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Opinion Why Virginians can’t trust Ralph Northam on campaign-finance reform

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in August.  (Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

On May 8, Ralph Northam, the Democrats’ nominee in the Virginia gubernatorial race, made clear his position on big money in politics.

Announcing what he described as a “comprehensive campaign finance reform package,” Northam said, “Virginia’s campaign finance system is a boondoggle that alienates its citizens and makes them lose faith in government. Virginians across every part of the political spectrum want a system that is more responsive to the people, and less reliant on big checks from a few donors. If we implement some commonsense reforms including a ban on corporate contributions and capping donations to candidates, I believe our state government can take a huge step forward in regaining the people’s trust and show Congress that it must move to end Citizens United.

There you have it. Ralph Northam: a zealous champion of the people ready to eviscerate the greedy corporations and their Citizens United-fueled corruption and restore power back to the common man. Long live the proletariat!

Well, that was in May. For all his campaigning against big money in politics, Northam now seems all too happy to accept big money when it suits him.

In August, Tom Steyer, a Democratic megadonor and former hedge-fund manager, spent $2 million to support Northam as a part of a nationwide effort to elect officials willing to confront climate change. More recently, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters followed Steyer’s lead and donated $700,00 in support of Northam.

The impetus for these environmentally conscious big spenders is their opposition to a series of pipelines planned for Virginia. At the helm of one of these pipeline construction projects is Dominion Energy, a company that is both Virginia’s biggest corporate donor and proud financial backer of  Northam. Given this mishmash of financial incentives — which include a few shares Northam owns in Dominion Energy — it is unsurprising the would-be governor has not taken a firm position regarding the pipelines.

For those unfazed by conflicts of interest, maybe gun control is more persuasive. The Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund vowed to spend $1 million to assist Virginia Democrats, $450,000 of which will go directly to aiding Northam’s campaign. If not, abortion is always a hot topic. Planned Parenthood Virginia has pledged a whopping $3 million to get Northam elected.

Northam’s defenders might argue these well-heeled donors are not “special interests” because they supposedly each serve a universally commendable end (after all, who’s against “gun safety”?). Even if that were true, such a defense concedes the candidate’s so-called campaign-finance reform plan is less about government integrity and more about preventing Republican-friendly donors from supporting conservative causes. “Free speech for me, but not for thee,” indeed.

Northam tries to dilute his affiliation with moneyed donors by claiming his campaign is funded by “45,000 individual contributions with 92 percent being $100 or less, and more than 85% of the total amount raised coming from Virginians.” It’s a clever but unpersuasive tactic; the disparity in political power between the $1 million donor and the $100 donor does not vanish simply because there are more $100 donors. Is it even worth asking which person, if both asked, would be more likely to get a face-to-face meeting with a Gov. Northam?

To be sure, Northam’s Republican opponent Ed Gillespie has courted his fair share of wealthy donors. The difference between the two, however, rests in their plans. Gillespie believes the key to government integrity is removing conflicts of interest, reinforcing lobbying bans, extending gift caps for public officials and building a coalition aimed at government transparency. Northam, meanwhile, believes “banning contributions to candidates or committees from corporations and businesses” and instituting a $10,000 cap on all donations (except, of course, those from political parties) will do the trick — even though he has failed to follow that solution even in his own campaign.

It seems when the chips are down the true Ralph Northam emerges ready to reach into anyone’s pockets to gain power, even if that means two-timing Virginians with a little doublespeak. Although Northam and his supporters are all too happy to kick “corporations” and “businesses” out of the public square, when it comes to holding themselves accountable, they balk. It is this sort of double standard elitism that makes Virginians’ stomachs turn and why Northam doesn’t deserve Virginia’s trust.