Home 2019 Elections Secret Polls & Primary Favoritism: Revelations from SD 12

Secret Polls & Primary Favoritism: Revelations from SD 12

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By Josh Stanfield of Activate Virginia

Delegate Debra Rodman, of Henrico’s 73rd House District, announced today that she will seek the Democratic nomination for State Senate in District 12. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those who follow Democratic politics in the Richmond area closely. After all, Patrick Wilson reported just last week on Delegate Rodman’s consideration of a run for State Senate.

Wilson’s article, however, plainly states facts (thus far undisputed) that Virginia Democrats should find disconcerting. Let’s start with the article’s lede:

“Bolstered by support from Gov. Ralph Northam’s PAC and a Democratic Party poll showing she could do well, Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, said she is considering a run for Virginia Senate this year against Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico.”

Alarms should already be sounding mid-sentence. Wilson spells it out later in the article:

“Northam’s PAC asked the Democratic Party of Virginia to pay for a poll of voters in the 12th Senate District. The PAC shared the results with Rodman but not with the two Democrats who are currently running.

Rodman referenced that poll in a Feb. 12 meeting with some of her supporters at a private home, in the midst of the scandals that had unfolded for the Democratic Party’s three statewide officeholders in Richmond.”

Veteran Virginia politicos might shrug this off as politics as usual… or even resort to the tired but true “Virginia Way” euphemism. Yet if we take a second to think about what apparently went down in SD 12, we stumble upon some troubling questions and implications.

Secret Polling

According to Wilson’s reporting, “[The Way Ahead] asked the Democratic Party of Virginia to pay for a poll of voters in the 12th Senate District.” This statement alone leads to a litany of questions:

As of December 31, 2018, The Way Ahead had  $1,272,986 cash on hand – so why did they ask the DPVA to pay for the poll? How much was the poll? Which firm conducted the poll? Did the DPVA ultimately pay for the poll – and if so, who approved the expenditure and vendor selection? Given the porous nature of Virginia politics, it’s likely the public will eventually have access to the poll. That access alone will not resolve these questions.

More broadly, if The Way Ahead/DPVA already polled SD 12, have party committees already polled other House and/or Senate districts? Have the results been shared with favored candidates – or even candidates who haven’t yet entered a race, as was apparently the case with Rodman?

Campaign Finance Reporting

The most recent campaign finance reports cover the period between October 1 and December 31, 2018. During that period, the Democratic Party of Virginia shows no polling expenditures.

During the same period, The Way Ahead also shows no polling expenditures. Between October 13 and December 26, 2018, The Way Ahead paid $42,462 to Grossman Heinz for the ever-nebulous service of “consulting.” It’s conceivable that a poll was part of the consulting, though polling is not listed as a service on the Grossman Heinz website.

If we assume legality, then we should expect to see a polling expenditure from either the DPVA or The Way Ahead on their next filings. And since Wilson reported that the poll was shared with Rodman – that she even referenced it in drumming up support – we’d expect to see an in-kind contribution for the poll reported by Rodman’s committee. It’ll be interesting to see if that in-kind comes from the DPVA or The Way Ahead.

Favoritism & Party Plan Violations?

Wilson reported that “The PAC shared the results with Rodman but not with the two Democrats who are currently running.” Favoritism on its face.

Who are those Democrats? From Wilson:

“Veena Lothe, an Ivy League-educated immigration lawyer and daughter of Indian immigrants, and Marques Jones, a former chairman of the Henrico County Democratic Committee who is African-American, have been running for the seat — Lothe for a year and Jones since summer.”

The blatant favoritism at play arguably violates the DPVA Party Plan. Let’s look at Section 10.11 on Party Endorsements:

The Democratic Party of Virginia, and any of its components, including county and city Democratic committees, Congressional district committees, the State Central Committee, the State Steering Committee, and State Party caucuses, may not formally endorse contested candidates for office prior to their nominations. The aforementioned groups also may not endorse during the reorganization process or officer elections at any level of the Democratic Party of Virginia.”

What does it mean to “formally endorse”? Well, there’s the endorsement statement you’d typically find in a press release or on a website. We don’t have that in SD 12. What we do have is a poll, which means we have an expense and therefore tangible support. We can reduce this all to one question: if the Democratic Party of Virginia spends money to support a primary campaign, does that count as an endorsement?

We may never get answers to all of these questions. When the next set of campaign finance reports drop, we’ll either find some clarity or be left with even more questions. Ultimately, it’ll be up to Virginia Democrats to decide: are we committed to fair primaries? Or is our commitment simply to the appearance of fair primaries?

[Full Disclosure]: The author has contributed $50 to Debra Rodman’s campaign committee over the past six months.