A little less than three years ago, Richmond author and analyst Jeff Thomas shook up the state political elite with a densely research account of how “The Virginia Way” actually works and how major players schemed to benefit from it.
Thomas’s book was brilliantly timed, arriving after the state’s first major corruption trial involving from Gov. Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen spectacularly portrayed before a global audience just how widespread and tawdry Virginia’s systems of political gift giving were.
The irony, of course, is that “The Virginia Way” paints a myth that public officials are so upright and high-minded that the usual ethics rules that other states might require regarded gifts and favors are not needed. After all, we have the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), which duly collects and reveals millions worth of perfectly legal donations and gifts that major politicians and corporations, notably Dominion and cigarette maker Altria proudly bestow.
Now, Thomas has written a sequel — “The Virginia Way. Democracy and Power After 2016” (The History Press) – which updates us after some of the most remarkable years in the state’s political history.
Here are a few points:
- At The University of Virginia, the fix is in for well-connected and wealthy families. Thomas spent months battling the university over Freedom of Information Act requests (duly noted at the time In Bacon’s Rebellion). Thomas writes that: “The documents demonstrated that the University of Virginia had for at least ten years operated a financial intelligence unit in the offices of admissions, fundraising and the president whose mission was to provide affirmative action to the children of wealthy or influential people.” In one illustration, Thomas reveals a redacted document that seems to show a payment of $500K and a “Deny” (admission) switched to “Wait List.”
- Pipeline politics. This was duly noted earlier but Thomas brings up the absurdity of two landowners setting up pickets to prevent Mountain Valley Pipeline from seizing their land. Constructing that natural gas pipeline has been temporarily shut down. Also delayed is Virginia Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline for apparent violation of environmental permits.
- Dominion’s pursuit of power is as arrogant as ever, Thomas says, but there is more pushback. The Richmond-based utility has for years lead in political donations as it basically writes the laws it wants. Yet a change may be coming. Dominion recently wanted to buy SCANA, a trouble South Carolina utility which had a bankrupt number plants. It seems that Dominion has plans to supply the Palmetto States natural gas, perhaps with it new pipeline and maybe for export. When CEO Tom Farrell tried a combination of political donations and hardball politics, it didn’t exactly work out so well in the Columbia statehouse. After a battle of the takeover, Thomas wrote: “Nobody could seriously accuse South Carolina of harboring anti-capitalist sentiment. South Carolina lawmakers simply had not been bought off and used their common sense to see that cutting electricity rates was the same as cutting taxes.”
- Farrell is playing another major role in a so-far secretive effort to build a new coliseum worth hundreds of millions in downtown Richmond’s Navy Hill area. There’s plenty of skepticism about the billion-dollar plus plan, which will include new restaurants, offices, apartments and so on in a now-lonely stretch of parking lots and office buildings. An early RFP for the deal brought only one bid (from a Farrell group) and there are plenty of questions about how taxes will be raised and where they might go since city schools are in serious trouble. Alas, a revelation is due today and years of secrecy. An irony is that Richmond’s current culinary and artistic renaissance in neighborhoods such as Scott’s Addition is a truly grass roots, up-from- the- sidewalk effort that didn’t get a lot of public money
These are just some of the highlights of Thomas’ latest and highly useful book. Among his more positive findings is that a number of politicians, Democrats and some Republican, are swearing off funding from Dominion and some other corporate entities and PACs. They tend to be more female, younger, not necessarily from Virginia and largely immune from the male-dominated “Virginia Way.” With luck, they will be a big difference in this November’s General Assembly elections.There are currently no comments highlighted.