Sanctimonious Money in Politics

Grrrrr

The older I get, the more irritable I get. Perhaps, upon passing the threshold to Medicare eligibility, I became a cranky old man. In my defense, however, I do find myself continually provoked. The latest vexation comes from a Community Idea Stations article describing how an increasing number of Democratic Party candidates for General Assembly are self-righteously turning down campaign donations from corporations — not just Dominion Energy, mind you, but any corporation. One example:

Zachary Brown, a law student at the University of Richmond who is running against Eileen Bedell and Ghazala Hashmi in the 10th Senate District, only raised around $2,000 in April and May. But the 23-year-old law student says he came by it honestly.

“We can’t have our constituents second-guessing out votes because we take contributions from large corporations,” Brown said.

Such sentiments are consistent with Democrats’ conviction that the injection of corporate cash is a uniquely corrupting practice. Labor union money, extracted from union dues for causes members may or may not agree with… perfectly OK. Money laundered through Democratic Party PACs… just fine. Contributions from out-of-state billionaires like Tom Steyer… not a problem. But money collected from individual employees in a corporation and bundled through a corporate PACs… horrors!

According to the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), the biggest donor in the current electoral cycle, is Tim Chapman, a 51-year-old real estate developer who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination for Fairfax County supervisor chair. He has donated $877,310 so far — the vast majority of which has gone to his own political campaign. Does the fact that he has enough money to buy an election make him any more virtuous or less disinterested than, say, a candidate who accepts money from Dominion or Altria?

The next largest donor — $810,000 contributed so far — comes from the Laborers District Council, which represents construction & public-employee laborers. It is not a stretch to suggest that Laborers have their own narrow political agenda and expect recipients of their largess to vote their way.

The third largest donor is Michael D. Bills, the Charlottesville financier who has promised to bankroll the campaigns of candidates not accepting money from Dominion. His $770,000 in contributions are significantly larger than the $465,063 donated so far by Dominion. Are political candidates any more pure for having taken money from Bills, who is pursuing an ideological, green-energy agenda, than for having taken money for Dominion, which is pursuing its corporate self-interest?

The fourth largest donor, the Commonwealth Victory Fund, is the primary fund-raising arm of the Democratic Party legislative caucus. The fund plays its cards close to the chest. It does not have a website. Political insiders undoubtedly know who calls the shots at the Victory Fund but the general public does not. The fund has donated $627,500 so far this electoral cycle.

No. 5 on the list of mega-donors is Vienna resident Edward Hart Rice, who has given $552,350. Who the heck is Edward Hart Rice? About all we know is that he’s a stockbroker — and a huge contributor to Virginia Democrats. He appears to be intensely private. There is little information online by which members of the public can appraise his motivations in donating.

Next on the list: S. Sonjia Smith, a Charlottesville resident who has given $517,500 exclusively to Democrats. The public knows little about her either — except for the fact that she’s married to Michael Bills. Like her husband, she is using her considerable wealth to advance her political values and priorities.

Democrats dominate the big-money politics in Virginia. Limousine liberals donate huge amounts of money as individuals to their favored candidates. The main counter-weight is money that comes from corporations. (Dominion is the 8th largest donor, while Comcast is the 10th largest donor and Altria is the 13th largest donor.) While limousine liberals donate exclusively to Democrats, corporations spread their money around to both parties.

By de-legitimizing corporate donations, Democrats seek to clear the field of a class of donors that fund Republicans on a roughly equal basis with Democrats. By capping or otherwise limiting corporate donations, Democrats would dominate the world of big campaign donations even more than they do now. That’s fine as a matter of raw power politics. But please, please, please, spare me the sanctimonious moral posturing!

Michael Bills donated $25,000 this year to the John Bell for Senate campaign. I know nothing about John Bell, But if an important green-energy issue came up for a vote in the Senate, do we think that Bills wouldn’t give him a call and apply some pressure? If Bell voted the wrong way, do we think that Bills wouldn’t yank his support the next election cycle? Does anyone believe that Bills, motivated by ideology, is a more disinterested player in energy policy than Dominion?

Campaign contributions are only the most visible means by which Big Money (and by Big Money I include Big Limousine Liberalism) influence politics in Virginia. Far larger sums slosh around the system as “dark money,” funneled through non-profits that influence the political and regulatory process by filing lawsuits, organizing activists, issuing “studies,” and spending millions of dollars on “educational outreach.” Much of this activity is bankrolled by foundations, typically set up by dead zillionaires, controlled by liberals to fund progressive causes, and enjoying tax-free status in the bargain. Unless an initiative is funded by the Koch Brothers, liberals never complain about dark money.

The only thing worse than a political system dominated by money is a system dominated by sanctimonious, non-transparent, purer-than-thou money.

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19 responses to “Sanctimonious Money in Politics

  1. Hypocrites All if they take one dollar (direct or in kind) from the state party, from the various legislative joint caucus funds fueled by lobbyist and corporate donations (with Labor or Big Left $$ too) or from other candidates or leadership PACs who take lobbyist and corporate dollars. And that by November will be all of them.

    Any reporter who fails to see and highlight the loopholes is either being played or is in on the deception. Then of course it gets spread statewide on VPAP and Virginia Mercury, as this one was.

  2. Jim not only misses the forest for the trees but misses the trees for the bark. Let’s say there are three major corrupting influences in Virginia politics … big corporations, unions and miscellaneous dipsticks with more money than sense. One politician forgoes one of the three corrupting influences. Yes, two other corruptors remain. However, he has narrowed the field. Good for him.

    Of course, Virginia could cap campaign contributions from all sources as many other states have done. Somehow that idea doesn’t make it into Jim’s editorial.

    How many times have we seen Dominion abuse our state legislature through money? How many times have we seen state and local government co-opted by builders, developers, etc? The real question for candidate Brown is whether he will introduce legislation to cap donations across the board. That’s what is needed in Virginia.

    • Since this is the week to discuss Russia in WWII apparently, I’ll use that old famous Russian expression, Don: Fatsky Chancesky.

      • Maybe in the Richmond area reform is fat chancesky but up here in NoVa the peasants are picking up pitchforks and heading to the campaign headquarters of our fat and happy politicians for life. Nobody rails more about the excesses of Dick Saslaw than the people at Blue Virginia. Say what you want about Blue Virginia being biased toward Democrats … they are after Saslaw (a Democrat) with vigor. Meanwhile, Barbara Favola is being “primaried” by another Democrat – Nicole Merlene. The main issue? Favola’s ethics. Here’s what Merlene has to say …

        “As much as we hoot and holler about Trump leveraging his position for the Trump International Hotel in D.C., apparently you’re allowed to do that in Virginia,” says Merlene. “We have an elected official who is breaking what in many other jurisdictions would be breach of ethics.”

        Damn right.

        http://www.arlingtonconnection.com/news/2019/jun/05/pay-play-or-legitimate-representation-virginia/

        Two years ago Chap Petersen proposed legislation that would ban donations from regulated utilities like Dominion.

        Damn right.

        The lights in the cockroach infested kitchen that is our General Assembly don’t come on fast. It starts with a faint glow and then brightens over time. Eventually the cockroaches will be illuminated and eradicated.

        It has started.

        How interesting that it is a left leaning blog, a Democratic upstart and a Democratic State Senator leading the charge against legalized corruption in our state. As usual, the Republicans are content to sit back, stuff campaign donations into their pockets and mumble unintelligible snippets about “free enterprise”.

        • Don, I think you’re being naive about Blue Virginia. B.V. is a lefty Democratic blog, so there’s nothing particularly scrupulous about going after one of the most pro-business Dems in the General Assembly. Moreover, B.V. knows full well that taking the money out of campaign finance kneecaps Republicans because (a) social justice warriors now dominate the local media, and (b) Dems dominate dark money.

          Unless you’re happy tilting the playing field to limousine liberals, leftist foundations and nonprofits, you’re asking Republicans and conservatives to unilaterally disarm themselves. If you’re willing to do that, at least be consistent and advocate the regulation of dark money, too.

          • Not sure of your definition of “dark money” but I would regulate all contributions – from PACs, unions, individuals, corporations, etc.

            As far as SJWs dominating local media – that’s on the Republicans. Nothing stops conservatives from funding their version of Virginia Mercury.

        • Don, as they say in the General Assembly, I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I am curious about the accusations against Favola. Nothing I read in the link you provided lists any specific instance or circumstance in which Favola committed a “breach of ethics”–no votes in committee on legislation that would favor her clients, no introduced legislation for her clients, no budget amendments, etc. So, what specifically has she done that makes her a target?

  3. >>Let’s say there are three major corrupting influences in Virginia politics …

    First of all, I don’t accept the premise that any of this is corrupting, any more than lobbying is corrupting. When you say, “Let’s say..” all you are doing is saying, “Let’s assume”, a word to be avoided since we all know what that makes of you and me.
    Even assuming, arguendo, that your premise is valid, what’s the point of the connected paragraph?

    There isn’t one, really. The constitution guarantees the right to petition the government and promote whatever cause you want. That is why lobbying is legal and not corrupting (unless, of course, someone is lobbying for something you oppose) How is taking up the “lobbying process” sooner in the political process by donating to a political campaign any different? I spend money on a lobbyist to promote my interest in the political process or I spend money directly to elect the guy who is going to promote my interests.

    Then there is that pesky thing known as the First Amendment, under which campaign contributions are a form of speech.

    When you complain about builders and developers co-opting state and local government, all you’re doing is saying your side didn’t bother to get its guy elected who would be on the other side from the builders and developers.

    I’m with Jim on this one. Campaign money is awful, unless it supports someone or something that you also support.

    • The US Constitution does not prohibit limitations on campaign contributions. In fact, 46 states have limitations in place. Campaign contributions are not a form of freedom of speech and are not protected by the First Amendment. It just ain’t so.

      Citizens United was about an independent film critical of Hillary Clinton. Federal law prohibited any corporation (or labor union for that matter) from producing and broadcasting “electioneering communication” within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

      In a 5-4 decision the US Supreme Court decided in favor of Citizens United that the “electioneering communication” was a matter of free speech.

      Here are the campaign contribution limits by state …

      http://www.ncsl.org/Portals/1/Documents/Elections/Contribution_Limits_to_Candidates_2017-2018_16465.pdf

      Notice that only four states allow unlimited contributions in each category. Virginia is one of those four. That is our biggest problem.

      92% of America’s states have caps on campaign contributions to state candidates. 8% allow unfettered legal bribery and corruption.

  4. If Virginia was serious about campaign finance reform, it would prohibit any contribution by anyone not a natural living human being; prohibit bundling (no PACs); and limit contributions to people who reside in the same district as candidate for office. Therefore, contributions for House of Delegate District X candidates can only come from residents of District X. A race for Governor, Attorney General, U.S. Senate can accept statewide contributions.

    We’d have much cleaner politics at least under DJR’s standard.

  5. Virginia should impose caps and enforce them, plus other steps. Whatever is done should be across the board – personal money, corporate money, labor money, issue group money and independent expenditures.

  6. weathertiteconstruction

    Contributions are a form of political speech and therefore limiting them is akin to shadow banning on Twitter where your comments are posted but not allowed to go past a certain number of impressions. You think you are making a difference but any chance of reaching a larger audience is stifled.
    Corporations pay taxes therefore they have a right to political speech. If you limit that as ‘Too Many Taxes’ wants then the opponents can muster a phalanx of like minded rich guys to negate the influence. Corporations are limited by their share holders and their profits which are regulated. Rich guys are only limited by the depth of their conviction and the deepness of their pockets.
    Individuals can rely on bundlers to focus their free speech, they should be made aware of where this option is and information (not spin) is available to them. Individuals have the hardest time getting information and directing their free speech because, like me, there is limited resources, time and money, to gather and process this information (and spin).
    You may be able to tell by my lack of specifics that I am an individual with limited resources, but, that doesn’t make my vote any less valuable. Limiting contribution amounts sounds like a viable solution but as with, the corridors of Big Gov’t power from DC spilling into NOVA, liberal contributions from liberal leaning constituents spill into VA politics turning a once solidly conservative state ‘reliably blue’ and shadow banning the rest of the state and their conservatives.

  7. And I agree with you, DJR, the less money in politics the better. Corporations should have the same voice as people, Jim, and it’s hypocritical as hell to claim otherwise; but the total amounts being given (by all involved) are obscene. Politicians who spend more time fundraising than legislating are the result.

    I have a special animosity to DOM’s political giving because they are not just another corporation, but a regulated utility with a retail monopoly. There is an old understanding, embodied in the principles of utility regulation, that a State-chartered monopoly gets the privilege of exclusivity, and certain rights such as eminent domain, in exchange for pervasive rates and facilities and services regulation “in the public interest” by a specialized regulatory agency. That tradeoff — the “regulatory compact” — has broken down in Virginia, primarily because of all that political giving by DOM. The “compact” must be restored. DOM is not just another corporate donor but a huge beneficiary of a broken Virginia regulatory system.

  8. Happy to have you adding your comments, “Weathertite.” Years ago (perhaps when political contributions paid my salary) I felt exactly the same, but 30 years on I get more and more convinced that the money has taken on too much influence. Probably because you can’t run a legislative race for $100K any more, but need more like $1 mill. I also think legislators these days are not like the days of California’s Jesse Unruh, telling his guys to take the money and vote against the lobbyists in the morning. Nobody is denying free speech, it just keeps a few of the loudest mouths from totally dominating the conversation.

  9. I’m for limits. I don’t buy all of the arguments above. Our system leaves out those who don’t have the time/money to contribute. It’s become far too important to be a big enough donor to be heard. Some elected officials won’t meet with all of their constituents even occasionally. Limits aren’t the be-all or end-all but surely they’d help.

  10. I think the courts have permitted more regulation of campaign contributions than uncoordinated advocacy (uncoordinated with a candidate). I believe we could place more regulation on campaign contributions in Virginia without compromising the right of an individual or group to advocate independently for or against a candidate or an issue. I don’t believe the media have the only right to engage in unlimited advocacy but campaign contributions are different.

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