Home 2017 Races Cleaning Up Richmond: Why Northam Should Know Better

Cleaning Up Richmond: Why Northam Should Know Better

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“Under pressure for Dominion donations, Northam …” could be the lead in sentence to the entire 2017 Democratic primary. The politically powerful and spendthrift utility has exercised a special degree of influence in Richmond. Over the last two decades, Dominion has given more than $14 million in political donations and efforts to influence our democracy.

No other industry comes close.

Big Tobacco giant Altria makes it to the first page, far down from Dominion. Trade Associations pop up across the list as you click to the next page.

Down, down, way down on the list, beyond what you can click, is lowly Omega Protein, with a paltry $463,999. A company no one has ever heard of, lobbying on issues no one ever pays attention to.

Despite the differences, Dominion and Omega have more in common than you would think. Both benefit from a unique sweetheart deal in which their concerns are managed directly by the General Assembly, the very same politicians they contribute to.

What does Omega care about?

Fish. One special fish. Menhaden.

It’s a small, oily fish that sits at the bottom of the marine food chain. And it’s big business for Omega:

Mr. Burns’ real-life counterpart is Malcolm Glazer, a billionaire tycoon who controls Omega Protein, a corporation that claims to benefit society because every year it sweeps hundreds of millions of fish from the sea, grinds them up, and turns them into high-protein animal feed, fertilizer, and oil used in linoleum, soap, lubricants, health-food supplements, cookies, and lipstick. Omega has only one business, hauling in just one kind of fish and converting it into those industrial commodities. That fish is menhaden, and in 1997, just as Mr. Burns was proudly displaying his loads of ground-up fish, Omega was consolidating its virtual monopoly on what is known as the menhaden “reduction” fishery.

Menhaden are big eaters, despite their size. Schools of menhaden feast on plankton and other detritus, filtering the water. This plays a key rule in clarifying water and allowing sunlight to penetrate to deeper levels, encouraging the growth of aquatic plants that provide safe harbor for other fish. You’ve heard of the crucial role of oysters to act as filter feeds in the Chesapeake Bay, but they are bottom dwelling and generally stationary. Menhaden played a complimentary role in the upper layers, and they could move.

All that eating builds up a rich, oily flesh. The Narraganset name for the fish literally translates into ” that which manures.” Used as a fertilizer for centuries, the fish now play a different role in Omega’s business model: ground up to go into everything from poultry feed, cat food, and the ever popular Omega-3 Fish Oil tablets.

And all of this is managed by the General Assembly, unique of the saltwater fisheries in Virginia.

Back in his time in the State Senate, Ralph Northam worked to ​change this sweetheart deal. Omega responded on a much smaller scale than Dominion, but with the same approach: buy off the relevant politicians.

Northam introduced a similar bill last year, but it was beaten back by Omega, which donated $97,744 to election campaigns in 2009, according to most recent data from the Virginia Public Access Project.

Omega divided $8,500 of its political contributions among 12 of the 15 Senate committee members, including $2,000 to the committee’s chair, Patricia Ticer, D-Alexandria.

Omega won, although Northam still managed to alienate at least one Democratic colleague along the way, Northern Neck’s Albert Pollard:

Pollard complained in a Omega press release that he felt “betrayed” because Northam decided to publicize the meetings and open them to the public. Northam fired back a letter Thursday saying his “reputation in Richmond has been one not of deception but of fairness.”

Northam has moved on, but the fight continues in the General Assembly. Their role at the base of the aquatic food chain links menhaden to Virginia’s popular stripped bass, which brings in recreational anglers to lobby for a change.

The players are different, the size of the checks are certainly different, but the politics of corruption are the same. Where Northam stood up to Omega to address the appearance of conflicts of interest in politicians regulating their own donors, we haven’t seen the same leadership from him on Dominion today.

Ralph Northam should know better.