Gov. Northam’s first chance to do something about money in politics


Stephen Nash is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever — How Climate Change Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests” and is a visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond.

The generosity of some big, big donors to Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) inaugural committee for Saturday’s $1.6 million (and counting) festival is astonishing but not, shall we say, a surprise.

We begin with Dominion Energy, our supposedly state-regulated private corporate monopoly that pollutes air and water, stifles independent solar power, aligns with climate-change deniers and tries to ram unneeded gas pipelines over the mountains to its profit and our loss. Dominion gave $50,000 to the inaugural committee.

Altria, the tobacco company: $50,000. The Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association: $32,500. Aetna Life and Casualty: $25,000. The Norfolk Southern Corporation: $25,000. Political appointees, lobbyists and corporate chieftains are there, too, on the $10,000-plus list.

These inaugural events were more or less open to all. Political power in Virginia is not. Northam’s administration can work hard to correct that, and it has already made strides. But was the nonprofit Children’s Home Society supposed to contemplate a similarly mighty contribution in hopes of currying favor? It has struggled for years to improve the state’s abysmal record of placing abused and foster children in adoptive homes. We are often dead last among the 50 states in doing so.

What about Virginia Organizing, whose lengthy agenda includes looking out for gay people, working people and beleaguered immigrants; the Virginia Center for Public Safety, which lobbies for sane firearms laws; or the Chesapeake Climate Action Network?

It’s a rhetorical question. They couldn’t contribute $50,000, or similarly grand wads of cash, to the committee. Northam’s inauguration funding is little different from that of his predecessors, but that’s no excuse. It’s time for a change, of that and much else.

Legal scholar and former New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout writes in her book “Corruption in America : From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United ” that “a gift can be a bribe. . . . Gifts can be as bad as bribes — sometimes worse than bribes — in creating obligations.”

There’s no suggestion here that the new governor is personally corrupt. He has to work pragmatically within a corrupted system. But the ownership of our government is in question at this moment in Virginia’s — and the nation’s — history. One poll found that three-quarters of Americans — Republicans and Democrats in nearly even numbers — think Congress is for sale. Just the appearance of taking money from corporations and influencers is toxic to public trust. As a Republican contender for Virginia governor, state Sen. Frank Wagner, said: “I can certainly understand the sentiment of some of the public that, ‘Oh, he received money from them, therefore he is beholden.’ . . . I think it’s a conclusion that many people would draw.”

Only last May, as a candidate, Northam called for a ban on campaign donations from corporations and businesses and a $10,000 cap for all donors except party committees. That would be a start, and his very first days in office would be a good time to follow through on it. “Virginians across every part of the political spectrum want a system that is more responsive to the people, and less reliant on big checks from a few donors,” he said back then.

As for public celebrations, history points to a better way to fund them, too. In 1884, when the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty ran out of money, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer urged the public to donate. The cost of the statue “was paid in by the masses of the French people . . . irrespective of class or condition. . . . It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America,” he wrote. More than $100,000 was raised to complete the statue’s pedestal. Children collected tens of thousands of pennies. Most donations were $1 or less. The statue was erected.

Government should not be, nor appear to be, “a gift from the millionaires to the millionaires.” Virginia’s new leadership should fight hard, starting now, to make sure it isn’t.

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