Money and politics — you can’t say one without the other. The role of money in our political process has been a concern since the dawn of the Republic, but fears about the influence of dollars have grown in the last several decades as attempts at reform initiated in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon from office have quietly been rolled back.
Presidential campaigns raise and spend hundreds of millions — even, billions — of dollars. Thanks to the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, virtually unlimited cash can flow into PACs supposedly “independent” of the campaigns without the donors’ names ever being revealed. Is it any wonder the average America cynically believes all politicians in Washington are bought and paid for by corporations and billionaires?
Sadly, though not surprisingly, the trend of Big Money has made its way into Virginia politics. Not that it hasn’t been there for decades, especially in the case of Dominion Energy, the most powerful corporation in Richmond, but especially so in the years since the commonwealth has emerged as a battleground state on the national stage.
Two years ago in the 2017 elections when the 100 seats of the House of Delegates were on the ballot, the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) tallied almost $44 million spent in the battle that saw Democrats surprisingly come within two seats of seizing control from Republicans who then had a 66-seat majority.
In the 2019 fight for the House — hold on to your seats — a record $66 million was raised and spent, an increase of a third in just one election cycle. Much of that came within the last weeks of the campaign and arguable helped push several into the “W” column for Democrats, who took control of the House for the first time since the mid-1990s.
Where will it all end?
Disturbingly, when you factor in that Virginia has some of the most lax campaign finance rules in the nation — even after the so-called reforms put in place after the Giftgate scandal of the Bob McDonnell administration — we fear another scandal will come in just a matter of time.
Consider the case of a former member of the Maryland legislature, Tawanna P. Gaines. In October, Gaines pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges for transferring more than $20,000 in campaign donations to her personal PayPal account to pay for any number of purchases and expenditures unrelated to any of her races for office. She’ll be sentenced Jan. 3 in federal court and faces up to 20 years in prison.
In Virginia, what Gaines did is perfectly legal. Pay for your Amazon purchases, trips to your hair stylist, work on the pool at your house … illegal in Maryland, no problem across the state line in Virginia. And you don’t even have to report such use of campaign dollars.
Anyone who believes Virginia politics are as pure as the driven snow is deluding himself. A pretty facade known for decades as “The Virginia Way” creates the perception that politics is done differently in the Old Dominion. But the McDonnell Giftgate scandal pulled back the curtain and revealed how Richmond really operates. The superficial reforms passed lack any teeth and have no enforcement mechanisms. Without a wholesale rewrite, it’s only a matter of time until another scandal embroils Richmond, and we’ll be here to say, “We told you so.”