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Peter’s Take: Jump Start Virginia Campaign Finance Reform

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

It’s long past time to get big money out of our politics in Virginia.

During her 2020 Presidential campaign, Senator Elizabeth Warren explained why we need robust campaign finance reform: “[B]efore the legislative process even starts — lobbyists and billionaires try to buy off politicians during elections. Candidates and elected officials often spend hours and hours a day doing call time with big donors, instead of learning about policy and working for their constituents.”

Our political process continues to be eroded by the corrosive role of big money and the impact of pay-to-play practices on our public policies.

While “much of this corruption of our representative democracy is perfectly legal,” some states have done a much better job than others in curbing the influence of big money.

Sadly, Virginia has done a much worse job.

Virginia has failed to strengthen its weak campaign finance system

Virginia’s track record on campaign finance reform is poor. The 2021 Virginia legislative session was no exception. A very modest reform bill died near the end of that session:

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who carried the bill — which passed the House of Delegates 100-0 — said he was “obviously disappointed [the Senate] couldn’t find a way to live under the same rules as the federal government and at least 47 other states.” He had told the Associated Press, when it looked like a breakthrough was possible, that it was his eighth year sponsoring the bill.

Virginia has the dubious distinction of being one of only a tiny handful of states with no campaign contribution limits.

Virginia ranks worse than all but five other states on the Coalition for Integrity’s S.W.A.M.P. index. Virginia needs to lower substantially the water level in this swamp.

2021 Governor’s race exposes the weaknesses in Virginia’s campaign finance laws

The current election for Virginia Governor already has been negatively distorted by the weaknesses in Virginia’s campaign finance laws. An extremely wealthy Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, is fulfilling his promise to spend whatever he thinks it takes to win, forcing his Democratic opponent, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, to spend almost all of his campaign so far raising lots of money and pleading for more.

Predictably, the media’s campaign coverage has concentrated on their money race not their policy differences. This focus adds to the corrosive effect Elizabeth Warren described. Even if there’s a subsequent shift to greater coverage of policy differences, each of these candidates will be unduly influenced by the big money already raised.

Will a new legislative study group prompt meaningful reform?

Rather than passing robust campaign finance reform in time to cover this year’s elections, our General Assembly instead created a bipartisan legislative study group on campaign finance reform.

This latest study group is tasked with: “examining the costs of campaigning in the Commonwealth, the effectiveness of the Commonwealth’s present disclosure laws and their enforcement, the constitutional options available to regulate campaign finances, and the desirability of specific revisions in the Commonwealth’s laws, including the implementation of contribution limits.”

There are legitimate concerns that this study committee, coming on the heels of numerous similar studies over the past 30 years, is just the latest way to kick the can down the road. However, Nancy Morgan, coordinator for the Virginia chapter of American Promise, a group working to support federal and state campaign finance reform, has confidence in both Marcus Simon and David Bulova, two of the 10 legislative members appointed to the committee.

Morgan explains that her group has been working with other states and national experts to identify best practices in campaign finance. “Some of our legislators recognize that Virginians want to strengthen our democracy by making legislators accountable to their voters and not be beholden to big-money special interests,” she said. “Trust is a critical ingredient between Government and the governed.”

Conclusion

Virginia is only one of a handful of states with no campaign contribution limits. This enables big money to flow freely into our campaigns, distorting our political system. Virginia needs to step up its game by enacting a package of robust campaign finance reform laws in the 2022 legislative session.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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