RICHMOND — Sure, Virginia may be a high-tech, politically evolving flag-bearer of the New South. But a recent tiff between lawmakers and one of the state’s top lobbying firms shows the old ways will go down fighting in Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol.
Last month, someone representing a Democrat in the House of Delegates approached the law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth about getting a campaign contribution. And the firm, a 1,000-lawyer outfit based in Richmond with offices all over the world, had an unexpected reply: It said no. The company’s top lobbyist said it was defending the honor of one of its clients.
This is what happens when the old code smacks into a new style of politics.
Formerly known as Hunton & Williams, the law firm has given nearly $400,000 to Virginia candidates since 2016 — an equal amount to Republicans and Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
But a dozen of the new Democrats elected to the House in last fall’s blue-wave elections pledged not to accept contributions from one of Hunton’s clients — Appalachian Power Co.
The Democrats had campaigned on pushing back against the political power wielded by the state’s monopoly electric utilities, which include not only Appalachian but also the far larger Dominion Energy.
Appalachian serves about 1 million customers in the poorest regions of Southwest Virginia, while Dominion is the state’s largest utility and its most generous corporate political donor. It shepherded a bill through the General Assembly this year that gives it and Appalachian Power enormous latitude to reinvest excess profits instead of returning them to ratepayers.
The Democrat seeking some fundraising help from Hunton last month — party officials would not identify the delegate — happened to be one of the signers of the pledge, which condemns the utilities for chasing profits against “the interests of everyday Virginians.” Hunton viewed that language as besmirching its client. So it told the House Democratic Caucus that it would not welcome requests for contributions from any of the signers.
“We just didn’t feel comfortable responding to requests from legislators for contributions . . . when they had signed that pledge that basically says we have a client that’s corrupt,” said Whittington W. Clement, a former Democratic state delegate who heads Hunton’s government relations group.
Clement said the stance has nothing to do with the politics of the signers. “It’s based solely and totally on client loyalty,” he said.
A spokesman for Appalachian Power said the company never asked Hunton to take that action.
Several Democrats said it was the first time they had encountered such a reaction — although Clement said the firm did the same thing a few years ago when another lawmaker disparaged Appalachian.
The House Democratic Caucus, whose members are split on the issue of taking money from the utilities, played down the dust-up. “It wasn’t in an intimidating manner at all that [the firm] relayed the message to us,” said caucus spokeswoman Kathryn Gilley. It was caucus executive director Trevor Southerland who had approached Clement about the contribution in the first place.
Southerland sent a memo to caucus members advising them of the law firm’s stance.
“We’re in uncharted territory here,” said Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke), the one veteran lawmaker who had signed the no-utility pledge. Rasoul has gone one step further and renounced money from all corporate special interests.
He viewed the Hunton position as a reaction to the mounting threat posed to the old order in Richmond by a new generation of lawmakers bent on resisting corporate influence. “The special interests are trying to push back in different ways,” he said.
Freshman delegate Chris Hurst (D-Montgomery) did not sign the pledge, but also has not taken any money from either Appalachian or Hunton Andrews Kurth. “We’re in a pretty dynamic time where a lot of the customs and procedures for the way things have been done are starting to be reevaluated,” he said. “I’m of the opinion that we should take money out of politics as much as possible.”
One step at a time, though — especially in a state with some of the nation’s loosest campaign finance laws. Clement said Hunton Andrews Kurth will still gladly broker contributions for any delegate from any of its other clients.
And when the Democrats convened at the Homestead resort for their annual retreat last month, both Dominion and Appalachian were among the corporate sponsors, with lobbyists there to press the flesh.