Home 2019 Elections No More $5,000 In “Amazon Purchases” Every Quarter; Fixing Virginia’s Embarrassingly Broken...

No More $5,000 In “Amazon Purchases” Every Quarter; Fixing Virginia’s Embarrassingly Broken Campaign Finance System

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by Kellen Squire

Way back in a wild and uncharted era – also known as January 2017 – I had just launched my campaign for the House of Delegates. After a wildly successful week of fundraising, I had an astounding total of $250 in my campaign checking account, and I’m not kidding when I say I was so proud of my success that I was beside myself.

Convening my inaugural “kitchen cabinet” meeting post-launch, I made a trip to Food Lion with the newly-printed campaign debit card to buy snacks and coffee. I spent probably forty-five minutes carefully combing the aisles, looking for things on sale, looking for markdown items, and always reviewing any generic items available before even considering name brand. I approached the register and then turned around to look for a better deal more than once, because was bound and determined to be a careful steward of this money I’d been entrusted with.

And so the team I’d assembled was thus fêted with a feast of closeout Dunkin’ Donuts k-cup coffee, Granny Smith apples (whole, not cut, you unthrifty monster!), Food Lion brand soda and tea, and Jalapeno Cheddar-flavored Cheetos.

We had a successful meeting, laying out the groundwork for the strategy that ended up taking us through to Election Day. Everyone said their goodbyes, and I packed up the remaining items carefully, so it would all be available when they returned. I spent the rest of the evening doing paperwork and sending emails, going to bed in the early hours of the morning. I awoke the next morning, blurry-eyed, and yawned, meandering into our kitchen to start on my daily nurse’s allotment of seven cups of coffee. My wife was already up, and greeted me cheerfully. “Morning, sweetie,” she said, as started to make her own morning coffee, rummaging through a box on the counter and selecting a k-cup of coffee.

Of closeout, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

The coffee I’d bought for our campaign meeting.

I can still see the look of confusion and fear on her face as I screamed “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and dove for the k-cup like I was Kevin Costner in “The Bodyguard” and the Keurig machine was Whitney Houston.

A short, bemused conversation with my wife surrounding campaign finance issues ensued, and while I can’t reprint the totality of her comments in a family forum such as this one, suffice it to say she was unimpressed. “It’s a cup of coffee,” she said, “who cares?”

Well… she’s right, and she’s wrong.

The open secret of Virginia politics- only a secret insofar as the general public really has no idea of the scope of the problem- is the dismal state of campaign finance laws here in Virginia. Or the almost complete lack of them, to be more specific. Right now, effectively, anyone can donate any amount of money to any candidate running for a non-Federal office, and those candidates can spend it on anything they want with zero accountability.

I imagine if you polled on that issue- whether or not that was acceptable- the results would be predictably skewed in saying that’s a ridiculous way to run a state. But every time anything is advanced to potentially fix those problems, well… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. They always seem to fall by the wayside.

For example, every year, Delegate Marcus Simon tries to fix this. In 2018, he filed HB 5, which says it would:

Prohibit the conversion of any contributed moneys, securities, or like intangible personal property by any person to the personal use of a candidate or member of the candidate’s immediate family or an intimate partner of the candidate or a member of the candidate’s immediate family if (i) such use yields a grossly disproportionate and unreasonable benefit to the recipient or candidate relative to the benefit realized by the candidate’s campaign or public office, (ii) the fair market value of converted property grossly exceeds the benefit realized by the candidate’s campaign or public office, (iii) a reasonable and prudent person would not ordinarily authorize such expenditure as beneficial to the campaign, and (iv) such use is made with a knowing, willing, reckless, or negligent disregard for the financial interests of the campaign.

Doesn’t seem to unreasonable to me. One of the main lines of rebuttal when things like this come up are Stephen King reimaginations of my k-cup story from above, where I didn’t wake up in time to stop my wife from making a cup of coffee and find the Virginia State Police busting down my front door and hauling me away, sentenced to years of hard labor. And no, that’s not an exaggeration, that’s almost literally the counter-argument. Delegate Simon’s bill seems to address those concerns pretty succinctly.

I take a personal stake in this as a working-class candidate. Running for office is expensive. This is one reason it feels like people like me- hourly wage, shift workers, blue collar, whatever you want to call it- can’t run for Congress. Look, I loved all our Democratic candidates here in VA-05 last cycle, but all four could afford to quit their jobs, run for office full-time, and then pick back up afterwards like nothing happened.

I can’t quit my job. My wife and I got a mortgage to pay, and food to put on the table. I can’t write my campaign a check with a lot of zeroes (unless I write them out first). And running for office would cost me more money; and not a little, a lot. I’d be putting another hundred thousand miles on my truck, significantly up the time my kids are in daycare, and cut back on my hours at work. I mean, even running for the House of Delegates, the only way I was able to keep working full time hours as long as I did was because I’m an ER Nurse. I was damn lucky; I could pick up a really odd shift available because of a call out or because we were busy- like 1am-7am- and eke out an existence on coffee and adrenaline.

But not everyone can do even that much. And that’s okay, because Delegate Simon’s bill doesn’t make it harder for me, or people like me, to run at all. That’s how they want to sell it, for sure. Oh, Kellen, they’ll say, I hope you don’t need to use any of that money for mileage on your truck. They’ll point to people like Jess King, who used campaign money to pay for daycare for her kids, and sadly shake their heads in “concern” that working parent candidates won’t be able to. “Personal expense,” they’ll cluck. And, of course, God help you if your toddler nabs a leftover doughnut at a campaign event.

Bullcrap. They know voters don’t give a damn about a box of donuts- we care about legislators who gerrymander themselves into a district where they can pick their voters, and then run unopposed, fundraising to blow seven grand at a swanky Richmond restaurant in one sitting. Or to expense $5,000 in “Amazon purchases” every single quarter. Or for first-class airfare to a five-star resort for “tourism” purposes. Or using their campaign money for a down payment on a yacht (theoretically they could do that under Virginia’s current campaign finance system). That’s what we care about, and that’s what Delegate Simon’s bill is meant to address. And that’s why the folks who’re fighting it are doing so. Don’t you dare let them gaslight you into thinking it’s anything different.

It’s common sense, and it needs to pass. Ed Gillespie and Ralph Northam both said so; heck, it was one of Gillespie’s signature planks. There’s a lot more work to be done on campaign finance in Virginia, but Delegate Simon’s bill is a good first step.

It needs to pass- and it needs to pass this session.