocacy group. That, she continued, is “to the detriment of the voters.”

Dominion, which has long been one of the biggest donors to politicians in Virginia, said its funding this primary season was aimed at supporting bipartisan candidates in pursuit of the company’s energy policy goals. Clean Virginia, an advocacy group started by Bills to counter Dominion’s influence in the General Assembly, largely supported Democratic candidates, all of whom pledged to not take utility money. Sonjia Smith, a philanthropist married to Bills, also contributed about $2 million this cycle, but both she and Bills have said their giving is done independently. In a few cases — as in this year’s race for a Fairfax Senate seat sought by both Sen. Chap Petersen and newcomer Saddam Azlan Salim — Smith and Clean Virginia donated to opposing candidates.

“We are first and foremost checking the power of a monopoly whose power for decades went unchecked,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia. “We are putting a lot of money in these races for that purpose.”

Dominion declined to answer several questions about its funding for this story, referring the Mercury to a statement noting that the company represents millions of customers and thousands of employees, who “depend on us for reliable, affordable and increasingly clean energy.”

“Like most companies, we contribute to candidates from both parties in support of common sense energy policy,” Dominion spokesperson Craig Carper said in an email.

It’s a money arms war.

– Nancy Morgan, BigMoneyOutVA

The millions poured into primaries this year have led to campaign finance reform advocates like BigMoneyOutVa and CommonCause re-upping their calls for stricter contribution limits, individual contribution disclosures and public financing options for candidates.

“I just hope this is the year where there’s so much attention drawn to this that either the new legislators or the citizens will say enough is enough and put pressure on people to pass some reasonable legislation,” said Morgan.

But not everyone is so hopeful. Michele Joyce, a Democratic candidate for a Southside Virginia House seat who received $25,000 from Dominion but lost to an opponent who received more than 10 times as much funding from Clean Virginia, said reform efforts aren’t likely to be successful. Clean Virginia contributed to 28 races and Dominion 21 during this year’s primaries, and she said as long as groups and businesses are willing to donate money, candidates will continue to vie for their dollars.

“We know that lawmakers don’t like to vote against themselves,” Joyce said.

Northern Virginia

In this year’s primaries, the two organizations funneled the majority of their spending into Democratic races in the Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond regions.

In Northern Virginia, Dominion’s biggest contributions were to George Barker, an incumbent from Fairfax who received $230,000; former Democratic delegate and lieutenant governor candidate Hala Ayala, who received $225,000; and Dave Marsden, another incumbent from Fairfax, who received $25,000. Clean Virginia backed candidates challenging all three, giving $513,285 to Barker opponent Stella Pekarsky, a Fairfax County school board member; $440,000 to Ayala opponent Jennifer Carroll Foy, a former delegate; and $456,039 to Marsden opponent Heidi Drauschak, a campaign finance reform advocate.

In total, Dominion spent $480,000 on the three races. Clean Virginia spent $1.4 million.

On Primary Day, Clean Virginia saw two victories in those races, with Pekarsky defeating Barker and Carroll Foy beating Ayala. But the organization’s second-biggest output, to Drauschak, failed to unseat Marsden.

Despite Drauschak receiving over $430,000 more from Clean Virginia than Marsden took in from Dominion, Marsden chalked up his victory to getting to know the residents of his new district in 2022 and what he described as his record of protecting ratepayers. He pointed in particular to his introduction during the past session of an amendment to a Dominion-backed bill that will require the utility to return 85% of over-earnings to ratepayers, up 15% from what prior law required.

Nevertheless, he said voters in his district don’t see Dominion as a key election issue.

“I just don’t think people see Dominion as a source of problems in Virginia,” Marsden said.

Voters go to the polls in Fairfax County on Primary Day 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Drauschak, a political newcomer, for her part attributed the loss to Marsden’s deep roots in the community and endorsements from the Washington Post and other area legislators. She also said her campaign didn’t sufficiently emphasize what she described as the problem of legislators receiving donations from groups and then writing legislation that could benefit those groups.

“Really bringing that [message] home is extremely difficult,” said Drauschak, who sits on the executive committee for BigMoneyOutVa. “Even when I talk to people in the industry, they can tell me upfront, ‘Yes, these legislators are voting on behalf of their corporate donors.”

But, she said, “It’s super complicated to see what the actual implications are. Our legislative session is fast, and a lot of this legislation is extremely detailed.”

Despite working with BigMoneyOutVa, Drauschak said that she accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in Clean Virginia funding because she supports the organization’s efforts to diminish Dominion’s influence.

“They’re playing the game the only way that you can play the game right now in Virginia, and that means going toe to toe with a lot of corporate donors,” Drauschak said. “There’s a big difference if you’re playing the game to change the game versus you’re playing because you want to rig it and have it things go your way, which is how Dominion and a lot of corporate donors have been doing it for decades.”

Another Northern Virginia loss for Clean Virginia was the surprise defeat of Petersen by newcomer Salim, a first-generation immigrant with a background in finance. While Salim received no funding from Dominion, Petersen received $10,000 from Clean Virginia, while his PAC received $100,000. Altogether, Petersen outraised Salim by more than five times — but still lost.

“There was the example of Chap Petersen, who got all this money, not from Dominion, a little bit from Clean Virginia,” said Morgan. “But then he lost his election to Salim, who didn’t have a lot of money. So, the question is, How much influence does money make when you’re running for election?”

In an interview, Salim attributed his victory to an aggressive grassroots campaign that incorporated more affordable online advertisements and text message engagement in addition to focusing on meeting potential voters face to face.

While Salim said large donors initially told him he couldn’t defeat Petersen, his campaign revealed significant dissatisfaction among Petersen constituents who didn’t support his split from the Democratic Party on issues such as banning assault weapons and keeping schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We just proved that money isn’t always the key to winning a lot of these races,” Salim said. “At the end of the day I think the voters are not aware of not only the amount of money that comes in but also what type of money.”

Hampton Roads

In the Hampton Roads region, where Dominion is developing what’s expected to be the country’s largest offshore wind project, Dominion poured almost $600,000 into a single race between two long-time Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, for a seat to represent a newly redrawn Senate district. In total, the utility contributed $305,000 to winner Lucas and $290,000 to Spruill.

Both Spruill and Lucas are seen as Dominion allies on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which takes up energy policy-related bills. Lucas, as Senate president pro tempore, is among those being considered for new Democratic leadership.

Spruill declined to comment for this story. Lucas did not respond to a request for one.

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, who has been a vocal critic of Dominion’s influence in the General Assembly, called the utility’s spending in the Spruill-Lucas race “absurd.”

“Dominion has one of the most sophisticated political operations in the entire commonwealth. They hire some of the smartest people and they very much know what they’re doing in Virginia politics,” said Suetterlein. “They’re trying to demonstrate their political power in the commonwealth. Dominion Energy has high hopes of continued domination through a very monopoly-friendly Democratic Party leadership.”

Dominion Energy offices in Richmond, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For The Virginia Mercury)

Clean Virginia meanwhile notched a win in a four-way race among Democrats to represent a Virginia Beach-based district. While the group initially donated $5,000 to the campaign of retired naval officer Susan Hippen, Hippen’s later acceptance of $110,000 from Dominion triggered Clean Virginia to ask for the money to be returned and donate to the three other candidates. The most, $35,000, went to Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, who ultimately secured the nomination.

In Norfolk, Dominion was more successful. Dominion gave $90,079 to Del. Angelia Williams Graves, who won the Democratic nomination for a new Senate seat against Andria McClellan, a Norfolk city councilwoman who received $10,000 from Clean Virginia.

Richmond region

In races in the Richmond region involving both Dominion and Clean Virginia, the latter came out ahead.

In the most high-profile race, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who received $140,000 from Dominion, lost to former Del. Lashrecse Aird, who received $317,000 from Clean Virginia. However, many election watchers attributed the outcome to voter discomfort with Morrissey’s checkered past and stance on abortion.

Dominion-backed candidates also lost to Clean Virginia-backed opponents in Democratic races for Portsmouth and Richmond area seats. In Portsmouth, Joyce received $25,000 from Dominion and was defeated by Del. Nadarius Clark, who got $137,500 from Clean Virginia. In Richmond, City Councilwoman Ann Lambert received $10,000 from Dominion and was defeated by attorney Rae Cousins, who received $218,000 from Clean Virginia.

Joyce said that although she was a longtime resident of the newly drawn district she ran in and Clark was less familiar, the funding Clark received allowed him to send out mailers and hire staff to meet constituents.

Big donations like Clean Virginia’s to Clark “actually excludes and prevents people like me that have been in the community…to actually be in the potential political pool,” Joyce said. “Yes, indeed, it does make a difference.”

Who should be able to influence elections

While many politicians have been critical of the millions of dollars Dominion and Clean Virginia have poured into Virginia races over the past few years, others say their spending acts as an important lever in the political process.

Clean Virginia, its supporters argue, has used its funds to counterbalance years of campaign spending by Dominion during which the General Assembly passed a series of bills favorable to the utility.

“A number of the incumbents, including some of the ones who lost [in the primaries], have been part of a systemic and successful attempt by Dominion Energy to rewrite the rules so that they could overcharge Virginians by billions of dollars,” Gilmore said. “One might say that this was sort of the standard practice, a lot of different legislators voted for this. That’s the case as well, but in the last few years this has become more and more of a dominant theme. People have had the chance to change that.”

Not everyone sees the group as a positive, though. Many Democratic lawmakers have sharply criticized the group for allowing a millionaire who hasn’t been elected to office to exert undue influence on the Democratic Party.

Michael Bills, a multi-millionaire investor, in his office on the Downtown Mall in 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 former Democratic Del. David Toscano, in a 2021 interview with the Mercury. “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.”

Joyce, the Portsmouth Democratic candidate who got $25,000 from Dominion, said she didn’t see Dominion as “inherently evil” and didn’t like Clean Virginia’s requirement that candidates whose campaigns it funds not take money from Dominion. That goes a step beyond combating legislative influence, she said, and creates divisiveness.

“When [Clean Virginia says] I cannot work with somebody at all, because Dominion has policies that they may not agree with, how do we get anything done with that?” Joyce said.

Even though the most recent primary results show more Dominion-backed candidates lost than Clean Virginia-funded opponents, the influence the utility has is “still up in the air,” said campaign finance watchdog Morgan. Lucas remains in office, she pointed out, and could assume the powerful chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee.

“My sense is [Dominion’s] got deep coffers,” Morgan said.

Campaign finance reform 

Whether unhappiness over the high spending levels in this year’s primaries will spur campaign finance reform is unclear. While a handful of Virginia legislators have for years put forward bills aimed at limiting the amount of money entering races, few have been successful.

Most recently, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee shot down bills from Petersen that sought to limit campaign contributions to $20,000 and prevent donations from publicly regulated utilities like Dominion Energy. (Spruill, the chair of the committee, cast votes against both.) In 2020, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, introduced a bill that would have created a system of public financing of campaigns, but legislators shot that down too.

Reforms are necessary, say groups like BigMoneyOutVA. Virginia ranked 46th on the nonprofit Coalition for Integrity’s 2020 States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials, or SWAMP, index, which looks at regulatory and legal safeguards states have established for ethics and transparency among elected officials. The state is also one of 11 that impose no contribution limits on individual donors. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the national average for state contribution limits in the 2023-24 election cycle is roughly $3,000 for state Senate races and $2,700 for state House races. Of those states that set limits, Ohio has the highest limit at $13,000 and Montana the lowest at $180.

But many Virginia lawmakers say contribution caps will lead to an increase in dark money, or campaign donations from people who aren’t easily identifiable.

“It’s an extraordinarily complicated problem and I don’t think anyone really appreciates how difficult it is,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who has consistently opposed reform legislation.

Surovell said that if Democrats secure majorities in both legislative chambers this November, reforms will “definitely be on the table.”

Suetterlein, a younger Republican, was skeptical, contending Democrats have talked a lot about campaign finance reform but have taken little action, including during the two years in which they controlled all three branches of state government.

“During the Democratic trifecta that just ended 18 months ago, they talked a lot about prohibiting the use of campaign funds for personal use, something I voted for,” Suetterlein said. “But throughout they would stall it, and it still has not gone into effect or reached the governor’s desk. The General Assembly is going to look a lot different in 2024, and there will be a lot of opportunity to consider things that had not made it to the floor in the past.”

Marsden, a Senate Democrat who co-patroned last year’s contribution limit bill, said there is a need for change but also praised Virginia’s campaign finance system for not having as many rules for donors to work around as exist in other states.

“It can be done,” Marsden said. “I don’t know that Republicans will go there, but maybe they will. It needs to be something we all agree with, Republicans and Democrats.”

Most recently, a joint subcommittee created by the General Assembly to take a “comprehensive” look at campaign finance reform failed to meet a single time in 2022.

That lack of legislators taking issue with campaign finance rules is why CommonCause, another campaign finance reform advocacy group, said it is looking to engage citizens to put pressure on legislators to make changes.

Virginians think it’s a problem, but the candidates are like, ‘Oh we disclose, and so people know we took Dominion money.’ We need to watch how you vote on certain pieces of legislation,’” said Lauren Coletta, a senior adviser for the group. “The system is so backwards that people don’t understand [Virginia is] an outlier. That has to change.”

Gilmore said Clean Virginia supports reforms and believes its own donation amounts as well as those from Dominion have “gotten completely out of control.”

“Without systemic reform on campaign finance issues, I don’t expect things to change in the coming months,” Gilmore said. “It is my hope that we will not see this level of spending continue because we have created a proper and holistic approach to campaigning and electoral funding that ensures fairness and integrity is the key attribute of our elections.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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