Va. candidates for U.S. House compete for cash while they work in General Assembly

For the first time, two members of Virginia’s General Assembly will not only be negotiating over legislation but also competing for campaign cash during the 60-day session.

Del. Barbara J. Comstock (R-Fairfax) and Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) are vying for the competitive Northern Virginia U.S. House seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R).

And thanks to a 2010 opinion from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the contender-
lawmakers don’t have to wait until after the legislative session to start accumulating cash.

The state law barring legislators from raising money during session was intended in part to eliminate the potential for conflict between lawmakers’ requests for money and the legislative goals of the lobbyists and interest groups they’re hitting up.

In his opinion, however, Cuccinelli wrote that the prohibition applies to lawmakers in connection with campaigns for state office — but not to fundraising related to a federal campaign.

Cuccinelli’s opinion was written in response to a request from then-state Sen. Robert Hurt (R), who wanted to start raising money for a seven-way Republican primary in the state’s 5th Congressional District. While he took some flak from rivals over the campaign finance issue, Hurt won the primary and went on to defeat the Democratic incumbent,Tom Perriello.

Morgan Griffith, at the time a state delegate, also ran successfully for Congress that year, but he did not take any contributions until shortly after the General Assembly adjourned.

Subsequent opinions from the attorney general’s office have given lawmakers the go-ahead to help other federal candidates raise money during the session — as well as political action committees, super PACs, federal committee accounts and state candidates in other states.

That last opinion came at the request of Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), who said he was hoping that Cuccinelli would say that such contributions were not allowed. Instead, he said they were.

“It basically just blows a hole the size of Texas in state law,” he said. “If the attorney general is legally correct, then it’s a real problem in terms of what the spirit of the Virginia law is. We shouldn’t be down here talking to lobbyists or special interest groups at the same time we’re talking about legislation.”

For Black, “there’s no conflict.” The two sets of law are separate, he said, and it makes sense that in federal races state law doesn’t apply.

As for the balancing act, he says, “I have run 12 campaigns, and so we’re pretty adept at multitasking.”

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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