A Dialogue on Money in Virginia Politics

Jeff Thomas: Thank you for having me to Bacon’s Rebellion, Jim. I’m a longtime reader, first-time poster. Money in Virginia politics is an important topic on which I think we both agree, and I’m eager to hear your take on it. As I understand it, we’ll each answer and ask a question of the other within a 500-word limit. So let me begin.

What would be the rules for your ideal campaign finance system in Virginia?

Jim Bacon: Jeff, I’m delighted to engage in this exchange. As author of “The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power after 2016,” you are one of the few writers to take a deep interest in Virginia’s political economy, genuinely trying to understand the sources and distribution of power at the state/local level. Hopefully, this dialogue will prove illuminating.

Like you and many others, I find the role of money in politics to be disturbing. It is deeply unfair that the rich and powerful can buy more political influence through campaign contributions than ordinary citizens. But unfairness is part of the human condition. The question is whether the cure is worse than the disease. I do not believe in restricting campaign contributions, even if it means giving a billionaire California liberal like Tom Steyer and his NextGen Climate Action group (more than $3.7 million in the past few years) a bigger voice in Virginia politics than a life-long resident like myself. The Constitution gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and the right to petition government, and I regard the donation of money to political candidates as an extension of both those rights.

Therefore, I believe the best “solution” is radical transparency – the reporting and dissemination of campaign-contribution data, which, thanks to the Virginia Public Access Project, we have in Virginia. With radical transparency, vying factions can offset one another.

If one disapproves of Dominion Energy’s political influence in legislative races, one can set up an organization like Clean Virginia and promise to donate money to candidates who eschew Dominion money. Conversely, if one objects to Tom Steyer’s meddling in Virginia elections, one is free to make an issue of it. (So far, no one has – what a shame!) I think Virginia’s campaign finance-reporting laws work as well as can be expected.

Where the system fails is its inability to track “dark money.” There are many ways to influence political and public policy outcomes – not just through campaign contributions, personal gifts to legislators, and lobbying (which are reported), but through the underwriting of advocacy groups, activist groups, research reports, ad campaigns, lawsuits, media outlets such as The Virginia Mercury and National Public Radio, and the like, all of which shape the political/public policy battlefield. Who funds these groups? Most refuse to disclose their funding sources, and the public has no way to find out. My ideal system would expand radical transparency to cover all such sources of dark money.

So, my question to you is this: How do you justify framing the issue of unequal power and influence as one of “campaign finance” as opposed to a broader definition that encompasses all means of influencing political and policy outcomes?

Thomas: Thanks, Jim. You put it well: “the role of money in politics [is] disturbing.”

I asked my question to learn your views and see what common ground we share. I agree that there are many roots of “unequal power and influence” beyond direct contributions including those you mention and others like wealth and control of resources.

In The Virginia Way, I actually do discuss Clean Virginia, NextGen Climate Action, and new foundations of power. I write how shifting sources of capital in Virginia and nationwide have partially countered Dominion’s historical dominance, which would be predicted by a “Virginia Way” theory that politicians do what donors want. Unfortunately, many politicians are not truthful and support whatever helps themselves.

Your ideal system of campaign finance would abolish contribution limits while expanding disclosure. This would be a major departure from the current system as contribution limits, e.g., $2,800.00 to a federal candidate per election, are constitutional under Buckley v. Valeo, as are disclosure requirements. What you advocate would be illegal at the federal level, which is not to say the law could not be changed.

States set their own limits, which Virginia politicians decline to do. “Virginia is the only state where lawmakers can raise unlimited campaign donations from anyone, including corporations and unions, and spend the money on themselves,” writes Alan Suderman. Citizens can contemplate why this is uniquely Virginian.

I also agree with you that “it is deeply unfair that the rich and powerful can buy more political influence through campaign contributions than ordinary citizens.” Large donations are corrupting, but you believe restrictions on campaign donations are unconstitutional so therefore transparency is better than secrecy. I don’t understand why Buckley would be unconstitutional in its limits but constitutional in its disclosure requirements but I understand that is your First Amendment interpretation.

I support transparency but am more skeptical of its overall benefits. I spoke to someone at VPAP several years ago, and s/he said that VPAP was primarily used by donors and politicians to see what others were donating. VPAP’s donor list is instructive. I am not saying there are no benefits to VPAP’s disclosures or other work, as clearly there are for people like journalists and your readers who are deeply engaged in these issues – I am just repeating what s/he told me and do not know whether it is still true. Furthermore, allowing con men to give cash to governors and billionaires to spend millions to influence elections is not in the public interest. These were disclosed.

Because money can influence public policy, as you note, I support campaign finance limits for the same reason that I support giving every citizen one vote. There are myriad ways to curtail corruption; one solution is for Virginia to adopt federal limits.

Here’s my question. Since you support radical transparency for “media outlets such as the Virginia Mercury,” when will you disclose the amount of money Dominion paid you to write about energy issues from 2015-2018?

Bacon: Jeff, I tell you what. I’ll disclose how much money I’m getting paid by Dominion now: zero dollars. Dominion and I amicably ended our sponsorship relationship more than a year ago. I was tired of others maligning my reporting and commentary and wanted to be free to say whatever I thought free from such aspersions. (Not that it’s stopped some people from casting them.) Let’s have some radical transparency starting now. Who is paying Virginia Mercury and how much? Where does the Virginia branch of the Sierra Club get its money? Where does the Southern Environmental Law Center get its money? Where do all the other progressive activist groups get their money? Did you ask those questions in The Virginia Way?

Here’s my theory on where liberals and progressives are coming from on campaign-donation reform. Here in Virginia, they attack campaign contributions because that’s where non-progressives come closest to parity. Liberals and progressives dominate every other avenue for influencing public opinion and public policy. They dominate foundation money – except for the Koch Brothers, whom they relentlessly attack (through proxy groups funded by god knows who). Libs and progs dominate tax-advantaged non-profit money. They dominate the colleges and universities (which are supported by state subsidies and federal loans). They dominate museums and cultural institutions (also tax-advantaged). They have perfected the art of using lawsuits to bring opponents to their knees. Most importantly, they dominate the newspapers, which have an unparalleled ability to frame issues and drive policy change. Liberals and progressives dominate every non-elected mechanism for influencing politics and policy but one, so they relentlessly go after that one.

It’s all about the power, baby! And please don’t pretend otherwise. Progressives have made an issue of campaign contributions as a stratagem for shaping the political battlefield, and you know it.

So, when you support mechanisms to balance the playing field in these other areas – foundation money, nonprofit money, museums and cultural institutions, newspapers, and lawsuits – I’ll take your critique of the corrupting influence of campaign donations seriously. Until you do, I can conclude only that the outrage over campaign contributions is largely synthetic and guided by partisan political advantage.

As for me, I don’t advocate quashing the advantages of my philosophical/ideological adversaries. I just ask for transparency. Let the sun shine in. Let everybody know who is funded by whom. Let’s be honest about who has the power.

So, Jeff, I’ll repeat my previous question: How do you justify framing the issue of unequal power and influence as one of “campaign finance” as opposed to a broader definition that encompasses all means of influencing political and policy outcomes? No dodging the question this time!

Thomas: Alright – you don’t want to disclose the amount of money Dominion paid you but you want Virginia Mercury to disclose their money, because money influences other writers, but not you. Does this not strike you and your readers as at least a little hypocritical? Why do you think Dominion paid you, out of the goodness of its heart?

I get why you are defensive about Dominion money, and I think you simply made a mistake in taking it. Nothing is stopping you from donating it to charity.

I think the remainder of your argument is a projection, but I’ll address it.

I’m open to suggestions as to better ways to regulate nonprofits to prevent conflicts of interest. I think any organization engaged in electioneering should disclose their funders, which the Virginia Sierra Club does. SELC does not engage in electioneering. I agree that the Mercury should disclose the source of their funding if their sponsor, the Hopewell Fund, is just a shell organization for large donors.

As for “dodging” your question, you and I agree on a “broader definition” of power. I’m unsure how I can be clearer other than to reiterate that the viewpoint you attribute to me is inaccurate. You haven’t even taken the time to read the book, so how can you purport to know what is in it?

If you want to know why I write about Dominion, you can read my methodology. I write about Dominion as a case study on corporate power because it is the most powerful corporation in Virginia. Pretty straightforward. Moreover, “Virginia’s purported pro-business political philosophy [is] jarring to witness in comparison to Dominion and the legislature’s repeated efforts to raise electricity rates.” Unlike the other groups you mention, people do not have a choice to donate to Dominion; two-thirds of its revenue is guaranteed by the state government. Competing with Dominion is illegal. As for partisan advantage, Dominion is not Republican: it a corrupt, socialist corporation that donates to both Democrats and Republicans, scaled to whichever party is in power.

“I feel that chasing partisanship skews objectivity,” I write. “It does not and should not matter whether the perpetrators are of a certain party or position: injustice is injustice, whether it is carried out by Republican gerrymandering, a Democratic city machine, or a corrupt corporation.” Your partisanship thesis isn’t going to fly with me.

My nonpartisan position is that Virginia’s campaign contributions should be capped, as they are at the federal level. This would diminish the power of Dominion, the Sierra Club, Bloomberg, the NRA, and others, and might actually benefit Republicans.

Regarding your assertion that “foundation money, nonprofit money, museums and cultural institutions, newspapers, and lawsuits” are “dominated” by “liberals and progressives,” I don’t follow conspiracy theories.

I understand why criticism of Dominion rankles you: you worked for them. I’m still crossing my fingers that we can have a civil discussion.

Here is my question: what ethics laws would you like to see passed in Virginia?

Bacon: Jeff, I ended my Dominion sponsorship, and I opened up my blog to anti-Dominion points of view. Will Virginia Mercury relinquish its (as yet undisclosed) foundation money funneled through the Hopewell Fund, and open up its publication to anti-environmentalist points of view? I doubt it. More to the point of our discussion, unless you want to start enacting laws that apply after the fact, I would suggest that we pass a law providing complete visibility to nonprofit funding and expenditures from this point going forward.

Nevertheless, I will make this offer: If Virginia Mercury is willing to disclose its sources and the amount of its funding, I will disclose exactly how much money I received from Dominion. Additionally, if Virginia Mercury discloses the terms and conditions of its funding, I will disclose the terms and conditions of Dominion’s sponsorship of Bacon’s Rebellion. (Oh, I already did. I published my agreement with Dominion online, accessible to anyone. But I’ll make it available again.) Perhaps you would be willing to broker such an arrangement.

Now to address the question you raised in your previous response: What ethics laws would I like to see passed in Virginia. To be truthful, I have given the matter little thought. I would suggest (while claiming the right to revise my opinion) that the guiding principle should be transparency. Fully disclose as much as practicable, and then let voters decide if a particular relationship is unethical. It worked for Gov. Bob McDonnell who, though he did not break any laws in the vitamin-supplement scandal, was so damaged in the eyes of the public that he had no political future after stepping down as governor.

If I understand correctly, you are open to capping contributions from non-profit organizations just as you are for corporations. And you are willing to regulate nonprofits to prevent “conflicts of interest.” I would appreciate it if you could elaborate upon what you mean by “conflicts of interest.”

While you are willing to limit the ability of special interests to fund elections, from what I gather – and please correct me if I’m wrong – you appear to be indifferent to the ability of special interests to influence public opinion on issues that might in turn influence the outcome of elections. Many groups purport to have an “educational” mission. In most cases, that educational mission consists of “informing” the public – in other words, influencing voters. Therefore, while a particular entity may not contribute to the election campaign of Del. Nitwit or Sen. Knucklehead, it can spend unlimited and undisclosed sums on influencing public opinion on issues that are directly relevant to the re-election of Del. Nitwit and Sen. Knucklehead. So, for example, environmental groups can spend unlimited sums mobilizing voters to combat climate change and oppose legislative initiatives favored by Dominion, even as candidates running against Del. Nitwit and Sen. Knucklehead are attacking them for… taking money from a special interest like Dominion.

In such a scenario I do not oppose environmental groups from spending unlimited sums of money. They should be free to influence the process as they choose. I argue only that they should report these expenditures so the public can see how they are influencing the political process.

I am surprised that you, as a tribune of an open and democratic process, would not think the same. But perhaps I mistake your view. Do you oppose transparency for groups that influence the political process indirectly, through “educational” spending?

Thomas: That’s a good challenge to the Mercury. I’ve spoken to you more than I’ve spoken to anyone there, but I’m happy to e-connect. I believe you published a redacted copy of one year of your agreement with Dominion, and my guess is that VM would say they similarly disclosed their funder, the Hopewell Fund. I’d love to see you all have a ‘diablog’ and for you to post your sponsorships. Prove me wrong.

I’ll try to write to your points, but I think we’re running into some definitional fluidity with terms such as campaign contributions and nonprofits. In Virginia state elections, what you describe is not as much of an issue, because Virginia does not have campaign finance limits like we do in federal elections.

I do understand what you’re saying vis-à-vis “educational” spending. You’re getting to the heart of Citizens United. I think this was wrongly decided and overturned precedent to open the door to unlimited, putatively ‘independent expenditures’ of the sort you’re discussing. So, no, I am not indifferent to independent expenditures; I oppose the current system, and even the pre-Citizens landscape was far from ideal. Before Citizens, there were limits in place to prevent such electioneering communications for 30-60 days before an election. You and the Roberts majority point out this limits speech; the downside is that wealthy special interests are more able to influence elections.

The majority further argued that it was impossible to differentiate between illegal electioneering and protected speech. I disagree.

You’re also getting into 501(c)(3) v. 501(c)(4) v. PAC v. electioneering law. There are many things to consider including differential tax treatment, but I’ll have to leave it at that due to our agreed word limits. The example and regulation you propose are in accord with current law, and, again, I do support such disclosures.

The way I use ‘conflict of interest’ above meant in the financial sense, e.g., if donors use tax-deductible donations to directly benefit their financial interests. Nonprofit laws prevent this, but my feeling is that they are only sometimes followed. I think transparency could help here, but I’m not positive. One thing to consider is for organizations to disclose their 990-Bs, though there would be privacy concerns. Nonprofits could and I think should be required to provide more detailed accounting of expenditures to the public, and enforcement could be improved. Like I said, I’m amenable to suggestions.

And if you have not given ethics reform much thought, then maybe that is a conversation for another time. We should note that McDonnell did not disclose his relations with Williams and they instead came out in slow drips after the mansion chef reported his concerns to the FBI. The Supreme Court vacated McDonnell’s convictions based on faulty jury instructions and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit. It has not been determined whether McDonnell broke the law.

My question: do you think ballot initiatives could improve democracy in Virginia?

Bacon: Ballot initiatives? I’m of two minds. On the one hand, ballot initiatives could provide citizens a tool for circumventing Virginia’s sclerotic political processes – a good thing. On the other hand, I’m worried about a dumbing down effect. How do you boil down the wording of an initiative to be short enough to fit on a ballot without grossly over-simplifying the issue. Just ask Californians how the infamous Proposition 13 restricting property taxes 40 years ago worked out.

The other thing that worries me is that ballot initiatives are easily subjected to manipulation by organized special interests – again, look at how the public employee unions influence the ballot outcomes in California. In reality, instead of empowering the public, ballot initiatives will empower moneyed advocacy groups.

As I was writing this, literally five minutes ago a young man knocked on my door. He was representing “For Our Future VA,” a “non-partisan” advocacy group. Says the group’s website: ”For Our Future VA is a collection of activists, community leaders, students, families and progressive organizations working to advance a progressive agenda in Virginia. … Our organizing model involves keeping organizers on the ground throughout the year in order to build lasting relationships and to assist in the development of the permanent progressive infrastructure required to win statewide and legislative races in Virginia.”

Who are these guys? Where do they get their money? Are they really a grassroots organization, or are they bankrolled by special interests with deep pockets? They don’t work for individual candidates, but they do fight for leftist causes. Right now they help shape the electoral battlefield. If ballot initiatives became a reality, they’d be submitting ballot initiatives. You think the system is overrun with money now? Just wait.

Thanks so much for this exchange of views, Jeff, but I think we’ve gone on long enough. I suspect we’ve lost most of our readers by now.  It’s been a pleasure. Feel free to keep the conversation going in the comments attached to this blog post.