The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. gubernatorial contender Northam calls for ban on corporate campaign giving

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in the June 13 primary election, debates at Virginia Western Community College on Thursday, May 4, 2017, in Roanoke, (Heather Rousseau =/The Roanoke Times via AP)

Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Monday called for a cap on campaign donations and a ban on corporate contributions, escalating a clash over campaign funding in the primary race for governor.

Virginia’s state campaign finance system is essentially a free-for-all: People, businesses and political organizations can give as much as they like to individual candidates who can spend the money however they like, even on personal expenses.

Northam’s plan would limit donations to $10,000 (with political parties excluded), bar businesses and corporations from giving and require nonprofits trying to influence Virginia elections to reveal their donors.

Dark money vs. corporate cash: Democratic Va. candidates clash on funding

“Virginia’s campaign finance system is a boondoggle that alienates its citizens and makes them lose faith in government,” Northam said in a statement. “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.”

A spokesman for his opponent in the June 13 Democratic gubernatorial primary, former Congressman Tom Perriello, responded to the plan by urging Northam to return or give away nearly $725,000 in corporate donations he’s taken throughout his political career. Perriello supports public campaign financing.

Northam’s spokesman retorted he wouldn’t take the call to return donations seriously until Perriello returns contributions from hedge funds and the National Rifle Association from his 2008 and 2010 Congressional campaigns.

Perriello’s gubernatorial bid kept afloat by a few big donors

Both Northam and Perriello have faced criticism over campaign contributions. As of March 31, Northam had $3.3 million to Perriello’s $1.7 million.

Because there are no limits on campaign donations, Perriello started his gubernatorial campaign with half his initial $2.2 million haul coming from just four donors. Avaaz, a global activist group that Perriello co-founded, gave him $230,000 and does not disclose most of its donors.

Northam has been attacked for taking money from corporations with businesses before the state — including about $100,000 from the state’s utility giant and largest campaign donor, Dominion Resources. Perriello and dozens of Democratic delegate candidates have pledged not to take money from Dominion, in a surprising challenge to the state’s largest political donor.

Dominion, Virginia’s longtime power broker, suddenly in the hot seat

At a recent candidate forum, Northam said campaign finance reform should be comprehensive rather than consist of a ban on money from particular entity.

Northam also said his campaign is powered by grassroots donors, not by “rustling money from corporations.”

About three-quarters of Northam’s donations are smaller than $100, but they make up less than a tenth of his overhaul campaign haul, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly have endorsed an alternative campaign finance proposal from GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie that would bar personal use of campaign funds and the "bait-and-switch" practice of transfering money raised for a campaign for one office to a campaign for a different office.