About that inauguration fiesta, governor

A few days have passed, and I just can't get over the open-handed support of some of the patrons of the $1.9-million-plus inauguration of Gov. Ralph Northam. What could inspire that kind of generosity?

It's a bipartisan question. Let's say I'm a conservative here in Williamsburg. What's my sneaking hunch about the fairness of conservative corporate CEOs deciding they have to celebrate a liberal-ish governor?

The donors list posted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project includes: Altria, a tobacco company: $50,000; the Virginia Cable Telecom Association: $32,500; Anthem, the health insurance megasaurus, Appalachian Power, Aetna Life and Casualty, Norfolk Southern: all $25,000. Political appointees, lobbyists and corporate chieftains are here on the long $10,000-plus list, too. Do they have business before the state government pretty often?

And then there's Dominion Energy, our supposedly state-regulated private corporate monopoly. It pollutes air and water, stifles independent solar power, aligns with climate change deniers, and tries to ram unneeded gas pipelines over the mountains for its profit and our loss. Dominion gave $50,000 to the inaugural committee.

Unlisted: the nonprofit Children's Home Society. Is it supposed to muster a fat contribution and hope to get on the political radar screen? The Society has labored for years to improve Virginia's shocking record in placing abused and foster children in adoptive homes.

Dominion's the biggest giver to the political campaigns of our state legislators, too — both Republicans and Democrats. And it has the darndest good luck getting its way down at the Capitol. Just type in your Williamsburg zip code at VPAP.org and you can see all the big donors to your own state senators and delegates. Then ask them how they can take money from the same people they're making laws about.

Or you can congratulate them for not doing so. Roanoke Del. Sam Rasoul, for example, refuses campaign donations above $5,000 from anyone, and takes no money at all from special-interest PACS and corporations.

Our elected public servants who accept such gifts assure us they can still be fair to all. Maybe so. But if a reporter for this newspaper took money from sources and offered the same assurances, she'd be fired. Why do we suspend common sense when it comes to our elected officials?

There's no suggestion here that our elected state officials are personally corrupt. But they work within a corrupt system that they have the power to change.

Last May, as a candidate, Northam called for a ban on campaign donations from corporations and businesses and a $10,000 cap on all donors except party committees. That would be a start. Public campaign financing, as in Maryland, Arizona, Connecticut or Vermont, would be far more effective.

There's a better way to pay for public celebrations, too. France sent the Statue of Liberty to America in the 1880s, but there wasn't money to put it up. Newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer urged the public that the statue was paid for "by the masses of the French people … irrespective of class or condition … It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America." More than $100,000 was raised, mostly in donations of $10 or less. Children collected tens of thousands of pennies. The statue was erected.

Richmond's Capitol Square should not be, nor appear to be, "a gift from the millionaires to the millionaires," nor to anyone else. I appreciate your considering that, Gov. Northam, and helping us regain faith in the integrity of our state government.

Nash is the author of Virginia Climate Fever -- How Climate Change Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests, published by the University of Virginia Press. He is a Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond.

[1] Nadine Marsh, executive director, Richmond Children's Home Society

[2] Lessig, Lawrence. Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop

It. New York: Twelve, 2011, p. 88.

[3] Teachout, Zephyr. Corruption in America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014, p. 196.

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