Who Rules Virginia?

In the early 1970s Eugene Ruyle, my Marxist anthropology professor (yes, he really was a self-avowed Marxist) assigned a book, “Who Rules America” by G. William Domhoff, which described the mechanisms by which business elites ruled the country. As one might expect, the book grotesquely over-simplified reality, but it contained elements of undeniable truth.

As I began writing this blog post, I checked Amazon.com out of curiosity and found that the book has been updated and is still in print. This excerpt from the book description sums up Domhoff’s thesis nicely (my italics) :

Domhoff argues that the owners and top-level managers in large income-producing properties are far and away the dominant figures in the U.S. Their corporations, banks, and agribusinesses come together as a corporate community that dominates the federal government in Washington and their real estate, construction, and land development companies form growth coalitions that dominate most local governments.

That second sentence sums up the thrust of the two lead pieces in today’s edition of Bacon’s Rebellion. Peter Galuszka and I teamed up for a mini-version of “Who Rules Virginia?” I wish I’d dusted off my old copy of “Who Rules America?” It might have come in handy when I was writing over the weekend.

In my column, “The Ruling Party,” I expand upon an argument that should be familiar to readers of this blog. While there may be real differences between Democrats and Republicans on social and cultural issues, both are establishment parties that are virtually indistinguishable in how they work on behalf of the vested business and economic interests that bankroll their political campaigns. When it comes to legislating transportation, land use, energy and the environment, there are no meaningful differences between Ds and Rs — unless it’s the counter-intuitive notion that the Dems are even more beholden to the “growth lobby” than the Republicans.

Drawing upon data from the Virginia Public Access Project (I genuflect in their general direction), I show who the dominant constituencies in Virginia are, how much they spend on campaign contributions, and how they work to protect Business As Usual — or, as my 60’s-holdover anthro professor would have called it, the “status quo.” The difference between Mr. Ruyle and myself is that I’m not under any illusion that a proletariat revolution is going to solve anything, nor do I demonize business interests for looking out for their own self interest in an era of ever-expanding government power. When everyone else is reaching into the government goody bag, it’s hard to blame business for doing the same.

But, if we’re ever going to reinvent transportation, health care, schools, human settlement patterns, the energy economy and environmental protections with the goal of making Virginia competitive in the 21st century, we must blast a number of vested interests out of their political pill boxes. (I’ve been watching the “Letters from Iwo Jima,” can you tell?)

While my story glosses the surface and hits the big themes, Peter’s article, “‘Senator’ Thomas,” hones in on a case study of William G. Thomas, the most influential lobbyist in Virginia. Thomas’ roster of clients is a who’s who of those who rule Virginia — Dominion Virginia Power, Capital One, Smithfield and Genworth (that’s four Fortune 500 companies), not to mention the Home Builders Association of Virginia and other assorted muckety-mucks. Particularly instructive is the web of personal relationships that Thomas has built over the years as a former chairman of the Democratic Party, board member of Dominion and law partner with super-developer John “Til” Hazel.

Thomas is smooth, gentlemanly, witty — and very much a defender of the business status quo. Incredibly wired into the power structure, he has entre to the highest levels of business and political power. He also has a gift for working through incredibly complex legislation. If he is lobbying in favor of electric re-regulation or against the proffer system, few are the forces that can stand in his way.

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26 responses to “Who Rules Virginia?”

  1. E M Risse Avatar

    Jim and Peter:

    I think both of you will find a lot to like in our upcoming Backgrounder “The Estates Martix.”

    You just provided some nice examples of how the Estates have morphed since 1775.


  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think it amusing that we promote our version of Democracy as a better path than governments that tolerate/encourage graph and corruption.. bribes and worse.

    Our country is essentially owned and operated by business interests who spare no expense in obtaining the best legislatures than money can buy.

    If you don’t believe this, just take a quick visit to VPAP where in 2007 alone, more than 25 million dollars was funneled from business interests to legislators who, in turn, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to run radio and TV ads to .. deceive you into thinking that they want to actually respesent you.

    Think of it. Money collected from voters as part of the price they pay for a good/service is then given to those elected by citizens to represent – business interests.

    It’s the perfect scheme. It’s like your bank charging you fees to pay for employees whose job is to figure out how to charge you more fees.

    So the next time you pay your Electric bill..or buy some furniture, or a new home, look at the itemized list for the category that says “General Assembly”.. I bet you won’t find it.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    And here all along I thought it was the teachers unions that controlled government!

    Their scam is higher and higher payments for less and less output.

    They control the Democratic Party nationally.

    Look at the % of tax revenue flowing to them.

    Look at the bond money going for more buildings.

    Look at the pensions.

  4. Groveton Avatar


    Welcome to the “Developer Hater Club”. As President and CEO of the club I am happy to have you as our newest member.

    Special interests will rule Virginia until there are caps placed on campaign contributions.

    Technology and manufacturing interests do not waste their money on contributions to Virginia politicians. If the manufacturing and technology companies in Virginia get fed up with Virginia -they will move somewhere else. Like Baltimore. Or Bangalore.

    One thing for sure – the Democraps and Republiclowns will only make matters worse.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Groveton, Your comments about the technology and manufacturing interests are right on.

    I would beg to differ on two lesser matters.

    First, even though I know you were speaking in jest (or semi-jest), I am not a developer hater. We need developers. For the most part, they’re just following the rules that the rest of society has set for them (although, admittedly, they actively work to shape the rules in their favor). If government weren’t such an intrusive presence in land markets, not only in Virginia but across the entire country, then developers would spend more time creating innovative new product in tune with the marketplace rather than manipulating the system.

    Second, the only thing worse than the current system, which I agree it bad, is trying to “reform” it by putting caps on contributions. You’re simply substituting one form of evil for another. Our constitution allows freedom of speech and freedom of petition, and caps on campaign contributions effectively stifles both. In the end, all caps will do is re-direct the manner in which power and influence is exercised, in all probability making it less visible. By emphasizing transparency, at least we know who owns whom.

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “..which I agree it bad, is trying to “reform” it “

    let me offer an alternative view: it’s not bad – it’s unacceptable.

    “free speech” IS influence money with the American flag wrapped around it.

    It is a clear and present threat to our Country’s founding ideals of one man – one vote.

    We have two parties and no matter who is elected – they will continue to faithfully represent their “clients” interests over citizens interests.

    VPAP shows MANY businesses that contribute almost EQUALLY to both parties.

    This is sickening to me.

    I don’t think Reform is just two alternatives – either “free speech” or “no free speech”.

    But 500K of one company’s “free speech” money trumps 4 million voter’s “free speech”- every time because .. if you are a candidate and you don’t take that money – both parties will find another candidate who will take that money.

    VPAP makes it clear
    This is not free speech – this is money being delivered in plain envelopes.

    I think that anyone who thinks that this is “free speech”.. needs an oil change of brain fluid and a new filter installed – all due respect.

    We no longer have a viable Democracy or even a Representative form of government.

    We have … become.. just a fancier, thinly-vieled version of what many 3rd world countries have where they don’t even pretend that the “working class” is not there for the benefit of the wealthy.

    If the “cost” of giving our country back to voters is the “free speech” of those who would corrupt our government for their own interests – let’s get on with it – forthwith.

  7. E M Risse Avatar


    I agree with Jim for two reasons:

    Developers are doing exactly what any person who’s goal is to make as much money as possible would do within the context created by uninformed buyers and a skewed regulatory enviornment.

    The competetive nature of those attracted to the development / building industry may make it seem like there are more bad apples there than in software development or auto sales but there are not based on my two decades within the industry.

    In my view some do not understand their own long term interest and that of their children but that is another story.

    We will have just another form of dysfunctional governance creating another forms of dysfunctional settlement patterns until there is Fundamental Change in governance structure and thus Fundamental Change in settlement patterns.

    Both democracy and free markets depend on these Fundamental Changes.


  8. Jim Bacon Avatar

    I agree that it doesn’t seem “fair” that the special interests with big bucks have more free speech than the rest of us. But regulation is not an effective alternative. As we’ve already seen on a national level as the special interests adapt to McCain-Feingold, people who want to influence the system will find a way. Regulation just changes the manner in which people seek influence, often driving the donations through money launderers so it can’t even be tracked. Just look at the Hsu fund-raising scandal. Trust me, there’s more where that came from, including a incident reported in the Wall Street Journal (and noted on this blog) that no one else has seen fit to follow up on.

    At the risk of repeating myself, at least in Virginia, we know who owns whom.

  9. Groveton Avatar


    The “Developer Haters Club” was something of a joke and a throwback to Spanky and his Our Gang. However, I absolutely believe that the “profession” of development draws a questionable sort of character. Maybe it’s the game that affects the players, maybe it’s the players that affect the game. Either way I believe that the development community (including its executives) have a well earned reputation for under the table deals, hiding behind lax bankruptcy laws and consumer abuse. This situation requires a combination of people who believe their moral responsibilities end at minimal compliance with the law and a disaffected electorate which has given up on political change.

    Freedom of speech <> freedom of money. When you allow uncapped campaign contributions you allow those with more money to have more free speech – which isn’t really free speech at all. Your reference to scandals only proves to me that the penalties for abuse are too low. Those who break these laws should be doing jail time. That will reign in the abuse. One thing I know about rich people – they do not want to go to jail. How many frauds have been uncovered since passage of Sarbanes – Oaxley?

    And…the largest contribution category is “political”. Isn’t this a way to shade actual contributors – even in Virginia where there are no campaign caps?

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I agree that “rules” are made to be broken…but if we can track down money spent for terrorism and organized crime .. and taxpayers why not influence money?

    No.. we don’t get all the criminals and terrorists but we do get enough to keep the others on their toes and that’s how we should be dealing with influence money.

    Why do we stand by and watch 20 million dollars of influence money go into the campaigns of those seeking office?

    It’s scandalous.

    and I really don’t buy the “they’ll find a way”.. because when the recipients spend it on their election ads, we know who got the money

    How about random audits – full blown audits … on 5 campaigns a year.. and let the chips fall.

    if they refuse, we investigate .. exactly like we would if we were trying to track down the money trail for a terrorist or a criminal. We go after them.

    then we remove the guy from office and take his/her pension and make them pay triple damages in the amount of the money he/she was attempting to hide.

    Our attitude with regard to inluence money is like saying that “crime happens”.. and it’s futile to track them down…

    I’d say 70% or more of the issues discussed in BR especially with regard to transportation and settlement patterns and energy conservation .. trace back to.. the way that our GA does business – with business.

    VPAP just listed “last minute” donations…some of them very large – go take a look at where it is coming from and who it is going to.

  11. Charles Barton Avatar
    Charles Barton

    Considering the extent to which foreign businesses are now purchasing both public and private properties and businesses in the United States – The country is virtually on sale at bargain basement prices to finance borrowing for George W, Bush’s war in Iraq – I wonder if our new foreign owners will have the former political power as domestic business owners had.

  12. Richard Layman Avatar
    Richard Layman

    I haven’t read Domhoff (I know I should, having studied poli sci in college) but I am particularly fond of the Growth Machine thesis from urban sociology. Poli Sci also offers the urban regime theory, but I think they are reciprocal, not opposing, although each discipline tends to ignore the other. GM explains why, and UR explains how its done.

    Here is the first article on GM by Harvey Molotch: http://nw-ar.com/face/molotch.html

  13. Richard Layman Avatar
    Richard Layman

    Oh, my joke about this is that the more I learn, the more I become an intellectual Marxist, and that at best, all I do is ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism. As far as explaining how development works, Marxist theory/urban sociology is extremely powerful. It doesn’t work so well on “offering solutions,” but you can’t fix something you don’t understand, so I find it pretty useful.

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    Charles Barton raises an interesting point about how poliitical contributions by companies might be affected if there were more foreign ownership of U.S. firms.
    Foreign ownership is only likely to grow. Already, U.S. and global bourses such as the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ and Euronext are entering into cross ownership deals. And, the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission and foreign regulators are moving step by step to streamline oversight of securities to make it easier to place offerings in various markets around the world. That can only impact how companies operate.
    As anyone who has worked overseas can tell you, many foreign companies do not have the somewhat Purianical attitudes towwards buying government favor that the U.S. does. What goes on in Virginia is child’s play compared to how the French or Indonesians operate. I spent six years reporting in the Soviet Union, past and present, and bribery there is as common as breathing air.
    The foreigners are already here — in the Lynchburg nuclear industry and in public private partnerships where Australians have discovered a niche.
    How foreign firms might deal with Dominion Resources or the developers lobby remains to be seen — either way. But if you want to bet on a sure trend, more foreign influence is it.

    Peter Galuszka

  15. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “more foreign influence”

    very reassuring… now the foreign guys can come into the US and claim that their “free speech” is also gauranteed…

    I’m not worried too much… the companies that want cheap labor go elsewhere anyhow…

    what they bribe us for.. is stuff like new highways to move the foreign-manufactured goods from our ports to their US customers.

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    After reading this series of comments, I am profoundly depressed. There have always been those who have unduly influenced outcomes (ergo the abandonment of the settlers on Roanoke if one reads recent history), or the fact that Sir Arthur Chichester came up with the Irish plantation process which killed many and took land and deforested Ireland, or simply the iron and steel barons of American’s 19th century. But we’ve had hope, as Americans, or I’ve always felt that until now.

    I don’t think I will vote this fall; I am tired of political campaigns that slam and don’t articulate positions. I am saddened by what our congress has become. The only bright light is to see that Hilary Clinton, as problematic as she is, has lost weight, looks energetic and is possibly the only candidate who can assess the complexity of the presidential position that that leadership will require.

    Yet she is hated.

    Why vote, I think. What difference does it ultimately make.

  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I see it more as a fight against a serious roach or flea infestation.

    To surmise that we just need to learn to accept is… well.. it’s unacceptable to me…

    I know there behind the walls and in the bedding.. but it just makes me all the more determined…to root them out.

  18. Anonymous Avatar

    Vote all incumbents out.

  19. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Dang, this new political party is really gathering steam. Why, even the Libertarian candidate down here may get more votes than he figured.

    Welcome one and all to the RENO party.

    Re-elect No One. Even if you fail, you still put out a message that business as usual is no longer acceptable. And if things continue, the incumbent may not be as lucky on the next election day.

  20. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    two thoughts this morning.

    The first is the answer to “Who Rules Virginia”


    I’m suprised BR has not put a focus on this.

    the second thought is that it is very difficult for citizens to deploy viable 3rd party campaigns but it would not be difficult to promote write-in votes that said “no confidence”.

    Just imagine if “no confidence” got 40 or 50% of the vote…

    It would literally become a vote of “no confidence”.

    In the age of the Internet.. this may not be that hard to do.

    Further.. even though Virginia is paranoid about letting citizens express their opinion via referenda by placing high hurdles on the process – the internet, in fact, could be used as an effective tool in reflecting voter sentiment – different from your typical poll.

  21. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry Gross,
    More foreign influence is not necessarily a bad thing. As more non-U.S. investors acquire more shares of U.S. company stock, it actually could result in more transparency and more shareholder power. In general, for instance, European companies allow shareholders to have far more power and in some cases have more checks and balances, such as requiring that the chairman of a board be an outsider.
    One of the negatives of U.S. corporations is that electing directors — and by extention selecting executives — has been a rigged process from the start, leading to arrogance and hubris. That leads to Enrons and WolrdComs and Home Depots.
    It is wrong-minded to think that anything “foreign” is necessarily bad.

    Peter Galuszka

  22. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Agreed. The perception is (at least on my part) that (perhaps not Europe) graph and corruption are considered “cost of doing business” and companies that hail from countries that don’t have robust Democracies.. calling the shots for a US company .. doesn’t give me warm fuzzies.

    The Dubai Ports deal went down.. because folks in this country were not convinced that – that company would operate under US rules.

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    Peter makes good points. Foreign ownership is not wrong per se. Moreover, one could make a good argument that, if there were strong cross-ownership ties within the economies of the various world nations (which actually provided widespread benefits to the average citizen), we see a lot fewer wars among nations. Wars would not go away, but economic interdependency could reduce their likelihood.


  24. Anonymous Avatar

    This is the anonymous who may not vote. I have been idealist in the past about populism (Citizen Kane et al) but maybe the era of Citizen Kane is extinct. On the other hand Jefferson and the founding fathers had quite a lively time so maybe I need to sit back and wait until candidates I feel comfortable supporting come along–i.e., candidates who are not out there for altruism but are out there for doing the public good.

    Nothing is pristine of course.

    That all being said, are not there already strong ownership cross ties with foreign interests vis a vis bankiing loans?

  25. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    In an election where the independent vote is split and/or turnout likely to be tepid/low, the basic strategy for the Donkeys/Elephants is to mobilize their respective bases.

    The fact that 10% of the electorate decides who will hold office while an awful prospect, is the reality… sometimes and guess who those voters are that DO rule Virginia?

  26. Anonymous Avatar

    “Welcome one and all to the RENO party.”


    I’m with you, only I call it the TIO party: Throw incumbents out.

    Only problem is, what do you do when the incumbency is so entrenched that ther is no opposition?

    Write in Jesus.

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