VIRGINIA — If you want to follow political money in Virginia—and there’s plenty of it here, as this is one of four states with no limits on campaign contributions—the Richmond-based, non-partisan nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project is the go-to source for who’s giving and who’s getting money in Virginia politics.
Now 15 years old, VPAP wasn’t built to last. In 1997, as described on the group’s website, it was “conceived as a short-term ‘project’ that would provide [Virginia’s State Board of Elections] a roadmap to electronic disclosure” and then “put itself out of business within a year or so.” Though Virginia permits unlimited campaign contributions (individual to candidate, corporation to candidate, union to candidate, state party to candidate), the state requires candidates to disclose donors who give more than $100—but, fifteen years ago, the disclosure reports sat in State Board of Election filing cabinets and the public had “no meaningful access to the information” therein. VPAP “grew out of a joint effort by Virginia newspapers” to change that.
Though Virginia began providing electronic disclosure starting in 1999, VPAP evolved into an invaluable public resource, and remains a great help to an overburdened Commonwealth press corps by mining and making searchable (by ZIP code, candidate or office holder, registered lobbyist and PAC) raw disclosure data. This year, in addition to providing campaign finance and personal finance data for state and many local candidates (as well as registered state PACs and lobbyists), VPAP is working with the Washington DC-based Center for Responsive Politics (a key federal money tracking resource, which CJR wrote about here) to offer data on fundraising in Virginia in the presidential race and other federal campaigns.
For a group dedicated to transparency in government, VPAP has what some would consider unlikely boosters: its Board of Directors is a mix of political stakeholders in the Commonwealth, including lobbyists, University administrators, a former Democratic lawmaker, a former GOP candidate for Attorney General, and a political consultant. Its advisory panel is also a hodgepodge of political players in Virginia, but also includes representatives from the Virginia Press Association (also a VPAP sponsor) and the Association of Broadcasters.
Of this unlikely mix, board member Jay Smith of the Richmond-based public affairs firm, Capital Results, said:
It is not VPAP’s goal to remove money from politics, but rather to provide transparency. It is not a “gotcha” organization, and has the support of stakeholders from all sides of the political arena.
I think everyone understands that Virginia can only have a “no limit” approach as long as there is complete transparency about campaign finances—and VPAP provides that transparency in an easy format for people to have access to and fully understand.
So, that means you have folks like Smith, who worked for Republican Senate candidate George Allen during his term as governor, and former Democratic legislator Albert Pollard serving on the VPAP board.