Press Club

What’s Next: Virginia is Still a Pay-to-Play State

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

This year every campaign finance reform bill is expected to die in the General Assembly. That is extremely problematic considering we aren’t even aiming for federal standards.

Federally, candidate committees have a $2,800 limit on donations from individuals per election or $5,600 if there is a primary and general election that year, and corporations are banned from contributing at all. Nonaffiliated PACs (thanks to Citizens United) can accept $5,000 from individuals per year and corporations are able to contribute.

In Virginia we do not have any contribution limits. This legislative session bill were introduced that aimed for a floor below the bare minimum and committees with Democratic majorities still killed these reform including:

Senate: Prohibit campaign contributions over $20,000

YEAS — Adam Ebbin (D – Arlington/Alexandria), Deeds (D), Surovell (D), Mason (D), McClellan (D), Boysko (D). 

NAYS — Janet Howell (D – Arlington/Fairfax), Lionell Spruill (D), John Bell (D), Reeves (R), Ruff (R), Peake (R), McDougle (R), Dunnavant (R).

Senate: Prohibit campaign contributions from public utilities

YEAS– Ebbin (D – Arlington/Alexandria), Deeds (D), McClellan (D), Boysko (D), Bell (D).

NAYS — Howell (D-Arlington/Fairfax), Spruill (D), Surovell (D), Mason (D), Vogel (R), Reeves (R), Ruff (R), Peake (R), McDougle (R), Dunnavant (R).

House: Prohibit campaign contributions from public utilities

KILL THE BILL — Reid (D), Sickles (D), Bloxom (R), Runion (R).

VOTE ON THE BILL — Rasoul (D), Mundon King (D).

If you look at a breakdown of the latest campaign contributions you will see a correlation between large corporate donations and how our local legislators voted.

Janet Howell voted against campaign finance reform. Howell received 99% of donations from corporations, trade groups, or the Democratic party ($120,550) and 1% from individuals ($500). Half of those donations came from contributions that would have been above the federal limit including Dominion Energy ($15k), AVS Companies [gambling machine company] ($10k), Betting on Virginia Jobs [coal PAC] ($5k), HCA Doctors & Hospitals ($5k), Service Employees Union ($5k), Beer Wholesalers Association ($5k), VA Healthcare Association ($5k), Amazon ($4k), Anthem Health ($3k), UnitedHealth Group ($3k).

Adam Ebbin voted for campaign finance reform. Ebbin received 66% of donations from corporations, trade associations, or the Democratic party ($59,957), and 34% from individuals ($31,205). This was the best ratio in the entire Arlington delegation. Of donations above the federal limit, two came from individuals totaling $7,500 between the two, and two came from corporations or trade groups including Clean Virginia Fund [clean energy PAC] ($5k), and Amazon ($4k).

I do not blame legislators for acting within the current legal bounds of what is allowable for campaign contributions. What I take issue with is any legislator voting to maintain this perverse dichotomy and the fact that the current paradigm has clearly played a role in that vote.

On one hand I am proud that Arlington has the first woman chairing the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee because we are more likely to receive funding for projects that are important to us and Howell has been groundbreaking in her ability to navigate a male dominated legislature. On the other hand with that power comes responsibility, and it is important for our legislators to evolve. Breaking those barriers that made it difficult to get to that power should be a priority in order to ensure that future generations are able to break norms in the notorious “southern gentleman club” of Richmond.

Looking forward we should look to the results of an upcoming joint subcommittee studying comprehensive campaign finance reform. This effort was co-patroned by Arlington legislators Alfonso Lopez and Rip Sullivan. It will study the costs of campaigns, effectiveness of current disclosure laws and enforcement, constitutional options available to regulate campaign finances, and the “desirability” of contribution limits.

I encourage you to contact your legislator and ask them to support significant reform of campaign finance rules including a desire for contribution limits. In my opinion the bare minimum would be meeting the federal standard and it would be preferable to do more.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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