Category Archives: Politics

Now They’ve Really Ticked Me Off!

Peter Strzok

Recent news reports have revealed that Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, senior FBI employees involved in the bureau’s investigations of the Clinton email scandal and Russia-gate, have made all manner of derogatory comments about President Donald Trump. Their observations aren’t anything worse than what we hear on Cable TV every day, and independent prosecutor Robert Muller removed them from his probe when he discovered their  bias, so I haven’t gotten too worked up about their indiscretions.

But when they knocked Loudoun County, they really raised my hackles. Strzok texted Page, a senior FBI attorney with whom he was having an affair, after news that Jill McCabe, wife of deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, had lost her race to conservative Richard Black. The outcome of the race was “disappointing,” he said, adding that Loudoun County is “still largely ignorant hillbillys.”

Two comments.

First, Mr. Strzok, according to 2014 U.S. Census data, Loudoun County has the 18th highest percentage of population (25 or older) with a graduate or professional degree, and the 6th highest level with a Bachelor’s degree, of any county in the country.

Second, you misspelled “hillbillies.” You might want to think about that before you call anyone else ignorant.

Virginia’s Top 10 Stories (Told and Untold) of the Year

Phew! I finally made it through the all-consuming Christmas season, and I’m still alive to tell the tale. Christmas is a wonderful but grueling time of year for the Bacon family, marked by numerous feasts, expanding waistlines, excessive gift giving, shrinking bank accounts, and considerable out-of-town travel to distant relatives. But I’m back in the saddle at the Bacon’s Rebellion global command headquarters and eager to get the blog cranked back up.

Many publications publish a retrospective look at the “Top 10 Stories of the Year.” I have never done this at Bacon’s Rebellion, but perhaps it is time. A few obvious candidates for the Top 10 stories in Virginia’s political-public policy realm come to mind. Please feel free to add, subtract, modify or opine upon this list in the comments.

  1. Republican wipe-out in the November 2017 election. In a wave election driven largely by anti-Trumpism, voters obliterated the seemingly insurmountable Republican majority in the House of Delegates and elected Democrats to all three statewide offices. The Northam administration will look and act a lot like the McAuliffe administration, but it will have more friends in the legislature.
  2. Civil War statues and the Charlottesville riot. Virginia became the cockpit of U.S. culture wars and the debate on race as national and local media alike fixated on statues that memorialize Civil War generals. The controversy exploded as outsiders flocked to participate in, and oppose, the United the Right rally in Charlottesville.
  3. Virginia’s lagging economy. The U.S. economy gained momentum during the first year of the Trump administration, but Virginia’s economy, once a national growth leader, continues to under-perform. Caps on military spending have hobbled growth in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, while Virginia’s rural, mill-town economy continues to struggle. Governor Terry McAuliffe has shined as the superlative state salesman, but his policies have not budged economic fundamentals.
  4. Dominion on the defensive. Dominion Energy, a dominating political presence in Virginia, was a big loser from the election, as an unprecedented wave of anti-Dominion politicians was elected to the General Assembly. Despite making great progress toward solar energy, the electric utility found itself under attack for its rate freeze, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and coal ash disposal. In a dramatic, end-of-year gambit, Dominion proposed upgrading its transmission and distribution systems to a more resilient, renewable-friendly smart grid.
  5. Higher-ed mobilizes to defend status quo. The year began with sharp criticism of Virginia’s public colleges and universities for runaway costs, tuition and fees. The year closed with an industry P.R. blitz highlighting the link between higher ed and economic development. Virginia is nowhere near a consensus on how to balance the competing imperatives of affordability, access, workforce development, and R&D-driven innovation.
  6. Death spiral for Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges in Virginia entered the year in a slow-motion death spiral due to internal flaws and contradictions. Policies enacted by Congress and the Trump administration accelerated their swirl into oblivion, while offering nothing obvious to replace them. The election of Democrat Ralph Northam will renew the debate over expansion of Medicaid, all but guaranteeing that the focus in Virginia will be on the zero-sum question of who pays for health care rather than how can we improve productivity and outcomes in order to lower costs for the benefit of all.
  7. Interstate 66 and HOT lanes. The McAuliffe administration advanced its signature contribution to Virginia’s transportation infrastructure by developing major upgrades to Northern Virginia’s I-66 transportation corridor. The opening of HOT lanes inside the Beltway erupted in controversy over the fairness and effectiveness of using dynamically priced tolls to ration scarce highway capacity.
  8. Accountability in K-12 education. By some measures, Virginia’s system of public schools made progress in 2017 but by other measures it continued to struggle. One of the most important trends, neglected by the media, is the continued effort by state bureaucrats to use Standards of Learning tests to hold local schools accountable and the continued gaming of the rules by local officials to avoid accountability. Meanwhile, revisions to disciplinary policies to advance social justice concerns has undermined school discipline and made a difficult job — teaching disadvantaged kids — even more difficult. The breakdown in discipline makes it ever harder to recruit teachers to the most challenging schools.
  9. Salvaging the Metro. The Washington Metro heavy rail system needs billions of dollars to compensate for past failures to invest in maintenance, even as it struggles with union featherbedding, declining ridership, and an unwieldy governance structure. Representatives from Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the federal government can’t seem to agree on much. Metro is critical for the functioning of the Northern Virginia economy, but Virginia wants to see labor and governance reforms before coughing up billions of dollars to prop up a failing system that, lacking those reforms, inevitably will come back and ask for more in the future.
  10. Turn-around at Virginia’s ports. This end-of-the-year list is gloomy, with an emphasis on crumbling and failing institutions. But there is at least one good news story (which I have neglected to cover on this blog): the revival of the Ports of Virginia. Traffic is booming and profitability has revived.

We Can Disagree, But Let’s Do So Civilly

These are remarks made by Cliff Hyra, Libertarian Party candidate in the recent gubernatorial election, on the need for civil discourse in Virginia and the United States at the Big Bacon Fry two weeks ago. I’ll have more to say in future posts about the excellent discussion we had there and initiatives that could arise from it. — JAB.

Politics has changed. Americans have become more extreme in their positions, have much more negative views of people who disagree with them, and are less willing to compromise. About one third of Democrats and Republicans now see the other party not just in an unfavorable light, but as a fundamental threat to the nation’s well-being. Our relationships and methods of communication are changing, with the Internet replacing face-to-face communication and allowing us to choose our own sources of information and our peers.

In turn, the idea of civility in politics seems to have slowly gone by the wayside. Open hostility and demonization are common-place. Violence regularly erupts at political rallies. The differences between Republicans and Democrats, not just in politics but in daily life, are increasing dramatically. If the trend continues, rising political violence seems all too possible. Yet there seem to be no incentives favoring a return to civility. Is there anything we can do to help turn things around?

When I first decided to run for Governor of Virginia, I chose to make respect a central tenet of my campaign. That was not so much a strategic decision for me, as simply something that was very important to me personally.  Respect for others — even, and especially, people who I disagree with and think are making the wrong choices — is the basis for my political philosophy and a guiding principal for my personal behavior. And as a third party guy, I don’t have luxury of being able to create bubble of like-minded folks and demonize everyone outside of it, or I would be living in a very small bubble indeed.

For me, recent changes in political discourse have been a huge personal loss. As someone with an interest in policy who cares mostly about results and not partisanship, I find it increasingly difficult to talk to anyone about anything. I sometimes feel accosted on all sides by extremist political rhetoric. In my campaign, I did not view the other candidates as adversaries, but as collaborators in the political process, by which Virginians try to discover and arrive at the best policy solutions for the future. Meanwhile, I can hardly stand to log into Facebook because of the bitterness and contempt being exhibited there.

One of the things that was interesting to me was the stark dichotomy between what I saw online, and what I experienced on the campaign trail, face-to-face with voters. I fully expected strident polemics and harsh criticism, and on the Internet I received it in spades. But person-to-person, interactions were much more civil, much more enjoyable, much more cooperative. Even those who strongly disagreed with me were able to be polite and have a reasoned conversation.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was, not just to talk to supporters, but to journalists and to everyday people on the street. It was a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity to see places in Virginia I had never seen before, to meet people with lives different from my own and learn about them and make a connection. Humans are evolved to cooperate with each other in person, where the costs and benefits of our interactions are immediate and unavoidable. In person, people were willing to make concessions and consider new ideas, and many expressed a strong distaste for the tone of modern politics. It makes me wonder how much of the lack of civility is directly attributable to the rise of the Internet as a means of communication. So, I don’t think that people have changed for the worse in some fundamental way, and that gives me hope that things can improve.

And things need to improve, if we are going to avoid further political violence, let alone address some of the challenges we face today that require collaboration, cooperation, and compromise. But politicians and political parties are fundamentally unsuited to change themselves. Politicians and political parties will inherently, over time, come to be dominated by whatever strategies are effective in winning elections. And we know that the electorate as a whole has become very highly polarized, and even more so among those most likely to vote and make political donations, among whom the number of extreme liberals has quintupled over the last twenty years, and the number of extreme conservatives has tripled over the last ten years.

And now we see the result of that change, as even staid, relatively mainstream candidates like Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie resort to accusing each other of sympathy for MS-13, pedophiles, white nationalists and neo-Nazis. As a candidate, I tried to set an example of civility and respect. And I encouraged the voters to hold the candidates accountable for their rhetoric, and to vote strategically against the lack of civility and disrespect in modern politics.

I think if there is going to be change, it needs to be a non-partisan approach that goes beyond any immediate political campaign or political battle. So I thank Jim for bringing us together and for stepping up and making an effort to change things, because that is exactly what we need. And I am grateful to be involved, and eager to do what I can to help. And I hope some of you here are as well. That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for having me.

Take Back the Discourse — Fight for Civility!

Cliff Hyra. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

This cry for civility could not be more timely given the subject of my previous post: Libertarian Party candidate for governor Cliff Hyra has called upon Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie to halt their vicious attack ads. The statement he released today is worth quoting at length:

When I first decided to run for Governor of Virginia, I chose to make respect a central tenet of my campaign. All Virginians deserve respect, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs- and regardless of their political opinions. I feel strongly that it is a mistake to demonize those who disagree with you. Our political opponents are not demons- they are our brothers and our sisters, and they bleed like we bleed, and they want, at a high level, most of the same things that we want.

I wish that the other candidates felt the same way. I have watched with growing dismay over the last weeks as initial civility has given way to wild-eyed accusations and divisive rhetoric.

What is politics coming to, what is our society coming to, when two candidates for state-wide office spend millions of dollars on ads accusing their opponent of sympathizing with violent street gangs, pedophiles, white nationalists and neo-Nazis, and of harboring supporters who want to run over our children with trucks. I cannot begin to describe my disappointment. I fear for the future of our Commonwealth and of our nation, when even the most staid candidates feel they have to descend to this level of discourse to win an election, and are willing to do so.

My family was talking in general terms about the rhetoric we had been hearing, when my seven-year-old daughter asked me, “Do grown-ups really fight like that?” and I said “Well, these two do” and she said “They’re acting like children!” and I said “You’re right.” It’s unbelievable to me that I have to be the grown-up in the room, because these 60-year old men, these establishment politicians, a sitting lieutenant governor and former chairman of the RNC, apparently think that the best strategy for getting elected to the highest office in the state is name-calling. I feel like telling them ‘Don’t make me turn this car around!’

Virginia’s voters want to make their decisions based on the issues. When I talk to Virginians all over the state, they are disgusted by the ads they see. What is important to them is the economy, education, healthcare, criminal justice. Not monuments. Not Enron.

I would add only this: Civility is not just for elections. It’s for all public discourse. Sometimes the polite people of the world have to stand up and say, “Gosh darn it, we’re not going to take this anymore!”

Ed Gillespie’s Trumpian Appeal to the Alt-Right

by Les Schreiber

The recent events in Charlottesville to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue morphed into a shocking display of anti-Semitism.  The pictures of torch-bearing protesters chanting “Jews will not replace us” resembled 1930s marches in Nuremberg, Germany.  The current leader of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, could not bring himself to decisively separate himself from this outrage.  His comment  that both sides had good and bad people implied support of those who created the greatest horror of the 20th century.

This type of bigotry is on the rise. The so-called Alt-Right now seems to form a significant portion of the base of the Republican Party. One consequence is the resurgence of The Forward, which was originally published in Yiddish in the early 20th Century. The paper was on the verge of disbanding itself in the 1990’s but in recent years resurrected itself in English as a magazine covering the rise in anti-Semitic incidents and tracking bigoted web sites.

In a recent opinion piece Princeton Economics Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman examined the campaign of Trumpian nominee Ed Gillespie. By standing tall against the removal Confederate statues, this Trump surrogate has politicized an issue that will attract the Alt-Right base of his party. Ed has also run ads implying that the Democratic nominee supports immigrant gangs and sanctuary cities for them to hide in. Neither charge appears to be true. But it plays well with the Alt-Right fear of immigrants.

Next Tuesday’s results will reverberate beyond Capitol Square.

Appreciating L.B.J.

The mausoleum-like LBJ library.

No trip to Austin would be complete without a trip to the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library. The edifice, designed in a late 60s-era brutalist style of architecture, is massive, impersonal and expresses nothing of the man it honors. But the museum inside brings to life a president who, for all his failings, was one of the most consequential in the history of the United States.

LBJ advanced the Civil Rights revolution, stripping away the trappings of Jim Crow and setting up laws to ensure equal civil rights for all Americans regardless of race, and he embarked upon one of the greatest social experiments ever — the war on poverty. He also presided over the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. The first accomplishment was brilliant, and it will enshrine Johnson forever in the pantheon of great American presidents. The second was noble in spirit and aspiration, but it suffered from massive unintended consequences and, far from vanquishing poverty, has cemented it in place. The Vietnam war was tragic, although I do believe future historians who write the second draft of history may be more forgiving of Johnson than those who lived through that tumultuous time and articulated the conventional wisdom that dominates the way Americans view the conflict today.

I grew up in a Republican household, and my parents were never fans of LBJ. As a fifth grader, I sported an AuH20 button. I still hew to Goldwater’s libertarian philosophy and I lament the massive expansion of federal government power that Johnson presided over. But with the passage of time, I have become more appreciative of his accomplishments. The visit to his library, which put some of his most uplifting oratory on display, gave me a deeper insight into his thinking. Born into a modestly well-to-do family in the hard-scrabble hill country of Texas, he lived close to the poverty of those around him. While rising to wealth and prominence (the LBJ library does not dwell upon the more unsavory details of where that wealth came from), he never forgot the less fortunate members of society.

The LBJ archives

The LBJ era also ushered in the era of ultra-rancorous politics we know today. The media skewered the president over his Vietnam War policies. As he complained in a Trump-like lament, if he had walked on water across the Potomac River, the headline the next day would be, “Johnson can’t swim!”

Precursors of today’s Daily Show and other politically charged late-night “comedy” acts were “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Tom and Dick Smothers were particularly tough on the president, although the tone of relentless negativity never approached what we see on “comedy” shows today. As a youth who watched both shows, I don’t recall anyone suggesting that President Johnson’s mouth would best serve as Khrushchev’s cock holster. The item on display in the museum that left the most enduring image in my mind was a letter signed by Tom and Dick Smothers:

Mr. President,

During the past couple of years we have taken satirical jabs at you and more than occasionally overstepped our bounds. We disregarded the respect due the office and  the tremendous burden of running the country because of our emotional feelings towards the war. …

Often, an emotional issue such as war makes people tend to over-react. Please accept our apology on behalf of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour for our over-reaction in some instances. Please know that we do admire what you have done for the country and particularly  your dignity in accepting the abuse of so many people.

In the 1960s, emotions ran high because of war, the civil rights struggle, riots in the streets, and a counter-cultural revolution that rejected long-established norms. There were weighty reasons for anger. Yet both Johnson — a man so uncouth he installed a telephone in his bathroom so he could conduct affairs of state while sitting on the toilet — and his antagonists conducted themselves with far greater dignity than their counterparts today when the stakes are…. what? Really, what issue is doing more to tear tearing the nation apart than the mutual loathing of our president and his enemies?

The LBJ ranch

Speaking of the toilet installed in LBJ’s bathroom… we saw it. After visiting the LBJ museum, we decided to tour the LBJ ranch, known as the Texas White House, where Johnson spent 450 days during his five years in office. The ranch house, located about 45 minutes west of Austin, faces the Pedernales River, very near where Johnson was born and spent his early youth. A utilitarian building, by no means opulent, the house befits a man who had few social pretensions. The furnishings, preserved as if in amber, are a testimony to 1960s taste and culture. (Ewww.)

Johnson made the most of every minute of every day. He didn’t work out. He didn’t didn’t play golf. He didn’t hobnob with the beautiful people. Politics consumed his every thought, and he outfitted his house with televisions in every room — three of them, one for each network, in his bedroom — and always had a telephone within reach. Including one near his toilet. Johnson was always reaching out: negotiating, flattering, threatening, and cajoling to move his agenda forward. One day he reputedly spent a full 18 hours on the telephone. It’s how he got so much accomplished. It certainly worked better than tweeting.

The amphibcar

Johnson loved being around people, and he had a zest for life. One of his favorite tricks was loading newcomers to the ranch into the blue car at right, crying out that the brakes had failed, and plunging into a lake. Unbeknownst to the passenger, the car was one of 3,900 amphibious Amphicars manufactured by a German company. In an audiotape one can hear at the ranch, then-presidential aide (and future cabinet secretary) Joseph Califano described his terror until he realized that the car was not sinking.

LBJ, bigger than life, truly was a president that only Texas could have produced.

Libertarian Hyra Cracks 8% in VCU Poll

VCU poll results

The predictable headline of the new Virginia Commonwealth University poll is that Democrat Ralph Northam has a five-point edge, with a five-point margin of error, among likely voters over Republican Ed Gillespie in the gubernatorial race. You can read all about it in the Washington Post article filed this morning.

The more interesting story is how well the Libertarian Party candidate, Cliff Hyra, is faring. Among registered voters, he scored 8%. Among “likely voters,” he snagged 6%.

That’s in the same ballpark as the 6.5% vote that Robert Sarvis won in the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli match-up four years ago. The difference is that Sarvis was thought to have benefited from a large “none of the above” sentiment among voters who found Terry McAuliffe’s wheeler-dealer persona and Ken Cuccinelli’s strong cultural conservatism to be off-putting. By contrast, the Northam-Gillespie match-up is a battle of the bland. Both candidates are cautious and inoffensive. No one has to hold their nose to vote for them.

If that’s the case, how does one explain the strong showing of Hyra, a political novice who is campaigning part-time on a shoe-string budget? Maybe, just maybe, his libertarian principles are resonating with voters. Could Virginia become a three-party state? It’s not impossible.

Hyra’s Ideas on Taxes Deserve a Wide Hearing

Cliff Hyra in campaign mode. Photo credit: Richmond Magazine

I’m glad to see that the Richmond Times-Dispatch actually gave some ink to the official campaign launch of Libertarian Party nominee Cliff Hyra. As far as I can tell from my perusal of the Virginia Public Access Project’s daily VaNews digest, the T-D was the only major newspaper to do so.

(However, Richmond Magazine did publish an interview with Hyra here, and Bearing Drift covered his campaign announcement here.)

Hyra’s predecessor, Robert Sarvis, won 6.5% of the vote running against Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli. While the Libertarian Party is not threatening to win a statewide office any time soon, its candidates do bring fresh perspectives to otherwise stale debates.

Hyra, a 34-year-old patent attorney residing in a suburb north of Richmond, could liven up the campaign. His big themes are innovation and inclusion. He advocates a cut in the state income tax, legalization of marijuana, pardons for prison inmates convicted for drug offenses, more charter schools, and elimination of Virginia’s Certificate of Public Need restrictions on healthcare facilities. 

That’s certainly not a package of proposals you’re likely to see from anyone in either the Republican or Democratic parties.

Hyra’s tax proposal differs from Republican nominee Ed Gillespie’s by spreading the benefits more widely among taxpayers. Where Gillespie would cut existing tax brackets 10% across the board, conferring the biggest benefits upon higher-income taxpayers in higher tax brackets, Hyra would raise household exemptions up to $60,000. All taxpayers would benefit, but working class and middle-income citizens would enjoy a bigger break as a percentage of income than the well-to-do.

Unlike some Libertarian candidates, Hyra has concrete ideas on how to pay for the tax cuts — and they don’t require any hocus-pocus assumptions that cuts would stimulate enough economic growth to pay for themselves. He proposes dusting off the recommendations of the 2002 Wilder Commission, proposed during the Warner administration, to see if some never-implemented ideas might be resurrected. Specifically, he would look to see if the state’s real estate portfolio could be administered at lower cost, and if excess property could be sold.

Hyra proposes to save more money through reforms to the criminal justice system — fewer inmates might allow the state to close a prison. Also — I offer this free advice — he could consider rolling back tax breaks, exemptions and deductions in the state income tax code, which usually go to the well-heeled, to pay for his tax break. Hyra’s idea could accomplish the seemingly impossible: cut taxes, make the tax code more progressive, yet not stick it to the rich.

Hyra’s ideas on taxes probably could use some polishing. But his proposal certainly is credible enough to deserves airing in the campaign. I would love to see Hyra and Gillespie go one-on-one on how best to structure tax cuts and pay for them. Perhaps Democrat Ralph Northam could chime in on why tax cuts are not a good idea at all. Citizens would benefit from a more vigorous discussion of the issues facing Virginia.

I hope the media treat Hyra as more than a curiosity, and I hope he fares well enough in the opinion polls to warrant inclusion in the major candidate debates. That would make the debates worth watching!

Update: Bart Hinkle, the Times-Dispatch libertarian editorial page editor, writes favorably about Hyra here.

Campaign Contributions and Selective Indignation

Steve Nash, author of “Virginia Climate Fever,” is on a crusade against Dominion Energy, electric utilities, the coal industry and other corporate special interests that donate vast sums of money to Virginia politicians. He has been submitting op-eds to newspapers around the state taking Dominion and Appalachian Power to task for their outsized campaign contributions.

Writing most recently in the (Lynchburg) News & Advance, Steve asks:

So whether you’re conservative, green, libertarian or liberal, here’s the question: Can your legislator explain why it’s OK to accept “donations” from the two power companies and still cast votes on legislation that affects not only their profits, but also our electric bills and, crucially, our environment? For that matter, why is it legitimate to take money from any corporate interests who also have legislative needs that should not pre-empt the public interest?

Now, Steve is a very close friend of mine, and we debate issues like this with regularity. One of the things that I love about Steve is that, although he is tenacious in his beliefs, he does make an effort to understand the other side of the argument. He engages in reasoned, gentlemanly discussion rather than resorting to change-the-subject evasions and ad hominem attacks. I will endeavor to engage Steve’s arguments in the same generous spirit.

It is an article of faith on the left that the coal and electric-power industries, and Dominion most of all, are fending off worthy environmentalist legislation by buying legislators’ loyalties. Dominion, as Steve points out, has given more than $7.4 million to legislators of both parties since 2016 — $826,000 in 2016-17 alone. The company is Virginia’s top donor. And it doesn’t hand out the money in a spirit of charity and good will. Like everyone else, Dominion gives money because it hopes to get something in return — access, if not legislators’ votes.

As Steve writes:

Public servants who take Dominion’s and Appalachian’s money have voted on countless power-utility-related bills, listened to the pitches of the sturdy corps of power company lobbyists, and then handed those companies a lengthening series of legislative home runs worth hundreds of millions of dollars — perhaps a billion or two by some estimates. And they routinely vote on legislation affecting the bankers, realtors, beer wholesalers, the health industry and their other benefactors.

Please note that Steve seems to have no problem with environmental interests donating large sums of money. As the Staunton News Leader observed recently, the top three environmental campaign donors, the League of Conservation Voters, NextGen Climate Action, and the Sierra Club have shelled out $5.0 million to individual statewide candidates over the past decade, compared to Dominion’s $3.3 million. (The comparison is not entirely fair because it doesn’t include other utility and fossil fuel interests. But the article makes the point that environmentalists aren’t slouches when it comes to throwing around big money.)

Steve and other environmentalists frequently note that Dominion donated $75,000 to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign, not including thousands more from individual Dominion executives. Although I don’t recall Steve making the connection, others have suggested that such campaign booty explains the governor’s support for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, of which Dominion is the managing partner.

But the critics of utility donations never acknowledge that NextGen Climate Action, founded by California hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, donated more than $1.6 million to McAuliffe! Another $1.7 million came from the League of Conservation Voters, and nearly $470,000 from the Sierra Club. Nor do the critics ever observe that, as a reward to his environmental supporters, McAuliffe appointed Angela Navarro, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, as deputy secretary of Natural Resources.

When was the last time a Dominion Energy executive was appointed to a senior administrative post?

Steve holds up as exemplars more than five dozen House of Delegates candidates who have signed a pledge to refuse to accept campaign cash from either Dominion or Apco. These are mostly Democrats, but Steve argues that conservatives should join the movement, too. After all, big money in politics encourages big government.

As a libertarian, I agree that big money and big government are intertwined.  And as a libertarian, I have no problem with candidates voluntarily turning down corporate money — as opposed to restricting the right of corporations to offer the money. But as best I can tell, Tom Steyer, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club are not calling for less government. They just want to utilize the power of state government to different ends.

The difference between the electric utilities and the environmentalists, Steve implies in the quote above, is that the utilities are lobbying for their own private interests while environmentalists are pushing for the “public interest.”

It’s fair to say that environmentalists believe they are working for the public interest. But they’re working for their definition of the public interest. Their’s is not necessarily the same definition that, say, coal miners in Southwest Virginia would adopt. Or that economic developers in natural gas-constrained Hampton Roads would use. Or that electric rate payers would use. Or that businesses and homeowners counting on the reliability of the electric grid would use.

Environmentalists are a special interest lobby just like Dominion, Apco and the coal companies. That doesn’t make them evil; it doesn’t even make them wrong. Indeed, I’m happy to entertain the idea that in many instances, they are right. But it is romantic nonsense to insist that environmentalists dwell in some higher ethical plane and that their goals are any more pure than anyone else’s.

Bacon’s bottom line: If Dominion, Apco, the coal industry, Tom Steyer, the Sierra Club, and every other corporate or special interest group under the sun didn’t believe that money didn’t buy them access, they wouldn’t give the money. Clearly, money does influence the public policy process. But so does the media. So do grass roots organizing efforts. So do lawsuits. And, believe it or not, so do the actual merits of the case.

Thanks to the Virginia Public Access Project, it’s easy to follow campaign money. However, a large fraction of the cash dedicated to influencing public policy is invisible. We can’t track how much different groups are spending on public relations and influencing the press. We can’t track how much money is spent on research, organizing demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and other grass-roots activities. We can’t track how much money is spent on filing lawsuits and pressuring regulators.

Wouldn’t it be great if the electric utilities and environmental groups alike revealed how much they spent on such efforts? I’m not holding my breath. Most groups hew to the ethic of “Transparency for thee, but not for me.” Until such time as we know the bigger picture, I’m not inclined to make a big deal about disparities in one channel — campaign contributions — for influencing the political process.

Update: I just came across a 2014 Mother Jones article that said Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action spent $8 million “to keep Republican Ken Cuccinelli out of the state’s top office.” So, Steyer spent more money in one year than Dominion donated in ten.

A Fourth Force in Virginia Energy Politics

The political economy of energy in Virginia used to be simple. Three main interest groups contended to formulate energy policy in the state: environmentalists, consumers, and electric utilities. Consumers, both homeowners and businesses, pressed for lower electric rates. Environmentalists fought for cleaner air and, more recently, lower CO2 emissions. And utilities — the only parties responsible for keeping the lights on — lobbied for reliability at a reasonable cost (within a framework that preserved profits).

In the last few years, a fourth force has entered the picture, and the political dynamic is changing. The Old Dominion has seen a surge in the number of small, independent solar- and wind-power developers. They have exercised limited political clout, but now large, national corporations embracing a green energy agenda have entered the fray.

Half the Fortune 500 companies have committed to green agendas, and they signaled their desire earlier this year to see policies in Virginia that were friendlier to wind power, solar power and energy efficiency. (See “Clean Energy Options and Economic Development.”) Their message: If Virginia wants to attract outside corporate investment, the state had better get on board the solar-powered electric train.

Then, in an unprecedented flexing of political muscle last week, a green industry group injected itself into the Virginia gubernatorial race. Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), an association of green industry companies, delivered a policy memo to the campaigns of GOP nominee Ed Gillespie and Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam.

“Evolving consumer preferences, dynamic new technologies and aging infrastructure are causing the energy system as we have known it to modernize,” states the memo. AEE outlines four priorities:

  • Allow competitive procurement to attract investment and benefit consumers. Virginia energy policy should open up third-party market alternatives. “While current Virginia law allows competition in statute, more could be done to attract investment and benefit consumers.”
  • Expand access to advanced energy options. The ability to control energy costs is a factor in where many corporations choose to locate. But they’re not just looking for cheap energy — they want green energy.
  • Maximize energy efficiency and demand-response. Under Virginia regulatory regime, electric utilities lose money when customers reduce their electricity consumption, discouraging utilities from investing in energy efficiency programs and demand response. Virginia should “decouple” electricity sales from profitability so utilities don’t lose when they invest in energy efficiency and demand-response programs that cut sales.
  • Modernize the electric grid. Evolving consumer preferences, new technologies, and the need to replace aging infrastructure have created a need to modernize the electric grid. The regulatory system, which inadvertently stifles innovation, needs to be modernized.

AEE wants more wind and solar, more electric vehicles, more energy efficiency, more innovation, and more freedom for entrepreneurs to design solutions for customers. At the same time, the association acknowledges that the way to achieve these aims is not to browbeat electric utilities into submission but to change their incentives, which would take a major re-writing of regulatory law.

Bacon’s bottom line: To advance AEE’s vision, Virginia would need an upgraded electric grid flexible enough to accommodate a less centralized, more distributed grid while still maintaining system-wide reliability. In effect, the green businesses are calling for a deregulation of electric power production. But no one wants to build a competitive and redundant electric transmission-distribution system.

Any viable energy system of the future must allow electric utilities to continue investing in, and earning a profit on, their transmission-distribution systems. Also, deregulation of electricity generation would require grappling with the issue of “stranded” investments — investments in generating capacity that utilities made in good faith under the existing regulatory environment that might not be economical and must be scrapped in deregulated environment.

Like the environmental movement, this Fourth Force in energy politics wants to see a fundamental transformation of Virginia’s electric power system. Unlike the environmentalists, many of whom see Dominion and Appalachian Power as the enemy, the Fourth Force acknowledges the need for a healthy utility sector. This new interest group has plenty of money, which means it can afford to hire lobbyists and spread cash to political campaigns. Plus, these new voices will be more credible to Virginia’s pro-business legislators than the more strident environmentalists had been. 

The politics of electric power in Virginia has reached an inflection point. We are entering a new era.