An Unmistakeable Odor of Corruption

TOLES © The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.

by James C. Sherlock

The data offered by the Virginia Public Access Project in Money in Politics have long left a perception that privileged access to Virginia elected officials is for sale.

Perception matches reality. It is for sale.

No one denies that:

  • a republican form of government is based on a rough equality of influence among its voting members;
  • unlimited campaign contributions in Virginia and only ten other states secure privileged access to elected officials ; or
  • privileged access brings with it the perception and perhaps in some cases the reality of undue influence on legislation and votes.

Some may think that large donations are only given to kindred spirits, legislators who favor the causes of the donors.

I am sorry to inform them that many large contributors give to each of two opposing candidates to secure influence on the winner. Or they give to the winner immediately after the election if they supported her opponent during the campaign. Or both.

What could go wrong in a system like that?

Yet, as Dick Hall-Sizemore reported earlier today, legislators from both parties have just voted in the Virginia Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections to sustain it.

Senator Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, has the personal character and public wisdom to be embarrassed by Virginia’s unlimited campaign donations system.

He introduced in this session SB44 Campaign contribution limits; contributions that exceed $20,000. A summary:

Prohibits persons from making any single contribution, or any combination of contributions, that exceeds $20,000 to any one candidate for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, or the General Assembly in any one election cycle. No limits are placed on contributions made by the candidate or the candidate’s family to the candidate’s campaign or by political party committees. Civil penalties for violations of the limits may equal up to two times the excess contribution amounts.

The bill was offered as a start, a modest one at that, to repair the national reputation of Virginia’s General Assembly as “coin-operated.”

It would have removed Virginia from the list of only eleven states with unlimited state campaign donations. The proposed $20,000 limit would have left Virginia with the highest dollar limits for state legislature candidates of any of what would become 40 states with such limits.

The Virginia Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections voted 10-5 yesterday to reject the bill. Sens. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, Monty Mason, D-Newport News and Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond voted in favor.

They, and we, are honored by their votes. The opposition was bipartisan but no Republican on that committee voted for the bill.

Voting to kill the bill were Sens. Howell, Vogel, Reeves, Ruff, Spruill, Peake, McDougle, Surovell, Bell, and Hackworth.

I personally know and like some of those senators. But, as opponents of this legislation, they need to rethink their obligations to protect the citizens, our republican form of government and their own reputations.

Yesterday they missed an opportunity to do so.

I hope they plan to offer and vote for better ideas.

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9 responses to “An Unmistakeable Odor of Corruption”

  1. DJRippert Avatar


    While I wholeheartedly agree with you on this, I think the problem is bigger than you see. I use the following to assess the states’ campaign contribution limits:

    This indicates that Virginia is one of only five states with unlimited campaign contributions in every category. It is also only one of five with unlimited corporate contributions.

    Not sure where you get your “one of ten” statistic.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      You are correct. When corporate limits are included, we are one of five states that disgraces itself with no limits whatever.

      The Bill I discussed does not discuss corporate limits, so I used individual limits to stay on point and provide an apples-to-apples comparison.

  2. tmtfairfax Avatar

    Put some real teeth in the law. No contributions allowed except from living individuals who are citizens of, and reside in, Virginia. When I move to North Carolina, I should not be permitted to make any contributions to Virginia candidates. No PACs or other bundling. And an individual should be limited to making contributions to candidates in the district where she/he lives. So I can give to HoD and state Senate candidates only in my own districts. Statewide offices would be open to any resident of the state who is otherwise authorized to make contributions.

    A single communications between an “independent” group and a candidate or committee would be considered to be coordination prohibited by law.

  3. Anyone interested in how the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on challenges to the constitutionality of State limitations on political contributions should take a look at David v. Thompson, 589 U.S. — (November 25, 2019) and Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U.S. 230 (2006).

    Those decisions can be accessed at

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Thank you. If limits had been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, no state would have them – 90% do.

  4. William O'Keefe Avatar
    William O’Keefe

    Why not have legislation that makes all contributions transparent immediately

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      You are correct, but they are pretty close to that point under current Virginia law. The ultimate problem is not transparency, of which Virginia has almost enough, but lack of limits.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Wait. Tell me again why a 75%, or even 90%, top tax bracket is a bad idea. How’s that trickle-down stuff work?

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Speakin’ of money, IRA Conversions — one word — DON’T!

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