By Will Driscoll
Virginia’s election of 13 legislators who pledged never to accept Dominion campaign funds—a tremendous result for a new political strategy—can be an inspiration for citizens everywhere. Here’s an account of the hard work of many groups and 76 Democratic Party candidates behind that achievement, told by Josh Stanfield of Activate Virginia—a state PAC he launched with two other Bernie Sanders delegates. This account is an abridged version of an interview conducted by West Virginia State Senate candidate Mary Ann Claytor, edited to start with the discussion of the pledge itself.
Mary Ann Claytor: Talk a little bit about the pledge that you had people sign.
Josh Stanfield: We looked at the campaign finance system in Virginia and it was so straightforwardly corrupt. The top corporate donor for Democrats and Republicans in Virginia is Dominion Energy, which is our electric utility. We thought, we’re going to have to start changing the political culture in Virginia. We’re going to have to make it politically unacceptable to take this money. That meant somehow entering into the mainstream narrative the idea that this is corrupt—why do Democrats take this money?
A lot of grassroots entities recruited so many candidates, and the vast majority of them were not recruited by the state Democratic Party. We thought, if we get them to just sign on to a statement of what we know is right and what they know is right, they’re not likely to have the party telling them not to do it, because they didn’t come from the party recruiting arm.
So we went to the candidates and said, will you pledge never—no matter what you run for—never to take money from Dominion Energy or Appalachian Power? We made the case to the candidates about why, and so many of them during the primary—76 candidates including two out of the three lieutenant governor candidates—signed on.
By getting that many people on board, then I had a story. Then I went to the reporters, putting this story out, and they started calling because it’s a big deal. Now we’ve entered the narrative, now we have a front page story in the Washington Post, front page in the Richmond Times. We had these stories out there; it became a thing.
Most people suspect, if a big corporation gives a politician money, they’re going to get something for it. No one gives you a bunch of money not expecting something in return. Then it became, oh my gosh, 76 candidates are saying this too, and they’re saying if they get into office they’re not going to take the money—okay, this sounds good.
That was our first step towards changing the political culture in Virginia where it becomes unacceptable—it becomes shameful—to take this money if you’re a Democrat.
We’re lucky in Virginia that we have a common villain with Dominion Energy. Dominion is trying to build the Atlantic Coast pipeline, so we have a lot of pipeline fighters who hate Dominion for that. They buy out our legislature; a lot of people hate that. They’ve got coal ash all over Virginia; everyone hates that. It was so easy to build a coalition against them.
Mary Ann Claytor: What were some of the challenges that you had in your recruiting process?
Josh Stanfield: Not just us—there were a lot of grassroots entities involved. First, the Democratic Party leadership was opposed to recruiting candidates across the state. Then finding people to run in places where you don’t have strong Democratic Party networks was a real challenge, as well as finding people who thought they could run a credible campaign. Then, to compete against an incumbent in the House of Delegates, the common knowledge is that you need at least 200 grand—so you’ve got to start streamlining, running really frugal campaigns.
People run for different reasons. Some know they will not win, if they’re running somewhere where Hillary Clinton got 21 percent. But while they might lose, people will respect the way they run, people will like what they said, and they’re going to run again. It might be for school board, or board of supervisors, and in some cases, it might be for their local Democratic Party committee chair.
Mary Ann Claytor: What did you do to get your message off the ground, because we have a lot of different organizations popping up all over West Virginia, and I always wonder what we can do to get the message moving and get the energy behind it.
Josh Stanfield: We have a network of dozens of Bernie Sanders national delegates around Virginia who were on board with the philosophy that we were pushing, and who knew us as individuals and were willing to take what we said seriously. So I could call someone in Roanoke and ask who are the labor leaders there, and these people know them and now I’ve got a phone number and I’m connected.
After the Women’s March, there was an incredible number of pop-up groups in Virginia. In January, February, March I drove all around the state visiting as many of these groups that would have me, and explaining our reform platform: competing in all elections, combatting gerrymandering, and combatting the corrupt campaign finance system. The way I put it was, “Let’s look for a synergy.”
Mary Ann Claytor: Are there any takeaways that you want to sum up for us?
Josh Stanfield: Yes—become friendly with your local and state reporters. If you have a story, don’t send a press release and expect them to care. Follow up with a phone call and leave a voicemail. A lot of journalists know about some of the dirty stuff going on, but no one’s ever paid attention when they write about it, so they don’t write about it much. If you make it clear to them that people are talking about this, people are organizing around these issues, you might find that you just start getting covered; you don’t have to have some organization with a bunch of money.
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Given the tremendous success of this pledge initiative, in just one election cycle, citizens in other states may consider following the same strategy to restore government by the people, not by investor-owned monopolies.