Buying a beer in Virginia? You may be unknowingly donating to a campaign

Around the South

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — If you buy a beer, get your teeth cleaned or regularly pay your electric bill, you may be doing business with some of the top contributors of current campaigns for Virginia’s General Assembly.

Candidates have raised about $53 million so far in their race to represent you in the state capital. That’s about 67 percent more than the last time all state lawmakers were all running for office, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

While partisan political action committees lead the way in fundraising, the Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association is one the top groups connected to specific industry funding the races, according to campaign finance records.

From 2018 to present, the VBWA has donated more than $600,000 to either committees donating to candidates or directly to campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly. In Hampton Roads, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg) received the most at $30,822.

The website of the association states that for 81 years, they’ve worked to protect the three tier system. That system prevents a brewery from selling directly to a store or bar. Five wholesale distributors in Hampton Roads are listed as members and donate to the VBWA PAC.

Hoffman Beverage Company of Chesapeake has contributed the most in the last two years, ponying up more than $40,000. Its website lists it as a supplier to all area Food Lion stores and many bars and restaurants.

“Your money is in that mix,” said Dr. Ben Melusky, an assistant professor of political science with Old Dominion University. “Does the average person realize that when they go down to the grocery store and they purchase a product, it’s going back into the coffers of effectively these interests and into the PACs and their lobbying? Probably not.”

Another top contributor is the Virginia Dental Association. Upwards of $500,000 has been contributed to candidates of both parties. Upon inspection of campaign finance records, many of those dentists are in Hampton Roads.

“It’s tough to stop money in politics,” Melusky said.

VBWA President Phil Boykin told 10 On Your Side they do not discuss political strategy outside of membership and the VA Dental Association never returned requests for comment.

Dominion Energy, which has invested more than $1.2 million into its state political action committee the last two years, did release a statement when questioned on why it has donated $727,000 to state campaigns.

“We’re focused on our mission of becoming the most sustainable energy company in America. Dominion Energy’s political contributions are fully transparent and provided to candidates on both sides of the aisle to ensure our nearly 15,000 full-time and contract-employees in Virginia have a voice in the political process,” said Bonita Billingsley Harris, a spokesperson with Dominion.

Harris went on to explain that the company’s political donations do not come from customer utility bills. An accounting process that separates customer rates from the corporate funding is used and the amount that’s left comes from shareholder contributions.

Meluskey said all the donors are typically looking for the same thing.

“It doesn’t give you a ‘yes’ vote or a ‘no’ vote on the floor, but it gives you access,” Melusky said. “It gives you a seat at the table to help create policy.”

In 2018, Republican Senator Frank Wagner introduced the controversial bill that allows Dominion to reinvest revenues from customers that have been overcharged, instead of issuing refunds. That year Wagner reported $10,000 in Dominion Energy donations. However also reporting Dominion Energy donations were several members of the House of Delegates that voted against it.

The bottom line: Melusky said you should do your research when you look at how businesses spend your money after you hand it over. Just as every vote counts, he says so does every dollar.

“They might indirectly be engaged in political activism that (you) do not agree with.”

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