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Virginia Democrats Slow to Act on Campaign Finance Reform

Virginia capitol
In 2019, Gov. Northam and Democratic legislators advanced campaign finance reforms that the GOP shut down. But two years after Democrats flipped the state house, the system remains virtually unchanged. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In 2017, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Ralph Northam described Virginia’s freewheeling campaign finance system as a “boondoggle that alienates its citizens” and released a plan to overhaul it. In 2019, as governor, he again laid out proposalswith fellow Democrats that met a swift demise in the GOP-majority legislature.

But in the nearly two years since Democrats flipped the General Assembly, Virginia’s campaign finance laws remain virtually unchanged. Their current nominee for governor, Terry McAuliffe, has put out more than two dozen plans on various issues, but so far none on campaign finance reform; a spokesman for the campaign declined to comment.

And a commission Democrats approved in February is unlikely to propose sweeping changes to laws ahead of next year’s session, according to Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax), who sits on the new body. Simon acknowledged the party’s priorities shifted as it benefited from the windfall that came with its new power.

“I think it's tough to ask Democrats who spent twenty-some years in the wilderness, living off of the scraps, to suddenly say, ‘We're going to turn down our invitation to the main course,’” Simon said. “When Republicans take over chambers, they tend to change the rules in ways that make it easier for them to get reelected. When Democrats flipped [the] chambers, we’re asked to make changes that make the system more fair, but may not necessarily help us retain power.”

Both parties reported at least $85,000 in contributions from corporations and special interests during the 9-day special session from donors that included Comcast, Cox Communications, Dominion Energy, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Some donors said they’d sent the checks before the session began.

State law bars lawmakers from fundraising during regular sessions, which begin each January, but there are no such rules for special sessions. The practice was in full force last year, when lawmakers held a special session that lasted 60 days. In one case, a Democratic lawmaker stepped out of his annual golf tournament fundraiser to attend a brief, remote floor session. 

In an interview on Tuesday, Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn sidestepped a question on whether lawmakers should consider closing the special-session loophole.

“Right now, that is allowable for a special session,” Filler-Corn said. “And I think we're just excited to get back out on the road and be able to talk to voters.”

Democrats kicked off the first day of the special session with a fundraiser — a routine event for both parties ahead of gavelling in, Simon said. Simon also sent an email cancelling the first planned meeting of a commission devoted to campaign finance reform. The Democratic lawmaker said the events were unrelated; legislators had been asked by the House clerk’s office to remove all commission meetings from the calendar to make room for the special session, he said.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) was quick to pounce on what he saw as hypocrisy.

“Make no mistake, Democrats continue to prioritize their ability to collect donations above their publicly expressed support of ‘reform,’” Norment said in a statement.

Republicans repeatedly blocked campaign finance proposals when they ran the General Assembly. A spokesperson for Glenn Youngkin, the GOP nominee for governor, did not respond to a request for comment on his policies on the issue.

Reformers are focusing on the campaign finance commission’s first meeting, now scheduled for Aug. 23 and accepting public comment. Simon said the commission faces several limitations. It’s unlikely to pursue changes that lack enough support to pass, he said. Staff on the commission are distracted by concurrent work on redistricting, and House lawmakers are focused on getting re-elected in November.

“But I think a commission like this still has plenty of time to take a look at an issue like that that's been pretty well vetted and put the finishing touches on it so that we can get something that everybody can live with,” Simon said. That slate might include a bill Simon sponsored last year that would have banned personal use of campaign dollars. 

Shruti Shah, president of the good governance group Coalition for Integrity, said Virginia would likely score near the bottom of the group’s forthcoming ranking of state campaign finance laws. The status quo would only change under pressure from voters, she predicted.

“Unless we do that, I don't think there is any reason for them to want to actually move in any quick fashion whatsoever,” Shah said.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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