The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Digging deeper into an extraordinary campaign expenditure

Michael Bloomberg

Last week, Everytown for Gun Safety, the group  funding more than $2 million worth of ads in two Virginia Senate races, indicated unhappiness with our last column. The group said we had misconstrued former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s intrusion into Virginia politics. We disagree. Our column was the first to pointedly question the motive behind the group’s unprecedented incursion into the Richmond-area 10th District state Senate race. Bloomberg helped form the group and pledged to spend $50 million on gun-violence prevention.

The small change Everytown requested actually seemed to bolster our column’s conclusion.

As the Chinese say, don’t wish for something; you might get it. Something smelled fishy.

Now we know why. The original local newspaper story on Everytown’s involvement was titled “Gun-safety group backed by Michael Bloomberg targets Sturtevant in $700,000 ad buy.” The group gave the impression — which we questioned — that its intervention had no partisan motivation but rested solely on a disagreement over gun issues with Senate candidate Glen Sturtevant, a Republican. The group said it would “begin airing a television ad today in the Richmond media market that features the father of Alison Parker” who was tragically murdered in Roanoke, a town 200 miles away.

The ad is paid for by Everytown For Gun Safety Action Fund and authorized by Dan Gecker, the Democratic opponent of Sturtevant.  The Center for Public Integrity’s Web site describes the group as an “independent expenditure committee formed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that advocates gun control.”

“We are happy to have the important issue of gun violence highlighted,” Gecker told Richmond’s Channel Six.

However, Gecker did not wish to comment on the tone of the advertisement, which suggests Virginia would be less safe with Sturtevant. “I actually haven’t seen the ad,” Gecker admitted.

But it turns out that Everytown also intended to run a second TV ad. This ad mostly attacks Sturtevant on non-gun issues. It uses allegations from a lawsuit and employs racial code words whose meanings are well-known in Richmond politics.

The ad’s narrator says Sturtevant is being “sued” because he allegedly held secret meetings to help create a school zoning plan that allegedly benefited Richmond’s “wealthy” [white] students at the expense of the “others” [African American] in a school population that is more than 90 percent non-white.

But the onscreen citation supporting this assertion references a suit against the Richmond School Board, not Sturtevant. He is one of two white members and was elected from the city’s wealthiest, mostly white district. Seven board members are African American. The board split 5-4 on the hotly debated plan. Two African American board members (including the son of the mayor, who is black) voted to enact the plan.

The board’s attorneys moved to dismiss the suit, filed in 2013 by one parent, saying the plaintiff has “admitted that the School Board did not act out of racial bias.”

We don’t know what goes on in Bloomberg’s New York, but in Virginia, some of us stand up to far stronger political forces to break the cycle of racial politics.

So why would the second ad pivot from guns to school zoning? Because the African American vote is thought to be key to winning the 10th District. Was the gun issue simply a convenient ruse to allow cash from the Bloomberg-affiliated group to be used to fund race-baiting politics? The 10th is pivotal to Democrats’ plans to get the Senate back. And a Democratic-led Senate would be expected to be friendlier to gun regulations.

Gecker and Sturtevant are decent men caught in a system increasingly polluted by special-interest money.

Virginia’s General Assembly prides itself on being a part-time citizen legislature where the pay is low, the hours are long and officeholders live and work in the communities they represent. But it is becoming harder for an ordinary person to raise the millions it now takes to run for a contested state Senate seat, let alone the $35 million needed to make a successful gubernatorial bid. Citizen legislators cannot exist in such conditions.

Bloomberg has made disdain for Virginia’s refusal to do his bidding over the years quite evident.

But perhaps in the end, everything does go to the highest bidder.