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Groups rally before a news conference to discuss a constitutional amendment on campaign finance reform in 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
What if they didn’t take the cash?
Some Democrats in Washington and Richmond mill and mull, dazed and Trump-flummoxed. They’re compelled to look for new roles to play but can’t unstick from the old ones — can’t find clarity or hope to offer a mistrustful electorate.
Campaign finance reform at the state legislature would be a great place to start, but it’s hard for some Democrats to think outside the treasure box. Three-quarters of American voters — nearly equal numbers in both parties — are convinced that Congress is for sale. Given its record, the Virginia legislature can’t make a credible claim to higher public confidence. Maybe Roanoke, of all places, offers inspiration.
Why are the real estate agents, the health industry, the beer wholesalers and bankers shoving all that cash into the Virginia legislature? Law professor William Black, a former bank regulator, summarizes the ordinary citizen’s street-level, tragic view when he writes that “a campaign contribution always generates the best return on investment.”
When I asked Republican gubernatorial candidate Frank Wagner, a state senator from Virginia Beach, about big money in state politics last year, he remarked that he “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.”
A mistaken conclusion, he assured me. But — funny thing — the state-regulated power utility Dominion Energy gave more than $7.4 million to Virginia legislators over the past decade, including $770,000 in 2016-2017 alone , according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. Coincidentally, Dominion has racked up an astonishing string of legislative triumphs over those years, amping up its profit margins along the way.
You could ask your state senator or delegate: Why is it ethical to take money from a state-regulated entity or any corporation and then vote on measures that affect those corporations’ profits? Don’t accept the easy answer: “I need the money to get elected.” Vermont, Connecticut and conservative Arizona have figured that out, with voluntary donation limits and public financing for candidates. Is your senator or delegate pushing — noisily — for that? Why not?
Democrats could change and grab onto this populist ethical issue, but many of them would burn their hands. Dominion — the top corporate giver on a long list of big donors — gives money to dozens in both parties. State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) is the biggest individual prizewinner, thanks to his long legislative service, perhaps, with gifts of $298,000 from Dominion over the years.
Roanoke Del. Sam Rasoul, a 35-year-old management consultant, exited a leadership role in that chamber’s Democratic caucus: “My party needs to evolve,” he told me. “After the election, which really signaled an all-time low for Democrats in modern history, it became evident that we were stuck in our rationalizations as to why we are losing. I don’t want to be part of an establishment leadership apparatus that doesn’t want to radically change the way they do business.”
Soon after, he announced that he’ll decline campaign donations above $5,000 from anyone and will take no more campaign cash from special-interest PACs and corporations.
Does money really buy influence in Richmond? “It’s so obvious that this is not in the interest of Virginians, yet somehow this legislation passes with overwhelming support,” Rasoul told me. “It’s sad to watch to watch that happen, because it’s clear that the legislature, as far as Dominion is concerned, is bought and paid for.”
A higher multiple of $25 campaign donors can outweigh the few behemoths, and integrity inspires voter engagement. Rasoul thinks that in the social-media era, voters pay far less attention to all that high-dollar junk mail, the blaring television commercials and fake telephone push polls. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and President Trump proved that.
Rasoul doesn’t seem to be strutting over his decision, though. It just feels better, he told me. “It’s not perfect until we have public financing of campaigns, or some other mechanism to limit dollars so people are playing on a level field. What I did is not the whole solution, but it was the biggest step I think I could take right now to send a clear message to the people of Virginia, or across this country, that we are not beholden to special interests — that we are operating in the interests of the people.”
Candidates could gain support by signaling that. It would be great to see some more of them try.