This is a guest post by David Pomerantz, crossposted from Energy and Policy Institute.
Virginia’s monopoly electric utility, Dominion Energy, has thrown its chips behind two establishment candidates for governor, Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie, in hopes that they can fend off populist primary opponents in both parties who have turned the utility into a campaign punching bag.
Dominion executives, lobbyists, and board members gave a total of $35,085 from January 1 to March 31, 2017 to candidates running for governor, with almost all of it going to Northam and Gillespie. They gave the most heavily to Northam during that period, to a tune of $20,510, and just over half as much – $11,875 – to Gillespie, according to a review of data released by the Virginia Department of Elections on April 17. Dominion Resources CEO Thomas Farrell hedged his bets, giving $5,000 to each candidate during the same period.
Dominion’s executives, lobbyists, board members and PAC have spent a total of $109,283.30 on Northam and his PAC. They have spent less than half that, $43,125.00, on Gillespie and his PAC.
Tom Perriello, the Democrat running against Northam, has pledged not to accept money from Dominion, and did not take any, according to VPAP and the Virginia Department of Elections. Perriello has come out against Dominion’s plan to build a natural gas pipeline across Virginia, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, while Northam has not opposed or supported it.* The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) has the fundraising data available here and raw data can be found on the Virginia Department of Elections website. Energy and Policy Institute reviewed the contributions by Dominion’s executives, lobbyists, board members and PAC here.
Perriello and Gillespie also have supported the repeal of a controversial 2015 law that allows Dominion to keep any extra profits it earns, instead of refunding the overages to ratepayers, as it had previously been required to do. Northam’s campaign was more vague on the topic, saying that he would “work to ensure the best deal for the ratepayer.”
Dominion executives and lobbyists did not contribute to the Republican insurgent candidate Corey Stewart, a former Trump Virginia campaign manager who has called the company a “horrible corporate citizen” over Dominion’s handling of coal ash, and has also pledged not to accept money from the utility. Three Dominion executives gave a total of $2,700 to the campaign of Republican Frank Wagner.
Dominion’s political action committee gave an additional $3,398.98 to Northam’s campaign this quarter, and $1,000 to Gillespie. The Dominion PAC has given $76,011 to date to Northam and his PAC since the PAC’s formation, and $2,000 to Gillespie and his PAC.
Dominion’s total spending on the governor’s race from its executives, lobbyists, board members and PAC to the candidates and their PACs now stands at over $155,000.
Some Virginia Democrats distance themselves from Dominion in new trend
Until this election cycle, a serious candidate for statewide office like Perriello who refused to accept donations from Dominion would have been laughed out of politics. The utility is renowned for its iron grip on Virginia’s legislature and politicians from both parties.
“No single company even comes close to Dominion in terms of its wide-ranging influence and impact on Virginia politics and government,” Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor and political analyst, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this year.
But Perriello has rejected that conventional wisdom in an effort to surf the same populist wave that propelled Sen. Bernie Sanders to his surprise run in the Democratic presidential primary. Sanders pledged not to accept funding from fossil fuel companies last year; he endorsed Perriello during a campaign event this month.
The anti-Dominion sentiment may be spreading down-ballot: Fifty-seven challengers to legislative seats have signed a pledge, circulated by progressive activists, not to accept money from Dominion. Fifty-three are Democrats, and four are running as Independents or with the Green Party; the group did not send the pledge to incumbent Democrats or any Republicans or Libertarians. The list includes several Democrats running for competitive Virginia House seats currently held by Republicans, according to the Times-Dispatch.
The willingness by some politicians to take on Dominion may correspond to a set of controversies swirling around the monopoly giant. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has garnered protests from the left and right over the effects of increased natural gas development on climate change, as well as the use of eminent domain and threats to the areas near the pipeline route. Dominion has come under heat for its handling of coal ash pollution, with heavy criticism coming from Stewart, in addition to local residents and environmentalists. That prompted a pause in their plans to leave the ash in place. And a growing bipartisan chorus, joined belatedly by current Gov. Terry McAuliffe, is calling for the repeal of the rate refund freeze.
Mountain Valley Pipeline builder also spending on Northam, Gillespie
Dominion was not the only company involved in Virginia gas pipelines that gave to candidates running for governor.
EQT Midstream Partners is trying to build and operate the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry gas from West Virginia through Southern Virginia. The company gave $10,000 to the Northam campaign in the first quarter of 2017. One of its board members, Vicky A. Bailey, has given $3,500 to the Gillespie campaign. An assortment of coal, gas and oil interests have also donated heavily to Gillespie's run.
*Corrected April 20 to note that Northam has not taken a formal position on the pipeline.
Image credit: Susan Melkisethian via Flickr CC