A few days have passed, and I just can’t get over the open-handed support of some of the patrons of the $1.9-million-plus inauguration of our new governor, Ralph Northam. What could inspire that kind of generosity?
It’s a bipartisan question. Let’s say I’m a conservative corporate CEO here in Lynchburg, and I don’t want — not even a little bit! — to write a check to celebrate the anointing of a governor I think is way too liberal. But will I miss out on some kind of soft extortion game, to my company’s detriment? And what’s my sneaking hunch about the fairness of all this?
The donors list posted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project includes: Altria, the tobacco company: $50,000; the Virginia Cable Telecom Association: $32,500; Anthem, the health insurance megasaurus, Appalachian Power, Aetna Life and Casualty, Norfolk Southern: all $25,000. Political appointees, lobbyists and corporate chieftains are here on the long $10,000-plus list, too.
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And then there’s Dominion Energy, our supposedly state-regulated private corporate monopoly. It 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.
Unlisted: the nonprofit Children’s Home Society. Is it supposed to muster a fat contribution and hope to get on the political radar screen? The Society has labored for years to improve Virginia’s shocking record in placing abused and foster children in adoptive homes. We are often in last place among the 50 states, along with Mississippi.
How about Virginia Organizing, whose agenda includes looking out for gay people, working people and beleaguered immigrants; the Virginia Center for Public Safety, which lobbies for sane firearms laws; the Chesapeake Climate Action Network? It’s a rhetorical question.
Dominion’s the biggest giver to the political campaigns of our state legislators, too — both Republicans and Democrats. And it has the darndest good luck getting its way down at the Capitol. With just a few keystrokes at VPAP.org you can see all the big donors to your own state senators and delegates. Then ask them how they can take money from the same people they’re making laws about.
Or you can congratulate them for not doing so. Roanoke Del. Sam Rasoul, for example, refuses campaign donations above $5,000 from anyone, and takes no money at all from special-interest PACS and corporations.
Our elected public servants who accept such gifts assure us that they can still be fair to all. Maybe so. But if a reporter for this newspaper took money from sources and offered the same assurances, she’d be fired. It’s the same for many jobs — probably yours, too. With conflict of interest, it’s the ill fragrance of the thing, not the hard evidence of wrong-doing. Why do we suspend common sense when it comes to our elected officials?
Actually, we don’t. Our legislature has been referred to as a “favor factory.” One poll found that three-quarters of Americans, Republicans and Democrats in nearly even numbers, think Congress is for sale. Witness the widespread disgust, conservative and liberal, with the carnival of conflicts of interest that is the Trump administration.
The legal scholar and former New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout writes in her book “Corruption in America” that “A gift can be a bribe. A bribe can be a gift ... . They can create obligations to private parties that shape judgment and outcomes.”
There’s no suggestion here that the new governor is personally. He has to work pragmatically, within a corrupted system, and he’s making progress. But clean government is the deepest pragmatism of all. His inauguration is little different from prior ones, but it’s time for a change, of that and much else.
Well listen to me rant on ... no one likes a wet blanket at a party! H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
But last May, as a candidate, Northam himself called for a ban on campaign donations from corporations and businesses and a $10,000 cap on all donors except party committees. “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. That’s a start. Public campaign financing, as in Maryland, Arizona, Connecticut or Vermont would be far more effective.
There’s a better way to pay for public celebrations, too. When France sent the Statue of Liberty to America in the 1880s, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer urged the public to donate to put it up. The Statue itself “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. Children collected tens of thousands of pennies and most donations were a dollar or less. The Statue was erected.
Richmond’s Capitol Square should not be, nor appear to be, “a gift from the millionaires to the millionaires,” nor to anyone else. I appreciate your considering that, Governor Northam, and helping us regain faith in the integrity of our state government.
Nash is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever — How Climate Change Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests,” published by the University of Virginia Press. He is a Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond. He wrote this column for The News & Advance.