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 Sizemore-Hall 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.