- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2014

Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe has taken tens of thousands of dollars from coal companies to fund his inaugural celebration despite promoting an environmentally friendly agenda on the campaign trail that called for stricter regulation of the industry.

About $75,000 of the roughly $1 million in large donations Mr. McAuliffe has collected for events associated with his inauguration in Richmond on Saturday came from coal company Alpha Natural Resources and Dominion Virginia Power, which maintains an energy portfolio that includes coal, nuclear and natural gas.

The companies, which do millions of dollars worth of business in Virginia each year, commonly contribute to political candidates and inaugurations and donated to Mr. McAuliffe during the gubernatorial campaign — although in more modest amounts than they gave to his Republican opponent, Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II.

But the donations pose an image problem for Mr. McAuliffe, who won critical backing from environmental groups ahead of the November election. The Democrat pledged support for increased federal regulations on the coal industry, which is vital to the southwestern part of the state but which faces increased scrutiny from environmental advocates.

Medical companies also figure prominently among Mr. McAuliffe’s big donors, providing $180,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics. The incoming governor will be presiding over the continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and Mr. McAuliffe made the expansion of Medicaid a key part of his campaign platform.

Mr. McAuliffe sold the expansion of the program — which is opposed by Republicans in the General Assembly — as a job creator and economic development engine and promised that expanding coverage would save the state $500 million a year.

Donations from companies with vested interests in currying the governor’s favor can create public perception problems, especially if the governor advocates legislation that would favor those businesses.

“I think you’re always walking a fine line in politics,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “A lot of it comes down to tone and some of the specifics of a bill or a policy initiative.”

While the total amount Mr. McAuliffe has raised for his inaugural festivities is unclear — campaign finance reports for inaugural committees aren’t due until March — politicians are required to report contributions of more than $10,000.

The funding is used exclusively for events such as balls and other celebrations. Costs for the swearing-in ceremony, which ran about $250,000 in 2010, are covered by state taxpayer funds.

Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are scheduled to attend the swearing-in ceremony in Richmond, and Mr. McAuliffe has announced a slate of events that includes a prayer breakfast Saturday morning, a parade and an inaugural ball later in the day.

The majority of Mr. McAuliffe’s inaugural committee donations that will pay for the events come from companies with a vested interest in continuing to do business in Virginia, including major corporations like Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Oracle.

Some, however, have more specific local-oriented goals. Mr. McAuliffe received a $25,000 donation from Transurban USA Inc., the U.S. branch of the Australian company that is operating the 495 Beltway Express Lanes. Altria, a Richmond-based tobacco giant that owns Philip Morris, chipped in $50,000.

“There’s reasons to be concerned, or at least wary, of the kind of money you see given by companies to politicians,” Mr. Skelley said. “I think as long as there’s public records of who’s given money, that at least forms some kind of protection against abuse.”

Several of the companies similarly gave to Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, for his inauguration in 2010 or to Gov. Tim Kaine for his ceremonies in 2006.

As of Friday, Mr. McAuliffe’s 50 big-money contributions totaled $1,007,000 — slightly less than the $1,045,600 Mr. Kaine collected from 42 big-money donors through Jan. 3, 2006, according to campaign finance records. Mr. Kaine raised more than $3 million for his inauguration and ultimately transferred about $460,000 of unused funds to his political action committee — an option that legislators have since eliminated.

Mr. McAuliffe’s haul is more than twice the $440,000 Mr. McDonnell took in from 21 big-money donors through Jan. 3, 2010, according to campaign finance records. Mr. McDonnell raised almost $2 million after publicly announcing he was scaling back his inaugural celebration in light of the financial hardships many Virginians faced because of the economic recession.

Raising money has never been a problem for Mr. McAuliffe, who took in more than $37 million in his race against Mr. Cuccinelli. The Republican raised about $20 million.

State Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, Fairfax Democrat, on Friday introduced a series of bills focused on ethics and campaign finance reforms in the state. One of those would put a cap on campaign contributions to $20,000 per person and $50,000 per political action committee.

“You get supersized donations in every case in every campaign and it has a huge impact,” he said. “Can I predict who would benefit or which party would benefit with a new regime with these restrictions? No, I cannot.”

Mr. Petersen said Virginia needs to stop the large amounts of money that are fueling the campaign process.

“It tends to distort the issues, it distorts the conversations,” he said. “If a voter doesn’t have money, than frankly candidates aren’t interested in their opinions.”

The governor-elect is no more or less at risk than anyone else, the senator said.

“There’s no more concern for Terry McAuliffe than I would have for Gov. McDonnell or Gov. Kaine or Gov. Warner,” Mr. Petersen said. “I think all people are susceptible to it. Chap Peterson is susceptible to it.”

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