RICHMOND — A populist-style Republican running for Virginia governor traveled to the Capitol on Tuesday to praise a Democrat’s failed effort to rein in the power of the state’s largest utility.
Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner making an outsider bid in June’s crowded GOP primary, wanted to draw attention to two bills brought by state Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax).
Both measures were aimed at Dominion Virginia Power, which has put nearly $4 million into state-level races over the past decade. One would have subjected electricity rates to review by the state. The other would have prohibited Dominion and other state-regulated monopolies from donating to legislators and statewide candidates.
Republicans and Democrats alike teamed up to kill the bills.
Riggleman said the demise of the legislation is part of lawmakers’ long pattern of allowing Dominion to “take from the needy and give to the greedy.”
“Perhaps we should just stop putting on appearances and get rid of the ‘Old’ from our nickname and just go with ‘the Dominion State’ instead,” he said.
Petersen did not attend Riggleman’s news conference, which took place on Capitol Square not long after the Senate had gaveled into session for the day. Afterward, he said he appreciated the support even though he had endorsed Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for governor.
“Hey, more power to him,” Petersen said. “I’ve already endorsed Ralph Northam, but if he’s fighting the good fight, I’m glad to hear it.”
Dominion spokesman David Botkins released a statement saying that Riggleman’s complaints were “unfounded.”
“Our 2.5 million customers tell us they are very, very happy with their low rates, superb reliability, cleaner air, and an energy independent Virginia,” his statement said.
Riggleman is one of four candidates vying for the nomination in the GOP’s June 13 primary. The others are political strategist Ed Gillespie, state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach) and Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.
A former Air Force intelligence officer and National Security Agency contractor, Riggleman and his wife opened Silverback Distillery in 2014 outside Charlottesville. He said the regulatory hurdles and entrenched liquor lobby that he encountered as he started the business inspired him to seek the Executive Mansion.
Riggleman also has tangled with Dominion, one of the state’s biggest businesses, over the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would have crossed his 50-acre distillery property in Nelson County. In remarks to reporters, he said he is opposed to eminent domain practices that are unfair to property owners.
“I am not opposed to [the gas pipeline],” he said. “I think every company should do it the right way, though. You don’t need to get special favors from the legislature.”
One of Petersen’s bills would have subjected Dominion and Appalachian Power, which supply virtually all of Virginia’s electricity, to rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission. A bill passed in 2015 spared them from that oversight as the companies braced for the anticipated cost of complying with President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
With Democrats out of the White House and the Clean Power Plan likely on its way out, Petersen said the utilities no longer needed that break. But his bill was killed in committee.
Botkins said the 2015 law is working well for consumers.
“Undoing it repeals not only rate security for our customers, but $57 million in new money for weatherization assistance for the elderly and veterans and ends the massive new infusion of solar energy being added to the grid,” he said. “Plus, regulatory uncertainty over the Clean Power Plan and carbon regulation is as great as ever in Washington, D.C.”
Petersen’s other bill would have prohibited Dominion and other state-regulated monopolies from donating to candidates for the legislature or statewide office. Dominion is the state’s biggest political donor.
Petersen pulled the bill Tuesday after two senators privately complained to him because he had missed the filing deadline although the Senate frequently makes exceptions for belatedly filed bills. Petersen did not identify the senators who had objected, but he said one was a Democrat and the other a Republican.
“Both parties have gone along with it, all levels of government have gone along with it — except the attorney general, who has put up something of a fight,” Petersen said. “And there’s no reason for it except our largest corporate citizen wants it that way.”
In his appearance Tuesday, Riggleman indicated that he was running against establishment Democrats and Republicans alike — and willing to team up with like-minded elected officials regardless of party.
“Yes, Senator Petersen is a Democrat, and I am a Republican, but he’s right on this one,” Riggleman said. “I want to be clear: Republicans do not have a monopoly on good ideas, Democrats do not have a monopoly on bad ideas, but given everything that has happened in that building behind me this year, Dominion sure seems to have a monopoly on the legislature. . . . Someone has to drag these vampires into the sunlight. Someone has to keep the big boys honest.”
He gave a nod to another Democrat in his vow to “keep the big boys honest.” That was the slogan of populist Henry E. Howell Jr., a former lieutenant governor who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1969, 1973 and 1977, twice as a Democrat and once as an independent.
When a reporter pointed out that Howell had never won the governorship, Riggleman noted the victories of President Trump and Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who unseated Eric Cantor in a stunning 2014 primary upset.
“I think the Dave Brat and Trump campaigns showed that maybe attacking the big boys can do pretty well,” he said. “We are looking at an evolution right now of a revolution that’s going on around the country. And I think people have had it.”