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Virginia's "Wild West" Campaign Finances

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This was the year when state lawmakers approved some major changes including legalization of marijuana and ending the death penalty.  In other areas, however, reformers were disappointed. 

The General Assembly rejected several bills designed to reform utility regulation, refused to remove special legal protections for police and retained the state’s right-to-work law.  They also failed to approve campaign finance reform.

Credit The Sierra Club
The Sierra Club's Ivy Main loves her dog, but Virginia's campaign finance laws -- not so much.

When it comes to campaign contributions, some say Virginia is the wild West.

“Virginia is an anything goes state,” says Stephen Spaulding, a lawyer with the clean government advocate Common Cause.

“There’s really no limit on how much an individual can contribute to a candidate, and that really puts Virginia in the minority of states.”

And Ivy Main, an official with the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, thinks it could explain some surprising votes.  During the last session, she says, some lawmakers proposed that consumers get refunds when they’re overcharged on their electric bills.  That seems a no brainer, but Main notes Dominion Energy gave nearly a million dollars in campaign contributions to candidates for the General Assembly. 

“All of the utility reform bills went down to defeat as well as a bill which would have allowed consumers to buy renewable energy from any seller, and that would have really opened up the market for renewable energy.”

Credit Dominion Energy
Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani warns proposed reforms could lead to blackouts like what Texas experienced last winter.

Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani calls reform proposals misguided, warning similar policies led to the winter’s tragic events in Texas.  He said the company’s political contributions are paid by shareholders on behalf of 15-thousand employees, adding that the firm is transparent and bipartisan.

The Virginia Public Access Project reports that of the 11 biggest recipients of donations from Dominion in a legislature controlled by Democrats, only one is a Republican -- Senator Tommy Norment who, by the way, owns at least $50,000 in Dominion stock.

“In the subcommittee hearing these bills," says the Sierra Club's Ivy Main, "Norment expressed great concern for the impact of utility reform bills on share prices for Dominion.”

Reformers also pointed to the GEO Group, a for-profit company paid $2 million a month to manage the Lawrenceville Correctional Center. Relatives of inmates had complained about conditions there, claiming lockdowns were necessary because the prison was understaffed.  Last year the fiancee of one inmate reported a brawl when problems with the plumbing put everyone on edge.

“There was at least a foot of water in the pod," she recalls. "Tensions had been high, and they all started talking smack to each other, and apparently the violence just exploded.”

Two men ended up at VCU’s Medical Center with serious injuries, but lawmakers refused to end the state’s contract.  

The GEO Group calls public criticism outrageous, baseless, and egregious -- dismissing any connection between flooding and fighting at Lawrenceville.  Citing its “long-standing partnership with the Commonwealth,” GEO says it supports candidates who recognize “the important role we play.” The firm gave $35,000 to candidates for the General Assembly last year.

Attorney David Toscano, who served 14 years in the House of Delegates, says campaign donations may not buy votes, but they often purchase access, and in a legislature of part-time lawmakers with limited resources, that can be especially valuable.

“Sometimes it enters the mind of legislators.  They say, ‘Oh yeah, this person’s been a very good contributor.  Maybe I should take their call.’  You have to get your information wherever you can, and sometimes that comes in the form of lobbyists coming to visit with you about a piece of legislation or a perspective they have about a bill.”

So how concerned should voters be about corporate campaign contributions, and when might lawmakers be willing to regulate political donors? 


During the last campaign cycle, corporations, political action committees, non-profits and individuals donated more than $124 million to candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate. Critics contend that warped the way lawmakers voted in 2021, but efforts to reform campaign finance in Richmond have repeatedly failed.  So why are politicians reluctant to limit donations and night that change next year?

Sandy Hausman reports on Virginia's campaign finance laws, part 2

Credit David Toscano
Former Delegate David Toscano says there's too much money in Virginia's legislature campaigns.

David Toscano spent 14 years in the Virginia House of Delegates and has written two books on state politics.  The Democrat from Charlottesville says there’s too much money in campaigns for the General Assembly.

“People have to contemplate spending upwards of over $500,000 to a million dollars to run for a delegate seat, which is a part-time job that doesn’t pay very much money," he explains.  "It sort of limits the universe of people who potentially could run.”

One reason he says Virginia elections attract so much money is because of their timing.

“They are all held in the off years.  In other words they’re not occurring at the same time as the presidential races which tend to suck up a lot of campaign contributions, and there are increasing amounts of money being spent.”

But lawmakers have rejected efforts to impose some restrictions on who donates and how much.

“I tried to impose even a $10,000 limit a couple of years ago," Toscano recalls.  "It went absolutely nowhere.”

It’s frustrating for Brian Johns, the executive director of Virginia Organizing.  That progressive group lobbied hard for utility rate reform in the last session, but members of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee blocked proposed changes.  In 2020 those same legislators accepted more than $280,000 in campaign contributions from the state’s largest power company. 

Credit Virginia Organizing
Virginia Organizing Director Brian Johns says groups like his can never compete with big-money corporations.

“One of the key hurdles is the amount of contributions that folks are getting from Dominion," he says.

And this wasn’t the first time he’s been up against big bucks in the legislature.

“I remember early days in pay day lending fights, walking in and feeling outnumbered five or six to one in terms of paid lobbyists, and we’ve got directly affected members who have a pay day loan out going in to try to tell their story, knowing full well that lobbyists are going to follow us and say why we shouldn’t cap interest rates.” 

But lawmakers did, eventually, impose regulation on pay day lenders as public awareness and support grew.

“We often say we’ll never have the same amount of money as our opposition, so we’ve got to try to organize as many people as possible,” Johns says.

And Toscano points out that corporations aren’t the only ones making large campaign contributions in Virginia.

“You do have interest groups that are actively engaged," he says.  "The League of Conservation Voters is a great example.  Planned Parenthood is another one. Groups like the hospital association, the doctors’ association. You’ve got individual donors like Michael Bills and Sonya Smith who on the Democratic side gave over a million dollars to candidates’ races in 2019.”

Still Common Cause, a non-profit focused on keeping government clean, says the current system is ripe for reform.  An attorney for the group, Stephen Spaulding, thinks the public is also ready.

“I think most Americans recognize that a system dominated by wealthy campaign spenders really tilts the playing field in their favor.”

Even politicians may be unhappy with the current system of campaign finance.

“I think they themselves really don’t like to have to go dialing for dollars – asking for big checks because of the pay-to-play culture that it appears to further,” Spaulding says.

So why did Virginia’s legislature again reject campaign finance reform in 2021?  Former Delegate Toscano says the session was short and the issue was complicated.  He believes the state needs at commission to study the issues. 

In fact, the General Assembly did pass a resolution to research and report on what campaign finance reform might look like – a report that will be ready in time for the 2022 session when Toscano thinks lawmakers might finally be ready for a change. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief