Commentary: Tell your lawmaker to take the pledge: No more corporate cash!

Steve Nash

Virginians are deeply mistrustful of the legislative branch of government, and it’s not hard to understand why. Three-quarters of American voters — nearly equal numbers in both parties — are convinced that Congress is for sale. Given its record, the Virginia legislature can’t make a credible claim to higher public confidence, either.

Campaign finance would be a great place to start reform, as fall elections gear up. More than five dozen House of Delegates candidates so far have signed a pledge that they’ll refuse to accept campaign cash from Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy, the two state-regulated electric power monopolies.

But Roanoke Democrat Sam Rasoul, a 35-year-old management consultant who has served in the House of Delegates since 2014, has gone even further. He has announced that he’ll decline campaign donations above $5,000 from anyone, and will take no more campaign cash at all from special-interest PACS and corporations.

Does money really buy influence in Richmond? “It’s so obvious that this is not in the interest of Virginians, yet somehow this legislation passes with overwhelming support,” Rasoul told me, especially Dominion Energy-supported bills. “It’s sad to watch that happen, because it’s clear that the legislature, as far as Dominion is concerned, is bought and paid for.”

Rasoul’s a Democrat, but “…it is conservatives who should be leading the fight for campaign-finance reform,” Richard Painter of the University of Minnesota Law School has written. “Why should conservative voters care? First, big money in politics encourages big government. . . . When politicians are dependent on campaign money from contractors and lobbyists, they’re incapable of holding spending programs to account.”

Compare Rasoul’s stance with Northern Shenandoah Valley’s state senator, Mark Obenshain (R-District 26). Over the span of his legislative service (since 2004) he has accepted a whopping $51,000 from Dominion Energy; $513,000 from real estate and construction interests; $284,000 from the health care industry, and on and on, according to the nonprofit, non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Area delegate Todd Gilbert (R-District 15) received $10,000 from Dominion Energy, $17,000 from the Realtors’ association, $18,000 from the bankers’ association, $82,000 from the beer and wine wholesaler groups. Chris Collins (R-District 29), only in the legislature since 2016, has already been gifted $1,000 by Dominion Energy.

Why were they so generous? Law professor William Black, a former bank regulator, summarizes the ordinary citizen’s street-level, tragic view when he writes that “a campaign contribution always generates the best return on investment.”

So whether you’re conservative, libertarian or liberal, here’s the question: can your legislator explain why it’s legit to accept “donations” from the two power companies — and other big corporate interests — and still cast votes on legislation that affects not only their profits, but also our electric bills and, crucially, our environment?

Don’t accept the easy answer: “I need the money to get elected, and everyone does it.” Vermont, Connecticut and conservative Arizona have figured that out, with voluntary donation limits and public financing for candidates. Is your state senator or delegate pushing, noisily, for that? Why not?

This isn’t a partisan issue. In fact, Dominion has given just over $7.4 million to legislators of both parties since 2006 –$786,000 in 2016-17 alone, and Democrats take plenty. It is Virginia’s top corporate donor. Meanwhile, those same public servants who accept Dominion’s money have voted on countless Dominion-related bills, listened to the pitches of the sturdy corps of Dominion lobbyists, and then handed the company a lengthening series of legislative home runs worth hundreds of millions of dollars — perhaps a billion or two by some estimates.

Your government’s yours, not Dominion’s, nor Appalachian’s. It’s not for the benefit of the roster of builders, bankers, beer wholesalers, developers, coal outfits and health industry high-rollers.

So ask each of your legislators and candidates: Will you pledge to reject that kind of campaign cash from now on? Can you at least decline donations from state-regulated utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power? If you think it’s OK to accept their money, then will you pledge to abstain from voting on legislation involving those interests?

And get ’em on the record. We’d all like to know.

Stephen Nash is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever — How Climate Change Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests,” published by the University of Virginia Press, as well as the forthcoming “Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands and Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change.”