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The Biggest Story in Virginia Politics in 2017 Is Not What You Think

Actually, It's Even Better


Followers of current events may have the impression that the biggest story in Virginia politics is the recent landslide election; this is undoubtedly important, but the biggest story in Virginia politics in 2017 is not the backlash to President Trump, but the backlash to the so-called “Virginia Way,” the corporate-centric philosophy by which the state government has been run since colonial times.

The current Virginia political system is the descendant of Harry Byrd’s; in the two party era, since the civil rights movement secured voting rights for 20% of Virginians, Harry Byrd’s Virginia Way has operated with bipartisan consensus: there is division on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, but on the economic issues that truly matter to businesses, there is and always has been unity among the parties. In Virginia, politics reflects the will of business and campaign donors, and the easiest way to understand politics in Virginia is to understand that business community donors get what they want: low taxes, underfunded services, low public welfare and high corporate welfare.

The Virginia Way, has always benefited aristocrats above all, whether the tobacco planters, the slaveowners, the industrialists, and now, the multinational businessmen. Regardless of what you think of the parties on social issues, the themes of Republican Governor McDonnell’s and Democratic Governor McAuliffe’s administrations have been proudly doling out corporate goodies, and the Virginia legislature can best be thought of as a large-scale racketeering operation, where bribes in the form of campaign contributions purchase the reins of government.

Senate Democratic leader Dick Saslaw expressed his perceived role in a debate with his Republican counterpart as if they were in a contest:

“Go ask Dominion, go ask any of these companies—beer and wine wholesalers, banks, the development community—every one of them will tell you, they will tell you I’m the most pro-business senator.”

Read that again. There’s no mention of serving the people.

For many examples, we can turn to the front pages, where the overworked and talented Virginia press corps report, again and again, on malfeasance that has become routine.

The incentives of Dominion Energy to raise electricity rates run directly counter to the citizenry’s interests in keeping electric rates low. Yet Dominion is guaranteed a 10% return on investment by the taxpayer, as if every time you went to the store, you spent a hundred dollars, and the government gave you a hundred and ten. The fact that Dominion’s interests in high electricity rates run counter to not just ordinary citizens’, but also small and large businesses’ interests may seem befuddling to some in this ostensibly pro-business state. But the paradox is resolved when you see that Dominion is the state’s largest campaign contributor, and, therefore, they write Virginia’s energy policies.

The Richmond-based cigarette giant Altria’s business interests in addicting customers to poison harms the addicts, their friends, and families, and all citizen and business taxpayers foot the bill through Medicare, Medicaid, emergency room subsidies, and higher insurance premiums. Altria kills more Virginians than they employ. How do they get away with running a business that actively harms the economy and our people, while being taxed at the rate of 50th out of 51 states plus DC? Altria is the state’s second-largest campaign contributor: therefore, they write Virginia’s tobacco policies.

Are these two companies out of the ordinary? A recent audit of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the corporate subsidy organization of the state, found that it had given away $400 million over the last ten years without any accountability or oversight, and even gave money to companies that did not exist and were created only on paper to get these subsidies.

Virginia is changing, but the political and business elites are still the descendants of the tobacco planters, the factory owners, and now, a government “of the businessmen, by the businessmen, for the businessmen.” This is sold to the public as better for all of us and as somehow connected to a long and proud history dating back to the Founding Fathers. But the Virginia Way has never “worked well” for most Virginians.

According to independent and objective experts, Virginia government is indeed unique, but not in the ways noted by people taken in by “Virginia Way” mythology.

On a recent national good government survey, Virginia ranked fiftieth out of the fifty-one states plus D.C. on the health of our democracy, with F grades on ballot accessibility and state government representation, and a D- on political corruption.

“A 2012 survey by the nonprofits Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity on honest government in the states gave Virginia grades of ‘F’ for legislative accountability and campaign financing. A lack of laws and effective regulation to keep legislators from using public funds for themselves, ineffective regulations about the gifts legislators get, their financial disclosures, the work legislators do when they leave office and granting jobs or favors to family or cronies help put Virginia near the bottom when it comes to the risk of corruption, as does the lack of any limits on campaign donations, the survey said.”

The nonpartisan group Representation 2020 ranks Virginia 40th among the states in gender equity of elected officials.

When comparing the lowest-, average- and highest-paid workers, “Virginia is now the most unequal state in the country, and is more unequal than at any time on record,” according to the Commonwealth Institute.

If politicians told the truth about their own greed, mismanagement and corruption, it would guarantee that the people would throw the bums out, so there has been a long campaign to convince voters and scholars of the “Virginia Way” myth of clean government. Examples of corruption are usually dismissed as deviations from a glorious history stretching back to Saint Jefferson, but the deviations have themselves become the full story. Virginia politicians ignore plain facts and evident consequences in service of this fraudulent “Virginia Way” ideology that just so happens to benefit themselves and their donors primarily.

We are suffering through a crisis of “fake news” in this country, but the bipartisan “fake history” of the Virginia Way is more pernicious than partisan fake news stories, because a fabricated history restricts the horizon of imagination of the small cadre of Virginians who run our state government. It affects what they think of our present society, the responsibilities of government, and the possibilities for public policy and reform. If everything is fine, they are taught in school, and believe as adults, then why change?

Brent Tarter, in his brilliant study on the history of Virginia government, wrote:

“Virginia’s political culture has almost always exhibited an inhospitality to changes because the people in charge contrived and protected institutions and practices that worked to their advantage. As a result the state’s constitutions and laws have created undemocratic institutions and practices that are also resistant to change. An unexamined reverence for the Spirit of Virginia [Virginia Way] that Douglas Southall Freeman, Virginius Dabney, and others propagated in the twentieth century allowed a mythic version of the past to constrict the range of options that the state’s political leaders contemplated. That reverence, more importantly, either blinded them and the larger public to the undemocratic features of their government or allowed them to ignore or accept those features as if they were part of the inevitable natural order of things.”

Our education system reflects an aversion to serious examination of history and any examination whatsoever of current events. Take a look at our Standards of Learning.

Here are a sample test question, picked at random, for “World History through 1500.”

1. What characteristic did the Persian Empire share with the Roman and Incan Empires?

A. Uniform system of money

B. Written system of law

C. Monotheistic religious system

D. Widespread road system

Here’s an actual question from “World History after 1500.”

2. Which religious group was most affected when the Edict of Nantes was revoked?

A. Puritans living in England

B. Catholics living in England

C. Protestants living in France

D. Jesuits living in France

What is the point of learning any of this? Who cares?

Modern events are not covered at all in the Standards of Learning: the most recent presidents mentioned in the “World” and “U.S. History” standards are Eisenhower and Truman, respectively. The program for Virginia history education mentions a tiny number of Virginians who are still living (former Governors Holton and Wilder) and whose heydays were decades ago.

How are students to make sense of 9/11, or the financial crisis, or Obama, or Trump, or the 2017 elections, or the other events that affect their world and day-to-day lives and which should be the focus of inquiry and problem solving, if they’re memorizing facts about the the Edict of Nantes of 1598?

In 2016, a series of bipartisan bills to reduce the number of standardized tests was tabled, for no evident reason. On that same day, the same Senate subcommittee that voted against modernizing Standards of Learning voted at the behest of tourism and hotel industry lobbyists against repealing the so-called Kings Dominion law, which prohibits localities from deciding whether they can open their schools before Labor Day, the most lucrative vacation weekend.

Donald Trump is right about one thing: there has been a moral decay in our society, although he is a symptom of its materialism, greed, and graft. It comes from the very top nationally, as in Virginia, where entrenched power relies on the dual assault of gerrymandering and the mythical “Virginia Way” history.

When lawmakers are elected, lobbyist money begins to flow and helps provide a tenfold or more advantage in fundraising to incumbents. Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment raised more than $1 million in cash for his 2015 reelection when he faced no challengers. Think about that for a minute.

Coupled with revisionist history is a gerrymandered incumbent protection system with no precedent in our state.

From the 1960s through the present, “not a single decade passed without a Virginia congressional or state legislative redistricting plan being invalidated, whether in federal or state court, and whether based on the federal equal protection clause or Voting Rights Act or the state constitution,” according to John Dinan’s book on the Virginia Constitution. Not a single decade has passed in 50 years without our legislature passing an unconstitutional plan, up to and including this one.

In 2015, for the first time in history, every single incumbent who sought reelection in the general elections won: a perfect 122 out of 122. The fact that we just witnessed a landslide election for Democrats, but the House of Delegates seems to remain precisely equally divided, shows the continuing power of the gerrymander.

Crises open up an opportunity for reform, and over the last four years, since Governor and First Lady McDonnells’ corruption scandal broke, there was a window for ethics reform that would truly fix many of the problems I’ve mentioned. The past several years reflect a time when Virginia politicians faced an existential moment and when the Governor was facing decades in prison for multiple felony convictions. Should they continue business as usual with their Virginia Way fake history and real corruption, or should they change the pay-to-play system and thus acknowledge reality? The corrupt system continues onward.

People may say that politicians failed their voters, but that’s a misconception, for, in the case of its response to ethics reform, the Virginia Way was working exactly as designed: it benefited the architects. When that is understood, the existential dilemmas of, Reassessment or retrenchment? Reality or ideology? become much easier to answer. If government is for sale, then society will naturally reflect the values of the ultra-wealthy who are willing to purchase it rather than the majority of citizens who choose to dedicate their lives to family, religion, science, service or pursuits other than accumulation. Far from being anomalous, the repeated ethics and corruption scandals of recent years are microcosms of the operation of Virginia politics and government writ large.

Other than the Virginia Way, the other major story in Virginia government is the counter-reaction to Dominion Energy at all levels of society.

Dominion is a quasi-socialist electric monopoly guaranteed its minimum of at least 10% return on investment. Despite this guarantee, Dominion has made a practice of overcharging Virginians by tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars every year. The State Corporation Commission, tasked with regulating state monopolies and power rates, has never once found that Dominion has undercharged. After a 2007 biennial refund law was enacted, more than $700 million was refunded to Virginians in 2010, and in 2012, more than $70 million.

During the 2015 legislative session, Senator Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, who lost the Republican gubernatorial primary handily this year, introduced a bill that he openly admitted Dominion lobbyists wrote and that would cancel future customer refunds from overcharging. Attorney General Mark Herring, who just won reelection, pointed out these refunds were estimated at $280 million for 2015 alone, and over the life of the bill, it would cost consumers up to $2 billion.

Dominion rationalized its 2015 rate hike bill by claiming that the Clean Power Plan would lead to rate spikes for consumers, and Dominion needed the money to pay for implementation.

Claiming that hiking rates would protect consumers from rate hikes seemed an audacious fallacy even by the standards of corporate politics.

A perusal of Dominion’s recent history revealed that this was a lie produced for public consumption in order to provide cover for private gain. Its 2010 official corporate history (don’t read it) listed twenty-four power plants that the company had closed, all of them built in 1970 or earlier. The book favorably described Dominion’s future investments in carbon emissions reduction, such as the 2008 groundbreaking of a so-called “clean-coal” plant, research on emission reductions and investments in wind, hydropower and biomass. It further noted the consistent year-over-year declines in sulfur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxide emissions Dominion had achieved from 1998 to 2010 and was projected to achieve through 2015. These pollution-lowering decisions long predated Barack Obama’s administration and the Clean Power Plan. Did Dominion express anger at lowering its pollution in its corporate history? On the contrary, it was proud.

Dominion had announced in 2011 that two power plants built in the 1950s would be shut down due to obsolescence and unprofitability, and CEO Tom Farrell said that closing these plants was “the most cost-effective course to meet expected environmental regulations and maintain reliability for our customers.”

When an environmental group released a 2013 report criticizing Dominion for operating the dirtiest power plant in Virginia in Chesterfield County, a populous county abutting Richmond, spokesperson Dan Genest claimed that the group “conveniently ignores several publicly announced steps that we are taking to further reduce our carbon footprint, including retiring more than 900 megawatts of coal generation in 2015.” The plants were ancient, with the six units beginning operations in 1992, 1990, 1969, 1964, 1960 and, unbelievably, 1952. The plants would be closed, in decisions long predating the EPA rules that Dominion scapegoated, because they were outmoded.

In a 2014 news conference supporting a 550-mile natural gas pipeline through the heart of Virginia, Governor McAuliffe said that “this will allow Dominion, who has coal plants that are 50, 60 years old, which they plan on shutting down—this is a lot less emissions [sic].”

The facts had not changed: Dominion morphed what had been a point of corporate pride in 2010, a voluntary business decision in 2011, a rebuttal to environmentalists in 2013 and a selling point for a business-minded governor in 2014 into an oppressive government mandate in 2015 in order to sell gullible politicians on rate hikes. The refund-canceling bill passed overwhelmingly.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Jeff Schapiro dug up another rationale:

“As momentum built for Virginia’s latest accommodation of the utilities, the investment adviser UBS—in an alert to the markets—labeled Dominion the “king of the hill.” Citing the company’s spin to stock pickers at a private meeting in Manhattan last week, UBS said the latest legislation “removes one of the largest single risks” to higher earnings: That the SCC [State Corporation Commission], if only temporarily, would be blocked from determining whether Dominion makes too much money.”

President Trump has announced that we will not abide by the Clean Power Plan, negating the entire reason that Dominion supposedly passed this bill in the first place.

While a broad examination of Virginia politics reveals the continuation of the status quo, I want to leave you with a bit of hope. There is always hope, and here, in the state of Virginia in December 2017, things are changing where they matter most, at the nexus of so many facets of the corrupt, pay-to-play system that characterizes the Virginia Way.

The most significant story in Virginia politics in 2017 is not the Democratic wave election, although that is important, but the backlash to Dominion Energy, where the intersection of money and politics is at its most egregious. For the first time in history – in history – in 2017 there was a true grassroots campaign in Virginia politics to elect people who pledged never to take campaign contributions or any other money or gifts from Dominion. Thirteen candidates who made this pledge won election last month. A bloc that large is significant, can sway votes and cannot be ignored. Because of the power of incumbency, many of these thirteen people will be in office for a long time. Activate Virginia and many others wisely understand that giving money to politicians is the root of so many of the problems affecting our state government. Dominion is the most powerful company in state politics precisely because it is the largest donor, and upstart politicians have little to lose and lots of good press to gain by pledging never to take Dominion’s dirty money.

For the first time in history again this year, two contenders came within a hair’s breadth of winning their party’s nomination for governor without the support of the business community. Both Tom Periello and Corey Stewart nearly upset Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie, respectively, only to narrowly lose their primaries in favor of more conventional candidates who supported Dominion and other corporate priorities.

The people in power will never admit to being swayed by activists or so-called ordinary citizens, but they always listen to us and our criticism and protest. Always – because it affects the bottom line when we refuse to submit to unjust power. For the first time in history, Dominion cannot get everything that it wants. The backlash is too great; the threat is too real. Politicians with integrity are a foundational threat to the operation of the corrupt Virginia Way.

Earlier this month, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, “After two years of defending a controversial law that froze base rates for Virginia’s two largest electric utilities as a hedge against carbon regulation, Dominion Energy officials said Monday that it’s “time to transition away” from the 2015 rate freeze.” Any bill to change the rate freeze will be a PR ploy above all, though there’s room for activists and honest politicians to maneuver that’s created by this tacit admission of fault.

Senator Chap Petersen has been leading the charge against this terrible profit-grabbing law, and I salute him for it. But he has refused to take the pledge not to accept Dominion’s money, although that, too, is indefensible, and he should lead on this issue.

There are always things that people can do. Sometimes people win, sometimes people fail, and most often, you won’t know whether you’ve made any difference whatsoever. So you’ll have to take action because it’s the right thing to do with the hope that the energy you send out into the ether will result in less harm and more good.

Look at the present landscape of Virginia politics. There are no easy or perfect answers except to look at those problems that need to be solved but that nobody else is solving. The things you should do are the things that need to be done but that aren’t being done.

There is a Schoolhouse Rock version of government that claims it serves people, and there is the reality that government is for sale. There is science fiction capitalism in which the unfettered free market objectively picks winners and losers, and there is actually existing capitalism where wealthy interests make money as recklessly as possible, and Uncle Sam bails them out when they go bust. At the end of 2017, we can say with confidence that Virginia government is neither capitalist, nor communist, but commodified – for sale to the highest bidder – and the corrupt system is under the most serious attack it has faced since Reconstruction.

In this environment, ordinary people can win significant victories.


Jeff Thomas is the author of Virginia Politics and Government in a New Century: The Price of Power.


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