Observers, critics, and even legislators agree that utility giant Dominion Resources is the single most powerful force in the Virginia General Assembly. It gets the legislation passed that it wants, and it almost always succeeds in killing bills it doesn’t like. Media stories point out one reason for this huge influence: the company gives more money to political campaigns than does any other individual or corporation.
But it’s more complicated than that. Dominion distributes its largesse among Republicans and Democrats alike according to rank and power, not according to party affiliation, and not according to how they vote. Legislators stay on the gravy train even when they occasionally vote against Dominion’s interests. (No lawmaker consistently votes against Dominion’s interests. That would be weird. It is, after all, a utility.)
In the General Assembly, the most money goes to members of the Senate and House Commerce and Labor Committees, which hear most of the bills affecting energy policy. But Dominion also donates to the campaigns of nearly every incumbent lawmaker, regardless of committee assignment. It does not, however, donate to their challengers. Only to the victors go the spoils.
So today let’s look at some of the lucky recipients of Dominion’s money. This information comes from the Virginia Public Access Project, vpap.org, supplemented by information available on the General Assembly website.
Legislators whose campaigns have received more than $50,000 from Dominion (lifetime)
|Recipient||Party||District number and region||Total $ from Dominion||2014-2015 election cycle|
|Sen. Saslaw||D||35 NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church)||298,008||57,500|
|Del. Kilgore||R||1 Southwest||162,000||35,000|
|Sen. Deeds||D||25 Piedmont||109,700||1,500|
|Sen. Norment||R||3 Middle Peninsula/Tidewater||107,740||21,500|
|Del. Cox*||R||66 Central||90,799||29,099|
|Sen. Wagner||R||7 Tidewater||79,735||26,885|
|Del. Plum**||D||36 NoVa||78,750||4,000|
|Del. Hugo||R||40 NoVa||54,400||11,000|
|Sen. Obenshain||R||26 Shenandoah Valley||51,000||5,000|
- Lifetime totals may include more than one campaign committee. Creigh Deeds collected money for Delegate, Senate, AG and Governor’s races, which explains how he racked up this much in donations; he was also formerly a member of Commerce and Labor, but by 2014 he’d been removed from the committee.
- I chose 2014-2015 as a single election cycle comparison because both House and Senate seats were up that year.
- *Cox is not on Commerce and Labor but is House Majority Leader, a position that propelled him into the ranks of top Dominion recipients.
- **Plum is a former member of House Commerce and Labor and currently a member of the Commission on Electric Utility Regulation. (Other Commission members include Delegates Kilgore, Hugo, Miller, Villanueva and James; and Senators Norment, Lucas, Saslaw and Wagner.)
Saslaw, Kilgore, Norment, Wagner, Hugo and Obenshain all sit on the Commerce and Labor committees that hear most of the bills affecting Dominion’s business dealings. Wagner chairs Senate C&L and runs it as his personal fiefdom; Saslaw did the same when Democrats held the Senate. He will be Chairman again if control switches back. In addition to sitting on Senate C&L, Norment is the Senate Majority Leader.
Kilgore chairs House C&L, and like Wagner, he controls not just the docket but usually the outcome of votes. Hugo is House Majority Caucus Chairman in addition to being a member of C&L.
These powerful men (they are all men, and all white) get the biggest donations, but anyone with a seat on the committee can expect to collect donations from Dominion.
Dominion donations to Commerce and Labor Committee members
|Senator||Party||District number and region||Total $ from Dominion||2014-2015 election cycle|
|Wagner (Chair)||R||7 Tidewater||81,985||26,885|
|Saslaw (former Chair, Minority Leader)||D||35 NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church)||298,008||57,500|
|Norment||R||3 Middle Peninsula to Tidewater||107,740||21,500|
|Newman||R||23 Roanoke area||20,500||3,000|
|Obenshain||R||26 Shenandoah Valley||51,000||5,000|
|Stuart||R||28 Fredericksburg area||20,750||6,000|
|Black||R||13 NoVa (outer suburbs)||9,750||1,000|
*Sturtevant joined the Senate in 2016.
House Commerce and Labor Special Subcommittee on Energy
|Delegate||Party||District number, region||Total $ from Dominion||2014-2015 cycle|
|Kilgore (Chair)||R||1 Southwest||162,000 (top)||35,000|
|Ware, L.||R||65 Central||26,800||4,000|
|Marshall, D.W.||R||14 Southside||20,250||5,000|
|Cline||R||24 West (Lexington area)||13,750||3,000|
|Miller, J||R||50 NoVa (western suburbs)||29,000||7,500|
Other House Commerce and Labor members (not on energy subcommittee)
|Delegate||Party||District number, region||Total $ from Dominion||2014-2015 cycle|
|Bell, Robert B.||R||58 Piedmont||14,500||3,500|
|Ransone||R||99 Northern Neck||8,500||2,500|
|Ward, J||D||92 Tidewater||23,500||5,000|
- Names appear in the order they are listed on the General Assembly website for each committee. In the Senate, this reflects seniority; in the House, Republicans come first, and then seniority.
- *Peter Farrell is the son of Thomas Farrell, II, CEO of Dominion Resources. He gets no cash from Dominion and abstains on votes that directly affect the utility. Those who worry that the family relationship might keep him off the gravy train will be relieved to know his dear old dad gives his campaign $10,000 a year, and more than a dozen other top Dominion executives also pitch in hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece annually to make sure he stays on the public payroll.
Compared to whom?
One problem with singling out Dominion is that it is only the biggest and most conspicuous player of the influence game. It has plenty of company. Appalachian Power Company (APCo) also donates generously to legislators in leadership positions and those on C&L. And our utilities are not exceptions. Richmond is awash in corporate cash.
So let’s look at Appalachian Power Company’s top dozen Senate and House recipients in 2014-2015. We can compare these amounts to what these guys (all men again) received from Dominion and Altria, another large Virginia company that isn’t in the utility business. And just for fun, I’ve added columns showing donations from the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA and the environmental group Sierra Club.
- *Kenny Alexander was a member of Senate Commerce and Labor in 2014 and 2015.
- **MDV-SEIA donated to only five candidates in the 2014-2015 election cycle. In addition to the contributions shown, the association gave $2,500 to Delegate Villanueva.
- ***Sierra Club-Va. Chapter made a total of $33,410 in campaign contributions during the 2014-2015 election cycle, but very few of its recipients sit on Commerce & Labor. Of those who do, Delegate Villanueva received the largest donation, $200. Sierra Club Legislative Director Corrina Beall notes that “most of Sierra Club’s donations are in-kind donations rather than cash donations. Our contributions are made in staff time spent communicating with our members and supporters about candidates who we have endorsed.”
What do you get if you’re not a big shot or on C&L?
Dominion gives to almost everyone; after all, bills that pass committee still have to go to the floor. I chose half a dozen lesser-known delegates at random to compare to the Commerce and Labor committee members. All have been in the General Assembly for at least six years.
Here’s what they got for the 2014-2015 legislative cycle. I threw in APCo and Altria for comparison.
|$ From Dominion||$ From APCo||$ from Altria|
|Anderson, R (R)||2,000||275||1,000|
|Edmunds, J (R)||1,500||0||1,000|
|Knight, B (R)||3,500||1,275||1,000|
|McQuinn, D (D)||3,750||1,500||500|
|Watts, V (D)||2,000||500||1,000|
|Helsel, G (R)*||0||0||1,000|
- *Helsel received $2,500 from Dominion in 2011-2012 but nothing since, and has never received money from APCo.
So the little people did about as well as the C&L members who aren’t on the energy subcommittee, but less well than the subcommittee members.
What does the money buy?
Legislators swear they don’t allow the money to influence their votes. And yet it seems obvious that donors expect that very thing. There’s a clear gap between what the donors think their money buys, and what legislators think they give in return. You might call this the “credibility gap.” And yet as I’ve observed before, if a few thousand bucks is enough to buy a vote, then the real scandal isn’t that legislators can be bought, but that they can be bought so cheaply. Obviously, there is more to it.
Defenders of unlimited campaign contributions like to think donors give money to candidates whose views they share, or to lawmakers who have done a good job in office and need the money to win election and continue doing a fabulous job. That seems to describe Sierra Club’s approach, but it certainly doesn’t describe Dominion’s. Dominion gives money to everyone, and almost none of the recipients need the money to stay in office.
According to VPAP, more than 50% of Virginia legislators ran unopposed during the last election. Only 10% of members had races that could be described as anything close to competitive (defined as a margin of less than 10%). Even if you totally approve of the job these legislators are doing, you don’t need to give them money to make sure they keep their seats. The only purpose of contributions to these members is to buy influence by helping them build power.
House Commerce and Labor Chairman Terry Kilgore, for example, has not had an opponent since 2007, when he took 72% of the vote. Yet since 2008, he has collected $135,500 from Dominion, among almost $2 million in contributions from all sources.
What does he do with all that money? VPAP shows that during the 2014-2015 season he spent some $80,000 on staff and political consultants, $50,000 on legal and accounting, $35,000 on fundraising (hello?), $23,000 on something called “Community Goodwill,” $22,000 on mail, printing and postage, $12,000 on “Legislative Session,” $11,000 on travel and meals, $28,000 on advertising, signage, and phone calls, and another $15,000 or so on other campaign-related things. All this for a part-time legislator running unopposed.
But the biggest expense Kilgore reported was not for his campaign, but for the campaigns of fellow Republicans. Donations to other candidates and party committees in 2014 and 2015 added up to about $174,000. Dominion’s money indirectly helps candidates who might have competitive campaigns; directly, it helps Kilgore build power and influence for himself.
We could do a similar analysis on the Democratic side with Senator Saslaw, who draws at least token opposition in every election but has never won by less than a 17-point margin. He still collected over a million dollars in campaign contributions in 2014-2015, and spent all but a fraction of it on donations to party committees and other candidates.
In both cases, and for all the other top recipients of Dominion’s cash, the campaign donations have nothing to do with candidates getting elected, and everything to do with securing the loyalty of legislative power brokers who, by doling out money themselves, can deliver the votes on Dominion-backed bills when needed. Rank-and-file legislators don’t vote for a Dominion bill because they got a $1,000 donation. They vote for a bill when their party leader tells them to, especially when that leader can remind them he’s helped direct tens of thousands of dollars to their campaigns.
And then there’s this troubling aspect . . .
I’d be remiss not to mention one other peculiarity of Virginia election law, which is that candidates are not prohibited from using campaign money for personal expenses. The Washington Post ran a series of outraged editorials about this a few years ago that is worth looking up (I wrote about it here). This same practice cost now-Vice President Mike Pence an election way back in 1990, when records showed Pence used campaign donations to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses. But here in Virginia, the Post’s revelations about Delegate Hugo paying his cell phone bills with campaign money produced neither repercussions nor changes in the law.
Some legislators introduce legislation every year to ban the use of campaign cash for private gain; every year it fails in an unrecorded subcommittee vote. See, e.g., Delegate Marcus Simon’s HB 1446 this year.
Why doesn’t anyone turn down the money?
It’s pretty hard to find legislators who don’t take Dominion’s money. The vast majority who do includes Senator Chap Petersen, who made news this year first by calling for a repeal of the 2015 boondoggle that will net Dominion a billion-dollar windfall at customer expense, and when that bill failed (in Senate Commerce & Labor, ahem), by calling for a ban on campaign contributions from public service corporations like Dominion. Petersen received $2,500 from Dominion in the 2014-2015 cycle, and another $1,000 in 2016. Of course, that was before the 2017 session brouhaha.
One legislator who has sworn off Dominion’s money is Delegate Rip Sullivan, an Arlington Democrat known for his bills to improve Virginia’s dismal achievements on energy efficiency—bills that Dominion opposes when they come before Commerce and Labor. (The only efficiency bill that passed this year is one from Senator Dance that merely requires tracking of energy efficiency progress. Sullivan’s identical House bill was killed in the House energy subcommittee.)
I asked Sullivan why he doesn’t take Dominion’s money. I liked his answer so much that I’ll give him the last word:
“I have very publicly made clear from the day I announced for the HOD that I would not take any money from Dominion. I have been equally clear that a major part of my agenda in RVA relates to climate and renewable energy–as you know, I’ve introduced numerous bills on renewable energy tax credits, community solar, energy efficiency, etc. . . .
“I have also made clear that I understand the reality that to make progress on these issues in the GA I will need to interact and hopefully work with Dominion. And I have tried to establish and maintain relationships there to hopefully facilitate dialogue, understanding and hopefully progress on environmental issues. But I never want there to be any question about where–or with whom–I stand on these issues, and I don’t want anyone questioning my motives or actions with any suggestion about getting money from Dominion. And, of course, I want Dominion to understand that I am not beholden to them in any way. Frankly, it’s just cleaner (pardon the pun) to not take Dominion money, and shame on me if I can’t find somewhere else anyway to raise the thousand bucks they’d give me.”