Make lawmakers take the pledge

Published 6:43 pm Saturday, June 3, 2017

By Stephen Nash

It’s a little mystery that Suffolk-area voters have almost figured out, but not quite. Why are the Realtors, the health industry, the beer wholesalers and bankers, coal operators and electric utilities shoving all that cash into the Virginia legislature?

“Puzzles plus money produce the view that the money explains the puzzles,” legal scholar Lawrence Lessig has written. “In a line: We don’t trust our government.”

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If he’s talking about you, you have lots of company. 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.

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.”

But your government’s yours, not Dominion Energy’s. It’s not for the benefit of the roster of corporate high-rollers that have given large amounts to this area’s lawmakers, although we keep electing them.

More than five dozen House of Delegates candidates so far, mostly Democrats, 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.

Among them are several candidates from around Suffolk: Jeff Staples, a Green Party candidate for District 77, and all three Democratic challengers for the District 64 seat: John Wandling, Rebecca Colaw, and Jerry Cantrell.

“Why should conservative voters care?” Richard Painter of the University of Minnesota Law School asks? “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.”

Can your legislator explain why it’s okay to accept donations from the two power companies and still cast votes on legislation that affects not only their profits, but also our electric bills and, crucially, our environment?

For that matter, why is it legitimate to take money from any corporate interests with legislative needs? They should not pre-empt the public interest.

The nonprofit, non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project provides local data. Brand-new Suffolk-area Delegate Cliff Hayes (D-77), has already gotten $1,000 from Dominion Energy; Rick Morris (R-64), $3,500 (he has announced that he is retiring). Long-time State Senator Louise Lucas (D-18) has gotten a whopping $34,450 from Dominion Energy — her largest contributor, other than herself; John Cosgrove (R-14), $23,150.

Those are just examples. All four have, of course, also taken donations from a long list of other corporate interests. They could always change their minds, and their campaign practices.

Meanwhile, those same public servants who take Dominion’s money have voted on countless Dominion-related bills, listened to the pitches of the sturdy corps of Dominion lobbyists, and then often handed the company a lengthening series of legislative home runs worth hundreds of millions of dollars — perhaps a billion or two by some estimates.

And they routinely vote on legislation affecting the bankers, realtors, beer wholesalers, the health industry and their other benefactors.

Don’t accept their easy answers: “Everybody does it,” which isn’t true. Or, “I need the money to get elected.”

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 — $826,000 in 2016-2017 alone. It is Virginia’s top corporate donor. Its biggest recipient is a Democrat, though the Republicans have taken in more, over all.

So ask each of your legislators and candidates: Will they pledge to reject that kind of campaign cash from now on? Can they at least decline donations from the state-regulated utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power?

If they think it’s okay to accept their money, then will they pledge to abstain from voting on legislation involving those interests?

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.” Email him at