After raising over $1 million this year for his successful re-election bid last month, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney received a $50,000 gift from Dominion Energy to his One Richmond PAC last week.
The end-of-year donation led to some criticism as Democratic leaders around Virginia refuse money from the utility monopoly. It also fed speculation about whether the cash could help launch a campaign for higher office soon — a notion the Democratic mayor has dismissed for the duration of his next four-year term.
The company was the state’s largest corporate donor through 2018-19, donating more than $1.9 million to political campaigns and committees, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Some Democratic leaders, including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, have sworn to not take Dominion money, to avoid perceptions that the company is manipulating lawmakers and public policy for its own profit.
“It’s hard to say what sort of deal could be behind this contribution. Then again, Stoney seems to be one of the only elected Virginia Democrats under retirement age willing to take Dominion money, so perhaps he’s in a spot to monopolize the monopoly money,” said Josh Stanfield, executive director of Activate Virginia, a campaign finance reform advocacy group. “I’d watch closely how his PAC spends it.”
Earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans on a Senate committee rejected legislation that would have banned campaign donations from Dominion. Similar legislation is expected in the upcoming session in January.
Michael Bills, a Charlottesville-based investor and environmentalist, has sought to counter Dominion’s influence by supporting politicians who refuse Dominion’s money. Bills was the state’s largest individual donor in the same 2018-19 period, surpassing Dominion with $2.1 million in political donations.
Dominion did not answer questions this week about why the company’s PAC donated to Stoney’s PAC. Rayhan Daudani, a Dominion spokesman, said the utility company’s political donations are paid by shareholders rather than customers. He declined to comment further.
Stoney’s acceptance of Dominion’s gift this month is not unexpected.
The mayor, who did not respond directly to questions this week, said two years ago that he would not refuse Dominion’s donations, even as a private entity led by then-CEO Tom Farrell was negotiating terms of a sweeping $1.5 billion downtown redevelopment project that Stoney endorsed.
Stoney has previously said he would not accept donations from the company if he were running for an office that is responsible for oversight of the public utility.
“The mayor and City Council have no regulatory authority or oversight role of Dominion, but they are one of the city’s largest employers and philanthropic partners,” said Kevin Zeithaml, executive director of the One Richmond PAC. “We appreciate their support for the mayor’s virtual inauguration and continued philanthropic partnership.”
Stanfield said that does not clear Stoney of a potential conflict, particularly in light of his support for the Navy Hill project, which the Richmond City Council rejected in February over concerns about revenue projections and a special tax district to pay for the public-private project.
Stoney’s PAC reported two other recent large donations. The CoStar Group, a commercial real estate data company with a corporate office in Richmond, and Washington-based Service Employees International Union each donated $10,000 to One Richmond earlier this month, according to state campaign finance records.
Between Stoney’s campaign and his PAC, Dominion’s contribution was Stoney’s third-largest this year.
Common Good VA, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s PAC, donated $60,000 to Stoney’s campaign. Other high-dollar campaign donors included the Mid-Atlantic Laborer’s Political Education Fund ($50,661) and Virginia Realtors ($31,923).
Richard Meagher, a politics professor at Randolph-Macon College, said there could be multiple reasons for the $50,000 donation, speculating that it could be a reward for his advocacy of the Navy Hill project or other issues supported by Dominion. He said it could also be considered an investment, as Stoney is still mayor and could eventually run for Congress or statewide office in the next few years.
Zeithaml, who was Stoney’s campaign manager, said the mayor intends to serve all four years of his upcoming term.
Despite the criticism over the donation, Meagher said it’s unlikely to undermine Stoney’s political ambitions, since many who are critical of Dominion’s political contributions already soured on the mayor after his support of the Navy Hill project and response to protests this summer over police brutality and racial injustice, neither of which cost him enough votes to lose his job as mayor in November’s election.
“There are ways to say you’re not subject to Dominion’s influence while still working with them,” Meagher said. “Stoney doesn’t seem concerned about it.”