That eerie silence you hear? It’s the sound of campaign-finance scolds reacting to the news that a big-money backer of Gov. Ralph Northam is promising to spread around a lot more campaign cash.
Billionaire Michael Bills, a former vice president at Goldman Sachs, is offering up to $5,000 per candidate for the House of Delegates and up to $20,000 per candidate for the state Senate to those who promise to take no campaign contributions from Dominion Energy. The effort is called the Clean Virginia Project, and it’s being run by Tom Perriello, who ran against Northam in the Democratic primary.
The group says the initiative will fight the “legalized corruption” of Dominion’s campaign giving, break the company’s “stranglehold on the General Assembly (that) has eroded our democratic process,” and thereby “level the playing field.” This dovetails nicely with the perception that Dominion buys politicians with a bottomless barrel of financial support. It doesn’t dovetail quite so well with reality, though.
True, Dominion is the “top corporate donor” in Virginia. But that hardly leaves the company unchallenged. Figures from the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks campaign giving, show that the company has distributed $11 million over the years. Yet environmental groups have distributed even more.
The national and Virginia arms of the League of Conservation Voters alone have ponied up $12.7 million. NextGen Climate Action, a project of billionaire Tom Steyer, has kicked in $3.6 million. By way of comparison: The billionaire Koch Brothers, the bugbears of every progressive nightmare, have spent less than $882,000, which is only slightly more than the $797,000 spent by the Sierra Club.
Yet Dominion spending draws the lion’s share of attention. Critics slammed Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, for taking $75,000 from Dominion and then backing its Atlantic Coast Pipeline — proof, in their eyes, that money automatically buys political support. But McAuliffe received far more ($3.8 million) from environmental groups. Maybe the power of money is not quite so automatic after all.
(The same holds true in the gun debate as well, by the way. Everytown for Gun Safety, the pet gun-control project of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has spent $4.7 million in Virginia — or six times as much as the National Rifle Association. Yet received wisdom would have the public believe that gun-control measures fare poorly here only because the NRA has bought off the legislature.)
Dominion’s critics seem to want to have things both ways: If the company makes a political donation, that corrupts the political process — but if environmental groups make a political donation, that doesn’t. Convenient, but false. If the company’s donations are a stain on Virginia democracy, the same goes for donations by Dominion’s foes.
The company’s critics point out that Dominion is a “regulated monopoly.” That might have some bearing on whether it should be able to give campaign cash. It has no bearing on whether campaign donations are inherently corrupting, though. They either are or are not.
This means Bills, who says “corruption should not be legal here any longer,” is aiming his fire in the wrong direction. If he’s truly concerned about the corrupting power of money, then he should be trying to prevent campaign contributions altogether — rather than trying to prevent them on one side while adding to them on the other.