Seven candidates running for the West Virginia House of Delegates this year have recently signed a pledge to not take campaign donations from monopoly utilities. The pledge, titled “Represent Us, Not Utilities” was created by the nonprofit organization Solar United Neighbors, formerly the Community Power Network. It simply states, “to maintain independence from monopoly utility interests and to avoid the perception of undue influence on my positions concerning energy policies, I will take no money or gifts from monopoly utilities, their Political Action Committees, lobbyists, or executives.”
In West Virginia, FirstEnergy and American Electric Power – the state’s two largest monopoly utilities – have donated $1.1 million to federal, state, and local candidates since 2004, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The candidates that have signed the “Represent Us, Not Utilities Pledge” as of May 4, 2018 are:
- Monica Addington – House District 41 – Democrat
- Barbara Daniels – House District 44 – Mountain Party
- James Elam – House District 36 – Democrat
- Justin Hough – House District 52 – Republican
- Lissa Lucas – House District 7 – Democrat
- Margaret Staggers – House District 32 – Democrat
- Jerry Tighe – House District 18 – Democrat
One of the candidates, Lissa Lucas, made headlines earlier this year when she was forcibly removed in the midst of testifying to the House Judiciary Committee for listing the oil, gas, and utility donations to lawmakers’ campaigns.
The committee was debating House Bill 4268, which will allow companies to drill for oil and gas on some people’s land without their consent. It passed the committee and was signed by the governor a few weeks after the hearing.
Lucas is challenging incumbent Republican Jason Harshbarger, a member of the Judiciary Committee. According to Vice, “The delegate’s financial disclosure shows that he oversees natural gas storage at gas pipeline company Dominion Energy Transmission. Harshbarger and his wife Michelle both earn oil and gas royalties, according to the document.” Harshbarger’s top donors include utilities FirstEnergy, Dominion, and NextEra.
Lucas told the Energy and Policy Institute,
“The people in my district, and in every district, deserve to have someone standing up for them, and putting the people first. The data already shows that regular people have about zero impact on policy. So, in my view, we get too caught up in trying to distinguish which representatives are changing their votes in exchange for that money, and which representatives just look dirty. Either one is terrible for our country, because even the appearance of impropriety is enough to break our democracy.
No one should have to wonder whether their representative has been bought. We need public servants that we can trust are working for voters.”
Monica Addington expressed a similar tone when the Energy and Policy Institute asked why she signed the pledge.
“I feel that elected officials should represent the people not corporations. Taking money from the energy and oil companies or from big pharma or big business is just bad policy. It leaves politicians in their debt and it influences the way that they vote. … I would rather lose the election than sell out.”
Ahead of the 2016 election, the Charleston Gazette-Mail found that FirstEnergy and American Electric Power, along with other fossil fuel companies such as Arch Coal, Koch Industries, and Marathon Petroleum, were providing a large chunk of candidates’ direct campaign funding.
According to the Gazette-Mail:
“The Republican candidates have gained at least $14,000 from Marathon Petroleum, $13,000 from Alpha Natural Resources, $11,000 from FirstEnergy, $7,450 from Arch Coal, $8,500 from EQT Corp. and $41,250 from American Electric Power’s employee-operated PAC.
Coal companies and electric utilities have a long history in West Virginia politics … The state’s two major electric utilities helped get the Legislature to approve surcharges for upgrades at coal-fired power plants last session, and likely will try to play a role in deciding how West Virginia complies with the Clean Power Plan, if the federal carbon rules are upheld in court.”
The seven candidates in West Virginia that have signed the pledge so far comes just a year after candidates in neighboring Virginia signed Activate Virginia’s pledge to never accept contributions from the utility companies Dominion and American Electric Power. Thirteen delegate candidates and lieutenant governor candidate Justin Fairfax won their races.
“Basically this [pledge] is the ushering in of a new type of politics where in Democratic circles, in the long term, it will no longer be okay for the party to be unduly influenced by campaign contributions from Dominion,” Danica Roem, who won Virginia’s 13th House District, told the Energy and Policy Institute in an interview in September 2017. “That’s really important for the Democratic party to get back to being the party of working people, not of the elites but of everyday Virginians.”
And while Roem’s comment was focused on her own party, the fact that Republican West Virginia candidate Justin Hough has now signed a similar pledge in his own state suggests these concerns about corruption of energy policy by special interests may be starting to transcend political affiliations.