RICHMOND — A Democratic state delegate headlined a fundraiser last weekend for a political action committee, sparking objections from Republicans who say he violated a ban on raising political cash during Virginia’s legislative session.
Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) was one of two featured speakers at the Together Virginia PAC brunch at a community center in Arlington. The PAC, which aims to “connect rural and urban perspectives,” donated a total of $7,000 to politicians last year, including $500 to Rasoul.
Rasoul’s photo appeared on solicitations for the event that said the PAC would use the funds raised to back Democrats across the state and to support projects such as Democratic Promise, an initiative run out of Rasoul’s office.
State law prohibits members of the General Assembly from soliciting or accepting contributions for themselves or “for any political committee” during the session. The lone exception is for legislators raising money for federal campaigns, so the ban does not apply to the two Republican delegates and a Democratic state senator running for Congress this year.
Violators are subject to a civil penalty equal to the amount of the prohibited contribution or $500, whichever is greater. Enforcement falls to a commonwealth’s attorney. Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos said she was unfamiliar with the matter and could not comment.
“He knows you’re not supposed to be raising money during session. Period. Hard stop. End of sentence,” said House Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). “The fact that he would do this — he should know better than that. Apparently he doesn’t.”
Rasoul said he attended the event as a guest and made a $100 contribution. Tickets ranged from $25 to $1,000 per person.
“I’m a guest at a PAC’s fundraiser, willing to talk about how we connect with different folks,” he said. “I’m guest at lots of different things. But I’m not asking for funds — myself — for the PAC, nor am I raising money myself.”
Jonathan Berkon, a lawyer at the Perkins Coie political law group who represents Virginia House Democrats, said in a statement that lawmakers are not restricted from appearing at “events, even fundraisers, to discuss important issues to the Commonwealth. If Sam did not solicit any funds at the event and was simply part of a conversation about how to engage citizens across the Commonwealth, that fully complies with the law.”
But Chris Marston, the Republican Party of Virginia’s general counsel, disagreed. He noted that legislators are prohibited from raising money for any political committee, not just their own. And he disagreed with the notion that Rasoul could be considered just another guest.
“If his picture and name and title are there [in ads for the event], there’s a pretty good case that that constitutes soliciting,” Marston said.
Together Virginia is a new PAC created by Stacy Snyder, an Alexandria ceramics artist who grew up in Blacksburg and is looking for ways to build bridges between the state’s deep-blue urban areas and its bright-red rural regions.
It is a theme that Rasoul often hits upon. In 2016, he scolded fellow Democrats for losing touch with the white, rural and working-class voters who propelled Donald Trump to the White House.
“I wanted to support a very nice woman who’s got this little PAC,” Rasoul said. “She’s doing the urban-rural divide, which I think is great.”
Headlining the event with Rasoul was Jason Kander, a Democrat and former Missouri secretary of state who speaks to Democratic groups about how to pitch progressive values in red states.
“Proceeds will be used to help initiatives in VA like Democratic Promise!” the group wrote on Twitter. Rasoul retweeted the message.
Rasoul said Democratic Promise is a not a PAC but an initiative run out of his office to connect constituents with government services, such as helping veterans and seniors obtain benefits or helping community groups apply for grants. He described it as more philanthropic than political.
But the outreach does have an explicit political goal, as stated on Democratic Promise’s website: “We want to help rebuild trust in the Democratic Party by actually helping people in our community.”