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Video: “Dominion Dick” Saslaw Asked at Falls Church Town Hall Yesterday About Banning Dominion Energy Contributions; Gives Predictable, Misleading, Unacceptable Answer

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At yesterday’s town hall meeting in Falls Church with Sen. “Dominion Dick” Saslaw, a concerned private citizen (Lainie Singerman; see video below) asked Saslaw a simple yet important question (bolding added by me for emphasis):

“Isn’t it inappropriate for corporations like Dominion who get their money from taxpayers to turn around and use that money to influence politicians who are supposed to be regulating them and protecting voters’ interests…Will you make banning public utility corporation campaign contributions a legislative priority moving forward?”

See below the video for Saslaw’s revealing response (“NO”), and for further commentary by those of us who think the answer should be a clear “YES!”

First, I recommend everyone check out this excerpt from Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Kate Pride Brown entitled, “WHY POLITICAL SPENDING BY REGULATED UTILITIES CAN IMPEDE THE TRANSITION TO CLEANER ENERGY SOURCES.” Among other things, Brown discussed the crucial concept of “regulatory capture,” in which “state regulators have been known to promote the interests of the lucrative energy industry.” Brown has studied this issue, and found that “limitations on political contributions from regulated monopolies may be even more important for ensuring fair play than direct elections that allow voters the opportunity to choose commissioners.” Brown continues (bolding added by me for emphasis):

“Regulatory independence tends to be protected, in short, when regulated monopolies are forbidden from making political donations. A truly independent public utility commission can play an important role in promoting a transition to clean energy sources, helping different parties navigate toward an altered business model and a more reliable power infrastructure. The temptation for powerful stakeholders to use financial resources to influence decisions in their favor is omnipresent, so eliminating the temptation is paramount.”

Of course, the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling is highly problematic, among other reasons because it “increased the risk of regulatory collusion with industry, even in small state-level utilities commissions.” Still, I’d argue, Virginia legislators should at least TRY to rein in the influence of (theoretically) state-regulated monopoly utility Dominion Energy. And if they can’t, then perhaps it’s time to consider opening up Virginia’s power sector to real competition by ditching Dominion’s state-protected monopoly? Is there any real need, at a time when electricity markets are changing so rapidly, for a decades-old, top-down, command-and-control utility like Dominion to maintain monopoly status? Seems completely bonkers to me.

Whatever you think about this, to me it’s clear that this is a serious issue that deserves serious debate, not just a curt “NO” by Sen. Dick Saslaw, who not coincidentally has received a whopping $328,008 from his pals at Dominion over the years. Note that Dominion is not a charity, nor is its giving motivated by altruism; clearly, it wants something for the money it gives to politicians like Saslaw. For instance, Dominion wants this bill – which has its fingerprints all over it – passed by the General Assembly this session. Hmmm.

So anyway, after Saslaw’s “no” response to Lainie Singerman’s question, he blabbers on about how Dominion supposedly has “as much right to contribute as anybody else,” how Dominion supposedly has “amongst the lowest residential rates on the East Coast” (note that, to the extent this is the case, it’s wildly misleading; as a study by the Virginia Poverty Law Center found, while Dominion and its bought-and-paid-for hacks like Saslaw like to “[advertise] that they have some of the lowest rates in the region, yet data shows that Virginians experience the 10th-highest average residential electric bills in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The VPLC report also reveals that despite company claims about low rates, Dominion’s Energy’s base rates are average when compared to peer utilities.”), that it’s all “employee donations” going to Dominion’s PAC (alrighty then!), and that he (Saslaw) gives “every last penny” of the money he’s received over the years has gone to electing Democrats (that’s great – other than the fact that Saslaw has also donated to Democrats running against other Democrats, as well as made HIGHLY questionable decisions about what to do with his money, etc., but most crucially it fails to address Singerman’s question or the important underlying issues here).

Finally, as for Del. Simon’s point about “unilateral disarmament,” I personally agree with him that Democrats shouldn’t do that, which is why I support passing a law that applies to EVERYONE – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Greens, whoever – so that it’s not “unilateral.” And I also agree with Del. Simon about moving towards public financing of elections; but again, that doesn’t get at the immediate/pressing issue we have with Dominion’s corruption of our political system.

So what did Lainie Singerman think of Saslaw’s response to her excellent question? She emailed me the following statement, which she asked that I use. I’ve added bolding for emphasis.

What troubled me is that Sen. Saslaw’s response did not acknowledge that a problem exists.  I prefaced my question by noting that voters of both parties mistrust the political system and politicians in large part because of the role of money in politics.  Sen. Saslaw may disagree that money influences politicians inappropriately, but he must at least recognize that perception among a broad cross-section of voters, in Virginia and nationwide.
I was grateful that Del. Simon talked about working toward a public financing system for political campaigns.  I disagree with both Sen. Saslaw and Del. Simon that barring contributions from public utilities for public policy reasons would be unconstitutional, but Del. Simon seemed to address the issue that I was trying to raise.   That is the proposition that the way corporations use money to wield influence over our lawmakers in Richmond is both 1) bad because it results in policies that are bad for the people who live in this Commonwealth and 2) bad because it LOOKS bad to voters, especially the young and those who do not strongly identify with either party.  Think of the difference it would make to these voters if our leaders took a principled stand.

I agree 100%, and certainly couldn’t have said that more eloquently or articulately than Lainie Singerman does.  Nice job!

Here’s one more comment by a progressive activist who was at Saslaw’s town hall yesterday. According to Cindy Cunningham (bolding added by me for emphasis):

“If it is, in fact, unconstitutional to prohibit particular companies from donating (despite the obvious conflicts of interest that entails), then they’ll need to place dollar limits on any contribution, like we do at the federal level. But I haven’t seen a bill to do that, have you?”

Cunningham adds, with specific reference to the Dominion bill Saslaw is currently touting:

“This bipartisan bill that Saslaw co-patroned with Dominion’s support is complicated and hard for a layman to read. And if Saslaw hadn’t taken over $300,000 from Dominion just since we’ve had donations tracked on VPAP, I might just trust him when he says what a great bill it is and how great for moving Virginia towards modern, clean energy it is, and that it will put ‘all’ $133 million of overpayment back to the consumers. But it’s impossible to trust that he’s working in my interest, rather than his largest donor’s.” 

Again, well said: why on earth should we trust someone – the State Senate Minority Leader, no less – whose largest donor is a powerful monopoly with billions of dollars of business before the very state legislative body which it has de facto bought and paid for?

Finally, let me just paraphrase one more comment I saw on Facebook by someone who attended the Saslaw town hall yesterday: 1) Saslaw badly needs a primary challenge; 2) an ideal opponent for Saslaw would basically be the anti-Saslaw, supporting an aggressive push for a clean energy transition in Virginia; and 2) would pledge to get corporate money – certainly from a monopoly utility like Dominion – out of our politics, to the extent legally/constitutionally possible. Is there anyone out there like that? Maybe someone like this? Clearly, it’s long past time for Saslaw to enjoy his well-earned retirement. Heck, I’ll start up a “GoFundMe” or whatever for his gold watch! LOL

UPDATE: From Activate Virginia’s Josh Stanfield in the comments section…looks like Dick’s wrong yet again.

Why does Saslaw think the VA Supreme Court would overturn a ban on contributions from corporations or a selective ban from public service corporations? Just last year, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court unanimously upheld their statewide ban on corporate contributions. See King Street Patriots v. Texas Democratic Party (2017):

https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/supreme-court/2017/15-0320.html

In Wagner, et al. v. FEC (Miller v. FEC) (2016) the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a selective ban on contributions in federal elections by federal government contractors. SCOTUS refused to grant certiorari.

https://transition.fec.gov/law/litigation/Miller2015.shtml#sc

If you read through both of these opinions – the two most recent cases on this topic – you’ll find the controlling case is FEC V. Beaumont (2003), not Citizens United as many mistakenly believe. Beaumont is the origin of the “closely drawn” standard that would be applied – as opposed to strict scrutiny. From Justice Souter’s majority opinion:

“This is the reason that instead of requiring contribution regulations to be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest, “a contribution limit involving ‘significant interference’ with associational rights” passes muster if it satisfies the lesser demand of being “ ‘closely drawn’ to match a ‘sufficiently important interest.’ ” Nixon, supra, at 387—388 (quoting Buckley, supra, at 25); cf. Austin, 494 U.S., at 657; Buckley, supra, at 44—45.9”

https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/02-403.ZO.html

When it comes to public service corporations in Virginia, I don’t think we’d have any trouble at all formulating a “sufficiently important interest.” The evidence is there – and the Saslaw/Dominion rate freeze “repeal” could serve as Exhibit A.

  • Josh Stanfield

    Why does Saslaw think the VA Supreme Court would overturn a ban on contributions from corporations or a selective ban from public service corporations? Just last year, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court unanimously upheld their statewide ban on corporate contributions. See King Street Patriots v. Texas Democratic Party (2017):

    https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/supreme-court/2017/15-0320.html

    In Wagner, et al. v. FEC (Miller v. FEC) (2016) the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a selective ban on contributions in federal elections by federal government contractors. SCOTUS refused to grant certiorari.

    https://transition.fec.gov/law/litigation/Miller2015.shtml#sc

    If you read through both of these opinions – the two most recent cases on this topic –
    you’ll find the controlling case is FEC V. Beaumont (2003), not Citizens United as many mistakenly believe. Beaumont is the origin of the “closely drawn” standard that would be applied – as opposed to strict scrutiny. From Justice Souter’s majority opinion:

    “This is the reason that instead of requiring contribution regulations to be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest, “a contribution limit involving ‘significant interference’ with associational rights” passes muster if it satisfies the lesser demand of being “ ‘closely drawn’ to match a ‘sufficiently important interest.’ ” Nixon, supra, at 387—388 (quoting Buckley, supra, at 25); cf. Austin, 494 U.S., at 657; Buckley, supra, at 44—45.9”

    https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/02-403.ZO.html

    When it comes to public service corporations in Virginia, I don’t think we’d have any trouble at all formulating a “sufficiently important interest.” The evidence is there – and the Saslaw/Dominion rate freeze “repeal” could serve as Exhibit A.

  • Harry

    There are a slew of Dominion whores in the GA, Saslaw and Wagner are the two who carry Dominion’s water for the rest of the Ds and Rs who take their money. In Prince William County, Dominion’s coal ash ponds poisoned wells for years. And to top it off the Commisioner of DEQ took an all expense paid trip to the Masters Golf Tournament paid 100% by Dominion, he then approved dumping arsenic into the Potomac River, lots of corruption stemming from Dominion’s legal bribes to legislators. If it’s good for Domionon it’s bad for Virginia.

  • Kindler

    Thanks so much to both Lainie and Lowell — as well as to brave legislators like Chap Peterson — for raising these great points. Saslaw is being dishonest, corrupt and misleading in so many ways, it’s hard to keep track of them all. One I’d add is this absurd idea that Dominion is just like nearly every other interest funding Virginia politicians. In reality, take a look at where Dominion stands as the #1 industry donor by far in the state, stuffing over $11 million into Virginia politicians’ pockets over the past 20 years: https://www.vpap.org/money/top-donors/?year=all

    Saslaw avoids discussing the corrupting influence of all that money – that he’s stuck supporting only the legislation they approve, and all the cash he passes on to Dems carries that stain & influence with it. This is precisely why Virginia is always scraping the bottom of the lists of states that have made the most progress on energy efficiency and renewables.

    It’s wonderful that Lainie is now a part of the Fairfax Democrats’ elected leadership. We need the next generation, with fresh ideas and perspectives, taking charge and steering us in a more inspiring, reformist direction — while Saslaw absolutely needs to go.

  • Here’s full video of the town hall yesterday, including helpful links to go right to the topic that interests you. Great work by Ali Symons on this!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kxe04g_U4s&feature=youtu.be

  • Great comment by Virginia progressive activist Abigail Fox:

    I went to Dick Saslaw and Marcus Simon’s Town Hall in Falls Church today; and being a constituent of Saslaw’s, not of Simon’s, my one big takeaway was that Dick Saslaw needs a Democratic Party challenger for the 35th District Senate seat in 2019.

    I will support any grassroots effort to recruit and support a challenger to him and I suspect, given Saslaw’s cash on hand ($824,155) that effort would need to start sooner this year, not later.

    Based on what Saslaw said: his loyal love of Dominion Energy, his objection to non-partisan independent re-districting, his hands-off attitude toward campaign finance reform, I believe an ideal opponent would be interested in a.) clean/renewable/green energy economy, and willing to be unpaid by a utility company to accomplish it; b.) championing re-districting reform and c.) committed to taking corporate money out of political campaigns.

    Saslaw has served in the VA Senate since 1980, longer than I’ve been alive.
    He’s a raconteur, loves to talk, can be funny, he possesses an amazing personal history of local, state politics, from the Carter / Reagan years until today; and so he’ll probably one day write an entertaining memoir – so, let’s retire him; I hope he pens his autobiography, and I thank him for his decades of service to the state; but let’s not re-elect him in 2019.

  • Jim Portugul

    Great article sir. I’d love to see put together a “Dominion March” in downtown Richmond such as the latest women’s marches in Washington. Let’s let Dominion’s Tom Ferrell ll, James Beamer, “Dominion Dick” Saslaw, and Sen.from Dominion Tommy Norment, all look out their frekin’ windows and see 10’s of thousands of Virginians formed into an angry mob against their corrupt and crooked BS. How bout it? Make these crooked SOB’s run for the exits. Wouldn’t take much as they are all cowards.

    To think that the new Domion bill is anything but more bullshit is ignorant. I want Dominon’s money out of the state capitol.

  • A_Siegel

    1. Thank you for this post. I appreciate the material from Kate Pride Brown — to have expert analysis in the discussion of public policy is extremely valuable even as #NeverTrump Tom Nichols as accurately caught the GOP drive for ‘the death of expertise’.

    2. While an excellent discussion, I think that there is an accurate, blunter way to describe Saslaw’s comments: “He sounded like a paid PR flack for Dominion — which is what he just might be …”

    3. Saslaw’s “I’ve raised $4.5M” both shouldn’t be dismissed (it matters) in terms of the Virginia Democratic Party but it is a (the) clear reason why a politician so out of tune with the majority of voters (not just Democratic Party — remember that Corey Stewart ‘wing’ of Virginia GOP also seems to want Dominion out of Virginia politics) in the Commonwealth remains the Minority Leader in the Senate and likely will be majority leader come January 2020. How much good legislation has died/will die by his hand?

  • Charles Bright

    I’ve read a lot of comments of people saying that they live in the 35th district and that someone should absolutely run against him but I’m not seeing anyone who would be willing to do so. Does anyone know of someone who wants/plans to mount a serious challenge against him? I’m a resident and I considered it in 2015. Is there anyone who would be willing to help guide me on this if I actually pursued it?