Democrats in Virginia are eschewing corporate cash in favor of grassroots fundraising, focusing on the people behind the money. A report by the Virginia Public Access Project shows freshman democrats are taking the charge on giving power to the people.
Legislators in 2018 have diversified their campaign funding, especially when it comes to corporate donors. From 2008 through 2016, 39 percent of funding came from corporate donors; in 2018, that number dropped to 8 percent. They also raised more money, increasing the average from $14,000 to almost $36,000.
Del. Lee Carter, a Democrat who represents Manassas, said corporate money is becoming a liability to delegates. He has tried to separate himself from the influence of monopolies by refusing to take any money from corporations.
“I think it’s important I walk the walk,” Carter said. He said he is trying to demonstrate he is serious about separating himself from corporate interest.
Carter is part of the People’s Caucus, a coalition of legislators that refuse campaign contributions from public service corporations. Three of the four members in the caucus, most of whom are freshman democrats, were patrons of House Bill 562, a bill introduced in January that would have prohibited candidates from accepting contributions from public service corporations. Freshman delegates Carter and Kelly Fowler, who represents Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, and Del. Sam Rasoul, of Roanoke, joined Del. Danica Roem, of Manassas Park, in supporting the bill.
Carter believes the purpose of for-profit corporations is for profit. The closer a candidate is to a corporation, the more likely it is the corporation may expect something in return. He hopes the overall culture of corporate donations changes.
Roem, who introduced HB 562, said contributions from for-profit corporations are not just about supporting a candidate.
“For-profit corporations don’t donate to campaigns to be nice,” Roem said. “They [support] campaigns because it’s about influence.”
She said she wants to make clear to her constituents they are her bosses, she answers to them and not to corporate donors.
“I’m doing my best to restore power to the people and make sure the regulated don’t have undue influence over the regulator,” Roem said. “A lot of these regulating monopolies have been getting their way on bill after bill after bill after bill for a longtime in the Virginia General Assembly.”
When corporate donors appear on campaign finance reports you don’t know the human being that decided to donate that money, Roem said, describing it as a transparency issue. She said corporations are using “hostage money” to have a seat at the table to steal influence. She doesn’t think the regulated should have undue influence over the regulators.
She also makes a distinction between donations from individuals, social justice organizations and corporate donors because those donations are in support of her platform. LGBTQ and Human Rights organizations have supported her, Roem said, because of the historic importance of her being the first openly transgender lawmaker. To her, this distinction between social justice groups is important, because they are advocating for civil rights and equality, not for personal profits.
“You can’t put a value on that,” Roem said. “A more inclusive America where more people from more walks of life who have been historically disenfranchised and left out of government to begin with can absolutely be left without a seat at the table actually having representation. Representation is power.”
Roem, Carter and Fowler are in good company with their fellow freshman democrats. Of the 16 delegates included in the report, 13 accept 10 percent or less from corporate donors. Del. Jay Jones, of Norfolk, is one outlier; he’s received the most in corporate contributions at 73 percent. Multiple attempts to reach Jones went unanswered.
Roem said money doesn’t win elections, though. In fact, all of the delegates in the People’s Caucus were outspent by their opponents.
HB 562 was passed by indefinitely in a subcommittee of the committee on privileges and elections by a republican majority. Passed by indefinitely means the bill could be considered at the next meeting, but that it would not move further in the legislative process without further action. The senate version of this bill, Senate Bill 10, introduced in November by Sen. Chapman Peterson, of Fairfax, had a similar fate.
Roem believes a democratic majority is necessary in both the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate for true campaign finance reform.
“Every effort that we’ve had to do it has failed over and over again we’ve got to do better than this,” Roem said. “We have another shot in 2019 and I hope that the majority will come around to our side on this. If they do the right thing, great, if they don’t, well, we have the 2019 elections to solve that.”