Tracking campaign cash in the commonwealth

The Virginia Public Access Project helps political reporters and citizens follow the money

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.

Transparency extends to VPAP’s operations: All donations to the group are listed on its website. Unlike, say, the Center for Responsive Politics which is heavily grant- and foundation-supported and does not accept funds from businesses, unions or trade associations, VPAP’s sponsor list includes all of the above—Comcast, AT&T, the Virginia Association of Realtors, Virginia Bankers Association, to name a few. Give a cursory scan of the donor list and one name stands out: Among the group’s largest donors is Virginia’s governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, who gave $10,000 this year. Via email on Friday, McDonnell touted the group as follows:

A hallmark of our government is the requirement for the people’s business to be conducted in full view of the citizens it serves. VPAP’s non-partisan, non-profit status allows Virginians easy access to the information needed to understand the election process, political considerations, and financing of campaigns and government. I have long been a supporter of this organization as a means to hold government and political leaders accountable to serving the people in an open, transparent way.
VPAP’s current board chairman, D. Calloway Whitehead, of the Richmond-based lobbying firm Whitehead Consulting LLC, sounded a similar note via email:
The best thing about VPAP is that all stakeholders view it as an integral part of Virginia’s “sunshine system.” The Governor and the other elected officials who support VPAP recognize that we all share the belief that transparent access to information is better than anything regulations could do to foster an ethical political environment.

The project has three full-time workers and is headed by executive director David M. Poole, a former newspaper reporter who launched the database in 1997, recruited a board that year and expanded the effort into what has become the current site, a one-stop shop for political funding information in the Commonwealth.

Poole surprisingly declined to talk on the record about his work, except to say that his job is to mine the data and put it out there, not to spin it or provide analysis or otherwise talk about what he does.

VPAP’s reports are regularly picked up by Virginia media outlets—for example, in June, by the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily and the Lynchburg News and Advance for pieces on fundraising in a local races.

Ryan Nobles, political reporter with WWBT-TV (Channel 12), the NBC affiliate in Richmond, told me via email that VPAP

make[s] my job much easier because they take very complex…data and streamline the material in a way that is simple to obtain. I rarely have time to sift through data reports from the Board of Elections that detail donors to look for trends or figure out how they could impact a race. In many cases, it takes one simple search of their incredibly useful database to get what I’m looking for.
VPAP’s partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics yielded a July 2 report detailing the Romney and Obama campaigns’ fundraising hauls in Virginia, by region, through May—each raised more than $2 million in the state, with most of the funds coming from northern Virginia. VPAP also broke this data down by zip code.

Two of the state’s largest news operations, The Virginian-Pilot in Virginia Beach, and The Richmond Times-Dispatch in the capital, made use of the July 2 data, with the Times-Dispatch online noting Romney’s high-end donors from the Richmond area (and Obama’s lack thereof) and in print offering a more detailed look at the fundraising numbers, and The Virginian-Pilot providing its readers with some additional context:

Nationally, Obama has outraised Romney: $255 million to $120 million through May, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Those totals that don’t reflect third party spending in support of, or opposition to, particular candidates.

Nor do they include the $4.6 million Romney’s campaign reported raising nationally — about $200,000 came from Virginia — from about 47,000 donors last week in the 24 hours after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the contested individual insurance mandate in Obama’s health care overhaul law.

By breaking down the presidential fundraising numbers by ZIP code, VPAP enabled smaller media outlets to easily localize the story. For example, one community newspaper, the Alexandria Times in northern Virginia took advantage of the VPAP report in a July 4 story, reporting that “Alexandria’s heavyweight donors bankrolled Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney with about $407,000 in donations so far this year—more than President Barack Obama’s $349,000 rake from the Democrat-leaning city,” and noting which parts of the city “opened their wallets wider for Obama” versus Romney.

In addition to its robust campaign finance database, VPAP also offers the daily ”Whipple Report,” a compilation of links to news stories on Virginia politics and government. It’s a nice snapshot of issues Virginians are talking about and how the media is covering them.

But VPAP’s focus remains on following the money, a job that’s complicated this election cycle by the surge in often tough-to-track outside spending. In response, VPAP is working on two initiatives: a look at Virginia donors to super PACs; and a report on ad buys by outside spending groups in Virginia TV markets. As always, VPAP will provide the data. It will be up to the press corps here to interpret and bring context and local meaning to the information. Here’s hoping they will be up to the task.

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Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.