Virginia Notebook: Democratic Ball Waltzes Past Law
The 2009 election cycle is shaping up as the Year of the Dollar Sign.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Virginia Democrats have decided they can have a fundraiser during the legislative session. If it proceeds, it could further loosen the state's campaign finance laws.
And if there were ever a year in which Virginians should care about campaign finance, it's 2009.
With contested races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and a big push by Democrats to reclaim the majority in the House of Delegates, there probably will be unprecedented spending on campaigns this year.
In the Democratic primary for governor, Terry McAuliffe could drive much of the spending, given his vast national Rolodex. In the general election, national money from both parties will probably pour into the state, especially given that Kaine is expected to become the head of the Democratic National Committee.
It's especially easy to throw cash around in Virginia races because the state has no limits on how much an individual, corporation or union can give to a state candidate or political committee, creating what many refer to as the "Wild West" of campaign finance. It is one of only five states with no limits.
That allows Kaine to collect one-tenth of his campaign funds from one wealthy individual.
By comparison, a state politician in neighboring Maryland can accept no more than $4,000 over four years from any donor. And no individual can give more than a combined $10,000 in a four-year cycle to candidates running for Maryland office.
Virginia's system is guided by two laws designed to bring at least a little order to the mayhem: Political committees must report all donations of $10,000 or more within three business days, and state officeholders cannot raise money during the legislative session.
Virginia Democrats brought to light one major flaw in the state's campaign finance laws in the fall.
On Sept. 4, the Laborers' Political League Education Fund gave the state party $200,000. Even though it was one of largest contributions the state party had received in at least a decade, officials failed to abide by the three-day reporting deadline.
When a reporter discovered the donation two months later, party leaders apologized and said they would remedy the situation by paying the penalty prescribed in the law: $500.
That's right: a $500 fine for failing to properly disclose a $200,000 donation.
Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Virginia Democratic Party, called it "an oversight" by the party's compliance team.
Now, Virginia Democrats might test the other crucial component of the state's campaign finance law. In the late 1990s, the General Assembly agreed to the ban on raising money during the session.
The law has been a source of controversy between Republicans and Democrats ever since.
Each February, during the heart of the session, Democratic legislators flock to the state party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner.
Unlike elected officials, the state parties face no restrictions on fundraisers during the session. The governor and legislators cannot sell tickets to the events.
Still, Republicans complain annually that state Democratic officeholders send the wrong signal by attending any fundraiser during the session.
GOP legislators have tried to tighten the law to forbid any state officeholder to even attend a fundraiser during the session. Democrats have blocked the legislation.
Now, Virginia Democrats are taking their in-session fundraising to the next level. They are hosting a fundraiser Jan. 19, five days after the General Assembly convenes.
Kaine and Democratic Sens. James Webb and Mark R. Warner are hosting Virginia's Inaugural Ball.
The event at the Westin Arlington Gateway, which sold out in hours, is billed as "a celebration of turning Virginia blue."
Tickets to the fundraiser, which benefits the Virginia and Arlington County Democratic parties, start at $200, and sponsorships are available for $10,000.
An invitation to the event clearly says that it is issued by Kaine, Warner and Webb.
Republicans say that shows that Kaine, a state official, is soliciting money for a fundraiser that will occur during the legislative session.
Democratic officials say the fundraiser conforms with state law.
"All contributions for the inaugural celebration will be received by January seventh, which complies fully with Virginia law," Leopold said. "This date falls more than a week before the legislative session begins. This event is about much more than Virginia politics. We are glad to give more than 1,400 Virginia Democrats an opportunity to gather together to celebrate the victory of a new president who has given a renewed sense of hope and purpose around the country and world."
The Democrats also note that the money being raised by the event will be deposited into the Virginia and Arlington parties' federal accounts. Those accounts can be used to influence only federal races and are not covered by the Virginia law.
But last year, Kaine said he would voluntarily stop raising money for Barack Obama's federal campaign account during the legislative session. Kaine said at the time that he would be within the law to keep raising federal funds during the session but thought it sent the wrong signal.
So what's changed?
Kaine's political staff stressed that the governor won't be raising money during the session because all contributions will be collected this week. Charlie Kelly, Kaine's political director, said in a statement, "The governor looks forward to attending the Democratic Party of Virginia's Inaugural Ball, an event that complies with Virginia law."
Democratic officials also point out that there is traditionally a flurry of fundraising in the days before the legislative session starts, as lawmakers try to collect cash legally.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) will host a big Richmond fundraiser the night before the session begins. It will probably attract nearly all GOP House members.
House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) is calling on Kaine to cancel the in-session event, saying the law was designed to prevent lawmakers from schmoozing with donors the night before a vote on legislation that affects the donor.
Now, he and other GOP officials say, the Democrats are setting a precedent in which it's acceptable for governors and legislators to sell tickets to events as long as the money is collected before or after the session and is used on federal campaigns.
One GOP strategist suggested that Republican legislators could begin scheduling a fundraiser for late February, featuring all of the House budget conferees.
The money wouldn't be collected until after the session concludes, but donors who pledge would have access to the conferees as they begin hammering out the final details of the budget.
"The governor's office clearly dropped the ball with this," Griffith said.
Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (Prince William), chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, has suggested that lawmakers consider scrapping the in-session fundraising prohibition if Democrats persist in attending events when the General Assembly is in Richmond.
And Virginia would grow even wilder when it comes to its politicians and their campaign cash.
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