On the face of it, the Florida business executive and Maryland media magnate ventured far afield when they donated to a candidate in Richmond’s mayoral race, a contest bearing little obvious significance beyond the city’s borders.
Yet, the two donors are part of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s robust fundraising network, which is fueling the candidacy of the governor’s protege, Levar Stoney, 35, the former secretary of the commonwealth who is waging his first political race.
As the campaign enters the final two weeks, Stoney’s vast fundraising advantage — an edge amassed through contributions from donors who have supported McAuliffe — is allowing him to inundate voters with television ads and negative mailings.
Yet Stoney is lagging behind two opponents, including Joe Morrissey, the former state delegate who has roiled Richmond’s political establishment by emerging as the front-runner despite a public career pocked by scandal.
A total of $420,000 of the $697,000 that Stoney has raised — or 60 percent — came from donors who also gave to McAuliffe and his political action committee, according to an analysis of campaign finance records by the Virginia Public Access Project.
By comparison, Jack Berry, the candidate running second in polls, has raised $486,000 — 16 percent of which came from McAuliffe contributors, according to VPAP’s analyses, which was conducted at The Washington Post’s request.
Morrissey, who has raised less than $194,000, has highlighted the governor’s donors to buttress his criticisms of Stoney.
“He is a McAuliffe-created entity,” Morrissey said. “He has zero accomplishments on his own.” Referring to polls that show Stoney struggling, Morrissey said of McAuliffe: “What kind of juice does the governor carry when he props up Levar and the guy can’t carry a single ward?”
McAuliffe, in a telephone interview, said his relationship with Stoney developed during the four years leading to his second campaign for governor, when they traveled “thousands and thousands of miles together” across Virginia, “Levar driving, me in the passenger seat on the phone.”
“I spent more time with him than my wife,” said McAuliffe, adding that he has considered Stoney “my top political adviser.”
McAuliffe appointed Stoney secretary of the commonwealth, a job that required him to shepherd gubernatorial appointments and reappointments to state boards and commissions. A Richmond Times Dispatch analysis in June found that Stoney’s campaign had raised nearly $96,000 from donors McAuliffe had appointed or reappointed.
The McAuliffe family — including the governor’s wife, brother, son and father-in-law — has given $6,400 to Stoney’s campaign. McAuliffe’s political action committee, Common Good VA, has donated $20,540. Peter O’Keefe, the governor’s close friend and adviser, has thrown in an additional $5,000. McAuliffe and his wife, Dorothy, also canvassed for votes with Stoney.
Yet the governor played down his role in Stoney’s campaign, saying he has made two appearances on his behalf and not a single fundraising call. “He’s running his race,” McAuliffe said. “He’s working his heart and soul out.”
Asked about Morrissey, the governor said: “I am for Levar Stoney. I don’t attack Democrats.”
Matt Corridoni, a Stoney spokesman, described Stoney as having “an extensive career in public service” and political experience that predates his work for McAuliffe, including directing the state Democratic Party in Virginia, a position that required him to forge relationships with campaign donors.
“McAuliffe is not the starting point of these relationships,” Corridoni said. “Many of them he knew before he knew the governor. And in some cases, he knew them before the governor knew them.” Referring to Stoney’s standing in the polls, Corridoni said many voters remain undecided. “This is far from over,” he said. “We are just now getting to the crucial stage.”
One donor whom the governor introduced to Stoney several years ago was Robert Johnson, the Bethesda, Md.-based mogul who founded Black Entertainment Television. “The governor said, ‘Hey, Bob, this is a great guy, a guy you ought to stay in touch with,” Johnson recalled in a phone interview.
Johnson said he’s eager to support up-and-coming African American politicians, and he was impressed with Stoney, who is black and often tells voters that he was born to two teenage parents and raised in poverty.
With no business interests in Richmond, Johnson wrote Stoney a $5,000 check after he announced he was running for mayor. Before that, Johnson’s involvement in Virginia politics was largely confined to the $395,000 he gave to McAuliffe’s two gubernatorial campaigns and the $100,000 he gave to the governor’s PAC.
But Johnson said his wallet is not endlessly open. When Stoney sought another contribution recently, Johnson turned him down, saying he did not want the money spent on television ads that he thinks have minimal impact on voters in a local race.
Instead, Johnson told Stoney that he needed to personally connect with voters, citing Marion Barry, the former D.C. mayor who hired a bus to take him through District neighborhoods.
“You have to push the ball and create some excitement,” Johnson said. “I’m waiting for Levar to come back with something that I think will be a bang for the buck. I will give him more money. Money is not the issue. It’s whether you use it the right way.”
Corridoni said Stoney has knocked on voters’ doors “every day” and that his campaign “has the most professional ground game in this race.”
Stoney’s contributors also include John Cohlan, musician Jimmy Buffett’s business partner and the chief executive officer of West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Margaritaville Holdings. Cohlan, who did not return calls seeking comment, gave Stoney $5,000 — his first contribution to a Richmond mayoral race. Cohlan’s only other recent contributions in Virginia were to McAuliffe — a total of $87,500.
Another Stoney donor, Barbara Fried, an attorney and developer who lives 90 miles west of Richmond, gave more than $200,000 to McAuliffe. She said she donated $5,000 to Stoney — her first contribution to a Richmond mayoral candidate — because she found him “compelling.” Asked if the governor influenced her decision to contribute, Fried hung up the phone.
The involvement of McAuliffe’s fundraising network has rankled veterans of Richmond politics, many of whom cannot recall a local candidate benefiting from such largesse.
“Levar has made this a very expensive campaign,” said Jim Ukrop, a prominent Richmond businessman and co-chair of Berry’s campaign. “It’s the first time we’ve had a governor involved in a local race.”
Stoney has spent a record amount to date for a mayoral bid in Richmond. But for all his financial resources, he lacks the long-standing ties to Richmond voters that Morrissey has cultivated over three decades as the city’s former chief prosecutor, a state delegate, and defense lawyer.
Morrissey’s support among black voters is driving his lead over a field that includes City Council President Michelle Mosby and Councilman Jon Baliles, the son of former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles (D).
Stoney’s struggle to surpass Morrissey and Berry “demonstrates that money is not everything in politics,” said Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University political science professor. “At some point, the mayor of Richmond is a retail politics game. You have to know people.”
The stakes are especially high given that Richmond’s political and business establishment fear that Morrissey’s election would embarrass the city. Morrissey attained international notoriety several years ago because of his involvement with Myrna Warren, then his 17-year-old employee.
Morrissey, who was 55 at the time, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and spent three months in jail, during which he won reelection to the House of Delegates.
Morrissey married Myrna, now 20, four months ago, after she gave birth to the second of their two children.
His past misdeeds — he was disbarred and was twice convicted of assault — have become a rallying cry for his opponents. On Friday, Stoney sent out a mass mailing with the headline, “Joe Morrissey was indicted on a charge of bribery multiple times,” a reference to a case from which he was acquitted 23 years ago. The mailing’s tagline read: “Vote No to Joe Morrissey, Richmond Can’t Trust Him.” Mosby, who is black, aired a radio ad in which she addressed African American voters and said she would not trust Morrissey to be alone with her daughter.
Mosby has received financial support from an anti-Morrissey political action committee, as well as an in-kind contribution from a real estate PAC backing Berry.
And yet, with seven candidates splitting the vote, Morrissey’s prospects are strong. Richmond’s electoral rules require the winner of the mayoral race to win five of nine council districts, or else the two top candidates compete in a runoff.
The recent poll showed Morrissey trouncing his opponents in four districts, and holding slight leads in two more. Berry, the former leader of Venture Richmond, which promotes economic development, led in three districts, while Stoney finished a close second in two districts.
As the election approaches, the candidates far behind Morrissey are facing mounting pressure to withdraw so that anti-Morrissey forces can coalesce around one of his opponents.
Baliles has resisted calls to drop out. Recounting the challenges he has faced, Baliles said the specter of McAuliffe has hovered over his attempts to woo “several” state officials.
“They were hesitant not because they didn’t like me,” Baliles said, “but because they didn’t want to cross the governor and not get reappointed to a board.”