Senate Privileges and Elections Committee Votes for Virginia to Remain an Oligarchy

Sen. Chap Petersen speaking on senate floor. Credit: Virginia Mercury

by James C. Sherlock

Oligarchy: a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution.

The Privileges and Elections Committee of the Virginia Senate has voted down two bills by Senator Chap Petersen that would have restored some semblance of a democratic republic status to Virginia.

Senate Bill 803 would have for the first time set campaign finance limits in Virginia. Part of the bill 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.

If SB803 had been signed into law, the contributions of persons, campaign committees, political committees, and corporations could not as thoroughly dominate Virginia politics in the future as they do today.

No more one-stop shopping for $250,000 campaign contributions. For $20,000 I expect my calls to be returned. For $250,000 I expect more.

Senate Bill 804 would have prohibited campaign donations by public utilities. Dominion’s river of ratepayer money flowing to politicians would dry up. What, exactly, do we think Dominion’s take-away is from that vote other than that the bazaar is still open?

The two bills were supported in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee only by Democrats. Just not enough Democrats. And no Republicans.

So we are left with state-sanctioned political corruption.

I understand all of the reasons why incumbent politicians do not want to limit campaign contributions. None of them are good enough.

None have proven good enough in 45 other states.

Virginia is one of only five states (Alabama, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah) that have no campaign contribution limits on state and local contests.

  • Only eleven states (Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Virginia) impose no contribution limits on individual donors;
  • Only five states — Alabama, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah and Virginia—allow corporations to contribute an unlimited amount of money to state campaigns;
  • Only 13 states, Virginia included, allow PACs to contribute unlimited amounts of money to state campaigns;
  • Nineteen states, including Virginia, impose no restrictions on the ability of state party committees to contribute money to a candidate’s campaign.

Neither party can hold its head high on this, but in the Senate, some Democrats are acquitting themselves well.

The 2023 Virginia Senate – In Favor. Virginia Senate stalwarts in 2023 have been Chap Petersen (D), for whom this is a signature issue, and David Marsden (D), who co-sponsored Sen. Petersen’s SB 803.

Democrats who voted in the Privileges and Elections Committee in favor of both 803 and 804 were Creigh Deeds, Adam Ebbin, and Jennifer McClellan.

Democrats Monty Mason and Jennifer Boysko voted for SB 803 but against SB 804.

The 2023 Virginia Senate – Opposed.  In Senate Privileges and Elections, those voting against SB 803  were: Spruill (D), Howell (D), Vogel (R), Reeves (R), Ruff (R), Peake (R), McDougle (R), Surovell (D), Bell (D), Hackworth (R).

Against SB 804 were: Spruill (D), Howell(D), Vogel(R), Reeves (R), Ruff (R), Peake (R), McDougle (R), Surovell (D), Mason (D), Boysko (D), Bell (D), and Hackworth (R).

Bottom line.  There is no way to sugar-coat it.

Unlimited campaign donations in Virginia are a source of political corruption, real or perceived. Perception of corruption corrodes public trust. But too much of it is real.

No politician can take huge campaign donations from a single source and pretend, even to himself or herself, that that source does not expect reciprocity. To pretend otherwise is to insult the intelligence of the electorate.

Virginia politicians need as a group to re-think this.

From the United States Constitution.

Article IV Relationships Between the States

Section 4 Republican Form of Government
The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government …

A republic is a form of government in which power is given to the people and the people select representatives to govern on their behalf.

Unlimited campaign contributions make those representatives visibly more beholden to big contributors than to the people themselves.

We need to stop it.